Newly instated Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn apologised Friday for the government's slipshod response to the Middle East respiratory syndrome epidemic, placing top priority on "all-out efforts" to rein in the spread.
"As the new prime minister, I apologise to the people that there were flaws in authorities' early response that are directly linked with their safety," the former justice minister said during a parliamentary session, citing "insufficient information and knowledge about MERS."
The first appearance by Hwang as the nation's second in command since his confirmation the day before was overshadowed by lawmakers' rebukes over the initial lack of a control tower to cope with the outbreak and confusion among related state agencies and hospitals.
"We're looking back to our limited response, which was instead supposed to be extensive. … The government will set the termination of MERS at the top of its agenda and make all-out efforts," Hwang said.
Prior to attending the parliament session, Hwang met with ruling Saenuri Party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung, who asked him to swiftly plug the administrative vacuum that has persisted for 52 days and strive to contain the outbreak as early as possible. The prime minister also visited senior opposition lawmakers later in the day including Moon Jae-in, chair of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
Hwang promised to make utmost efforts to put an end to the disease in Korea, while also focusing on revitalizing the economy and stabilizing the people's livelihoods.
Mindful of vehement protests from the opposition against his confirmation, he also expressed regret that he had failed to resolve a spate of allegations. Hwang was accused of dodging the military draft, raking in a fortune as a private attorney by taking advantage of his personal network and public service experience, and conducting a lopsided investigation into some public security cases while serving as a senior prosecutor.
The National Assembly voted 156-120 to approve Hwang. NPAD members had threatened to boycott the vote, citing Hwang's refusal to submit relevant documents. The rival parties later agreed to work on tightening rules on the verification process of Cabinet nominees.
"I regret the criticism that I had not adequately responded to the demands of the lawmakers, though I did my best on my part," Hwang said in his opening remarks at the session, adding that he will step up efforts to boost communication with the parliament.
On the foreign affairs and defence front, Hwang displayed a cautious and fundamental approach. Asked about a possible stationing of advanced US missile assets, he said a "sufficient review" should be carried out, with the security and national security aspects taken into account.
Amid lingering controversy over the US military's accidental shipment of live anthrax to its Air Force base in South Korea, he stressed the urgency of a fact-finding probe, adding that necessary steps would be taken "at some point" through consultations with Washington to ease public concerns.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, meanwhile, sought to play down snowballing speculation that Seoul and Tokyo were nearing a compromise in their longstanding sex slavery row since President Park Geun-hye said their negotiations had made "considerable progress" and were in the "final stages" in an interview last week with the Washington Post.
"It is somewhat premature to say at the moment that we're close to a final, ultimate breakthrough," he said at the meeting. "There are detailed elements that we should move further forward."