Asia

South Korea's interim leader faces big, thorny issues

  • FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 file photo, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, front, and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn arrive to attend an emergency Cabinet meeting at the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea. Hwang, who had a largely ceremonial job, now has to face off against North Korea and deal with edgy relations with Japan after becoming the country's interim leader following Park's impeachment last week. (Baek Sung-ryul/Yonhap via AP, File)

    FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 file photo, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, front, and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn arrive to attend an emergency Cabinet meeting at the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea. Hwang, who had a largely ceremonial job, now has to face off against North Korea and deal with edgy relations with Japan after becoming the country's interim leader following Park's impeachment last week. (Baek Sung-ryul/Yonhap via AP, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 photo provided by the South Korean Prime Ministry, acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn, second from right, presides over a meeting of military leaders including Defense Minister Han Min-koo, second from left, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean Prime Minister Hwang, who had a largely ceremonial job, now has to face off against North Korea and deal with edgy relations with Japan after becoming the country's interim leader following President Park Geun-hye's impeachment last week. (Chung Dong-hun/The South Korean Prime Ministry via AP)

    In this Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 photo provided by the South Korean Prime Ministry, acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn, second from right, presides over a meeting of military leaders including Defense Minister Han Min-koo, second from left, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean Prime Minister Hwang, who had a largely ceremonial job, now has to face off against North Korea and deal with edgy relations with Japan after becoming the country's interim leader following President Park Geun-hye's impeachment last week. (Chung Dong-hun/The South Korean Prime Ministry via AP)  (The Associated Press)

South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who had a largely ceremonial job, now has to face off against North Korea and deal with edgy relations with Japan after becoming the country's interim leader following President Park Geun-hye's impeachment last week.

After meeting with government officials and visiting the military headquarters, Hwang told fellow Cabinet members on Monday that there are no unusual security or economic developments. But critics say he'll soon face a slew of big, thorny issues that will test his leadership while the Constitutional Court reviews whether to endorse Park's impeachment to formally end her rule.

Here is a look at several major issues that lie ahead for Hwang:

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NORTH KOREA

Hwang's first move as interim leader was to tell his defense minister to bolster readiness against any possible provocation by North Korea.

North Korea hasn't made international headlines since its fifth and biggest-ever nuclear test in September. That could just be in line with its nuclear development timetable, but given that Park and North Korea had terrible relations, Pyongyang might also want to avoid doing anything that could unite conservatives in South Korea behind Park.

In a sign of the ongoing tensions, the North's state media on Sunday released photos showing a smiling leader Kim Jong Un watching a practice attack on a replica of Park's presidential Blue House. A team of commandoes parachuted, shot at the Blue House model with rifles and left it engulfed in flames and black smoke.

There are also worries about any actions by the North after it was slapped with tougher U.N. sanctions this month and by what some analysts think will be its desire to test the incoming U.S. government of President-elect Donald Trump.

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HISTORY TEXTBOOKS

It's probably the first major, hot-button issue that Hwang will face.

Park's government had been pushing to require schools to use state-authored history textbooks from next year, saying current textbooks published by private companies are too left-leaning and sympathize with North Korea. But in the wake of massive anti-government protests touched off by the political scandal involving Park's longtime confidante, the government took a step back, saying it wants to hear various opinions before making a final decision Dec. 23.

The liberal opposition is pressuring the government to scrap the textbook plan, calling it a move to beautify past authoritarian leaders, including Park's late father Park Chung-hee. The elder Park is a deeply divisive figure, with critics calling him a horrible human rights abuser who imprisoned and tortured dissidents, while supporters call him a national hero who guided the country out poverty.

Hwang, a former justice minister, is a strong supporter of state-authored textbooks. But South Korean media say it could be difficult for him to stand up to opposition parties that have gained a greater say over state affairs after impeaching Park.

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JAPAN DEALS

The opposition also wants to scrap two historic agreements Park signed with Japan, calling them diplomatic fiascoes.

One settled a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced to be sex slaves in Japanese military-run brothels during World War II, with an apology from Japan's prime minister and a pledge of more than $8 million in compensation. The other is about sharing military intelligence with Japan to better cope with North Korea.

The 2016 sex-slave deal triggered criticism in South Korea because it was announced without getting approval from victims. The intelligence-sharing pact went into effect last month, and liberal critics accuse the Park government of trying to use the agreement to divert attention from the scandal.

Efforts to boost ties with Japan often trigger a fierce public backlash in South Korea, where many people still harbor strong resentment against Tokyo's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 and 1945.

Spiking such international deals will not be easy, especially as the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan described the sex-slave deal as "irreversible."

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OTHER PROBLEMS

Hwang's government will also have to engage with the Trump presidential transition, work to prevent the political turmoil from taking a toll on the country's economy, and dealing with an opposition hoping to use the current situation as a chance to push for diverse social reforms.

The planned deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system, which drew strong condemnation from China, is also a Park legacy that critics want to review.

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Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at twitter.com/hyungjin1972