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May 29, 2017

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Political novice named South Korea's new prime minister

SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye Tuesday nominated a political novice and former journalist as prime minister, as she reshuffles her cabinet in response to intense criticism over the handling of April's ferry disaster.

Park's nomination of Moon Chang-keuk, 65, was something of a surprise.

Although a noted opinion maker from his time as chief editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, he has no political or administrative experience, having given up journalism to take up teaching posts in universities.

He will replace Chung Hong-won who resigned last month over the Sewol ferry tragedy, which claimed around 300 lives, mostly schoolchildren. The trial of 15 crewmembers from the ferry opened Tuesday.

Chung will remain in the job pending parliamentary endorsement of Moon's appointment.

Park had initially nominated former Supreme Court Justice Ahn Dai-hee to the post, but he withdrew two week ago following controversy over income he amassed after leaving the bench and going into private practice.

"Moon is seen as the person who can properly push state agendas, including the reform of public offices," presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said.

However, the premiership is a largely symbolic position in South Korea where all real power lies in the presidential Blue House.

Park also named South Korea's current ambassador to Japan, Lee Byung-kee, to head the domestic spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The NIS has been rocked by a number of scandals in the past year — including revelations that a number of agents meddled in the 2012 presidential election by posting messages on social networks critical of Park's opposition challenger.

The president's administration was sharply criticized over its response to the Sewol disaster, which had threatened to derail her ruling Saenuri party in local elections last week.

But the voter backlash never really transpired, and the party split the 17 main contests for city mayors and provincial governors with the opposition.

Park dismantled the coastguard after the Sewol disaster and promised a major overhaul of national safety standards and procedures.

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