President Park Geun-hye nominated former Supreme Court Judge Ahn Dae-hee as prime minister on Thursday in an initial step to restore the battered image of the government in the wake of the Sewol disaster and implement new policies to enhance national safety and root out corrupt practices in public offices.
Ahn will replace Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who offered to quit last month, holding himself responsible for the government's poor handling of the tragedy. The president has also accepted the resignations of National Intelligence Service chief Nam Jae-joon and National Security chief Kim Jang-soo.
With the president's nomination, Ahn needs parliamentary approval to take his post.
"President Park nominated Ahn Dae-hee as new prime minister today to eradicate corrupt practices in our society and to clean up old evils in the public offices, as part of her efforts to carry out drastic state reform to establish a new Republic of Korea," said presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook.
Chung will continue his job until Ahn takes office, Min said. The president will carry out a Cabinet reshuffle with the new prime minister's recommendation, he added.
Shortly after the announcement, Ahn vowed to make a full-fledged effort to reinforce the national safety system and push ahead with reform measures to end "abnormal practices," and initiate "a paradigm shift for a new Korea Republic." The nominee said he would also be direct in discussing problems with the president to lead the country to take "a right and normal path."
"I will take the nomination to root out evils accumulated over the years and push for reform. ... I will devote myself to have the country's safety system established," Ahn said at a news conference held in Seoul. "To assist the president with sincerity, I will judge what is right and wrong based on the constitution and the law."
Min referred to the prime minister-nominee as a competent official to drive Park's reform measures aimed at bringing about changes in the government, citing his reputation built while serving as a judge at the top court and as a senior official at the prosecution. Ahn led the prosecution's investigation into a series of political irregularities that involved presidential aides in 2003.
Cheong Wa Dae's announcement came a few hours after news reports that Ahn could be tapped for the position. Ahn was the head of Park's political reform committee during her presidential campaign.
Ahn, 59, has not been involved in politics for a while, having opposed President Park over one of her personnel choices. Early last year, Park named former Rep. Han Kwang-ok, a loyalist to the late liberal President Kim Dae-jung, as the inaugural chief of the presidential committee on people's grand unity. Ahn reportedly opposed her decision.
Before entering Park's camp, he built his career as a state prosecutor for 26 years and left the prosecution in 2006 after he was named Supreme Court justice by late President Roh Moo-hyun.
Dubbed "the people's prosecutor," he drew public attention for his full-fledged crackdown on political irregularities.
In August 2003, Ahn led the all-out clampdown on political funds, in which the then-Grand National Party was hit the hardest. Ironically, the probe was Park's first opportunity to prove her leadership, eventually earning the nickname "Election Queen" after repeated election wins.
Ahn was said to be one of the most sought-after figures by the parties in their 2012 presidential campaign lineups.
Park has been pressured to pick a new prime minister who could forge national unity after the Sewol tragedy and rebuild public trust in government. The ruling party has been leaning on Park's decision to woo voters ahead of the local elections on June 4.
The new premier is tasked with leading the office that will be given more responsibility and authority to drive Park's ambitious reform efforts on improving safety. Under Park's government reorganisation plans, the Prime Minister's Office will supervise two new ministries ― of national safety and state administration ― which will cover the roles of the Coast Guard, the police and personnel management.
In an apparent effort to placate the angry public, Park said Monday that she felt "ultimately responsible" for the disaster and vowed to carry out sweeping reforms to end corrupt ties and practices between bureaucrats and businessmen, which she believes to be a major cause of the accident.
In a tearful apology, she also pledged to rebuild the nation's safety standards by launching a new ministry under the Prime Minister's Office to ensure public safety and security.