By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- The emergence of Kim Tae-ho, 47, as South Korea's new prime minister heralds not only a generational shift in the country's leadership, but also a change in the political landscape ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Some observers see Kim, a former two-term governor of South Gyeongsang Province, as being groomed as a presidential candidate for the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) determined to retain power in the next election.
By Constitution, South Korean presidents are banned from seeking re-election.
For now, Park Geun-hye, once the top GNP leader, is considered the strongest presidential candidate, given her political influence and popularity. She lost to President Lee Myung-bak in a hotly contested race in 2007 for the GNP's presidential nomination. The two have since been at odds, sparring over some key issues.
However, her aides claim Lee does not want to hand over power to Park.
"There is a possibility that the prime minister-designate, Kim, will become a presidential candidate as the representative of the pro-Lee circle," Rep. Hyun Ki-hwan, a member of the GNP faction led by Park, said on a radio talk show aired Monday.
"We would not mind a sound competition, but are worried that the main stream (of the pro-Lee faction) will fall into arrogance and self-righteousness to believe that if it stays united, it can replace a presidential candidate who has high public support."
The presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae formally said the nomination of Kim as prime minister in Sunday's Cabinet reshuffle is purely aimed at boosting the Lee administration's communication with local governments and the younger generation, refusing to comment on speculation that it is associated with the future presidential race.
Cheong Wa Dae officials, however, say privately that Kim has the potential to become the country's leader some day.
Well before the Cabinet shake-up, in fact, Kim had long been on the media-made list of next-generation leaders.
Born in Geochang, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, to a farming family, Kim was a peasant himself. He likes to introduce himself as a "rural guy."
He entered the political world in 1992 after studying agricultural education at Seoul National University. He was elected province councilor in 1998 and a county head in 2002. While serving as its governor of South Gyeongsang Province from 2004 until earlier this year, Kim was credited with successfully pushing ahead with a southern coast development project and establishing infrastructure for shipbuilding and robot industries in South Gyeongsang Province.
His success story so far has charmed many here who are growing weary of "noble-style" elite leaders.
He surprised many when he announced he wouldn't run for re-election in the June 2 local elections despite prospects for an easy win, prompting speculation that he has a "bigger dream."
After the GNP's defeat in the local elections, and as he begins the latter half of his five-year term, President Lee needed to make changes to expand its power base currently built on conservatives and elderly voters, which fed media speculation from very early on that Kim may be picked as prime minister.
But analysts have cautioned against hasty and excessive expectations.
"The flag bearer of a party for a presidential election is not made automatically from a high post," Kang Won-taek, a professor at Seoul's Soongsil University and head of the Korean Association of Party Studies, said.
Kim should first prove his political and administrative ability through his performance, Kang pointed out.
"Nationwide popularity is important, but it is also important to build supporting forces inside the party," he added. "A problem is that the role of prime minister is limited under South Korea's presidential system."
He recalled the case of the outgoing prime minister, Chung Un-chan. When he was named to the post last year, he was widely hailed as a potential presidential candidate. Just ten months later, Chung faced a disgraceful resignation, taking responsibility for the government's failure to get parliamentary approval for its plan to create a business hub in the central city of Sejong instead of an originally planned administrative town.
Similarly, a full-scale test on Kim's leadership has just begun, Kang said.
Kim will be subject to a tough confirmation hearing at the National Assembly later this month, although his nomination is expected to be approved as the ruling party holds a majority of seats.
The main opposition Democratic Party said it will scrutinize Kim's qualities as a leader, including his ethics.
Kim was once investigated by prosecutors on charges of taking bribes from Park Yeon-cha, former head of shoemaker Taekwang Industry, convicted of evading taxes, and bribing politicians and high-level officials during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. However, Cheong Wa Dae said his charges have been fully cleared.
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