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South Korean minister is best actor in government

Written by: Staff
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SEOUL, Nov 23 (Reuters) In the corridors of South Korea's bureaucracy, one cabinet minister stands out for his elegant traditional robes and a coveted award honouring him as the country's top screen actor.

Kim Myung-gon, a former movie star, traditional Korean opera singer and National Theatre director, added a new job to his resume earlier this year -- South Korea's minister of culture.

''My life has taken steps I never expected,'' Kim said.

When Kim, 54, makes appearances in his new role as a cabinet minister, members of the public still treat him like a star by taking pictures of him and asking for autographs.

Kim's appointment in March has added colour to a government dogged by low public approval ratings and shaken over criticism it mishandled relations with North Korea, political analysts say.

''He brings a certain purity because of his focus on culture. He is not tainted by being a bureaucrat,'' said Lee Nam-young, a professor at Sookmyung Women's University.

Kim first made a name for himself as an opera singer specialising in a traditional story-telling song called pansori, which is like a one-man opera where the singer voices many characters and uses a folding fan as a prop.

Kim then became a movie star after stumbling into the lead of a movie that dominated the local box office for years.

He won the country's top acting honour for the 1993 film 'Sopyonje', which tells of a down-and-out pansori singer trying to find a place in a modern world that has passed him by.

''Being in government was the farthest thing from my mind when I was acting on movies like 'Sopyonje','' Kim said.

Kim, who has appeared in more than 20 movies playing heroes in historical dramas and down-on-their-luck guys in contemporary films, has written books and lectured at universities.

UNWANTED TV EXPOSURE New in the job, Kim had been thrust into the centre of a delicate diplomatic situation after South Korea bowed to United States demands and cut back on a movie-screening quota to protect local films in order to start bilateral free trade talks.

Kim had to navigate between complaints from his industry friends that rolling back the quota would lead to the death of the local film industry and free market proponents who said competition would benefit South Korean cinema.

In the end, he supported cutting the quota, which meant local theatres would be allowed to show South Korean films only 73 days a year instead of the previous 146 day minimum.

''We need to maintain protection at the minimum level. South Korea films are doing well now but there is no guarantee the trend will last forever,'' Kim said.

Kim has added life to a ministry that resides in a building shaped like a tombstone and painted a pallid shade of beige.

Setting a new tradition in his ministry, Kim and ministry officials wear traditional, colourful Korean robes once a week.

He occasionally conducts news conferences over glasses of wine and always makes sure his visitors are served some of the finest tea in the country.

Kim takes inspiration from other actors-turned-politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

''It was not just because they were popular actors that they succeeded in politics,'' he said. ''They had clearly worked to develop their leadership skills''.

REUTERS AKJ PM0911

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