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South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives for a meeting with his senior secretaries at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 1, 2017. Baek Seung-ryol/Yonhap via REUTERS

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By Se Young Lee and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in's quest for a squeaky-clean government is leading to delays in forming his cabinet more than three weeks into office, as efforts to find candidates free of even the slightest of ethics issues have proved challenging.

In an attempt to make a clean break with his predecessor Park Geun-hye, impeached and ousted over a corruption scandal in March, Moon vowed to bar, "without exceptions", those who abused their powers to benefit themselves or family members from public jobs.

But the push has come at a cost: Key jobs including defence and unification ministers remain unnamed, while opposition lawmakers have raised ethics issues over several nominees soon after they were named and promised a tough grilling in parliament. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon remains the only cabinet member confirmed so far to start the job.

That is frustrating an administration that wants to jump on major crises, such as a growing threat from North Korea, as it is being forced to extend an uneasy cohabitation with holdovers from Park's former administration.

A sign of stress emerged on Wednesday, when Moon's office accused the defence ministry, headed by a Park appointee, of deliberately not telling the new administration that four more launchers for a controversial U.S. anti-missile system had already been deployed.

"Considering eight months' worth of political vacuum created by the (corruption scandal), further delays in the appointments will be problematic," a senior government official said, declining to be identified as he was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter.

'EXCESSIVE STANDARDS'

Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership, said Moon's administration "hamstrung itself because the candidates can't meet the excessive standards that were set."

"In comparison with the past, the current slate of candidates put forward by Moon is less problematic: aside from personal ethics, there is no case of a friend of the president or some clearly unqualified person being named," Kim said.

On Thursday, the appointment of a senior Blue House aide was withdrawn due to problems discovered during the vetting process. Officials of the presidential office declined to elaborate.

Prime Minister Lee narrowly won parliamentary approval earlier this week after he admitted and apologise for his wife - a former teacher - for falsifying her place of residence in order to work at a preferred school district in Seoul.

Kim Sang-jo, the nominee to head the Korea Fair Trade Commission and a key architect of Moon's policy to reform South Korea's family-run conglomerates, as well as foreign minister designate Kang Kyung-wha, also face accusations of falsely registering a place of residence for family members.

Both Kim and Kang have said they are fully ready to explain their actions during hearings.

PARLIAMENT GAUNTLET

Though parliament only has the right to confirm or reject a prime minister, other cabinet nominees have mandatory hearings at which lawmakers can try to knock them out by digging up improper or illegal practices involving them or family members.

During the Park presidency, her first defence minister nominee withdrew after being accused of real estate speculation, improper lobbying over defence contracts and underreporting his assets. An education minister nominee also took himself out of consideration after allegations of plagiarism emerged.

An ethics controversy also tripped up former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in his quest for the presidency. Ban bowed out of the race in February following bribery scandals involving his brother and a nephew in the United States.

Moon pledged to avoid such problems by not hiring anyone who is linked to one of what he called five major improprieties: tax evasion, real estate speculation, falsifying residence, plagiarism and draft-dodging.

The main opposition party is using Moon's own words against him.

"We will be more thorough and strict in the upcoming hearings for senior public officials; when we need to fight, we will fight." Chung Woo-taik, acting chairman of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, said on Thursday. The party, which controls 107 seats at the 299-member National Assembly, opposed Lee for prime minister and boycotted his confirmation vote this week.

Moon made a public apology for the controversies surrounding his early nominees, saying his administration started without a proper transition period and did not have time to thoroughly vet candidates. He pledged to stick by his ethics principles for future hiring.

But experts say high ethics standards will have to be balanced with ability in order to break the appointment gridlock. Most potential candidates likely lived through years when many of the practices now scorned by the public were common or accepted, said Kim Sang-jin, a political science professor at Konkuk University.

"I am not certain whether anyone in public office today can actually meet all the criteria being required," Kim said.

(Reporting by Se Young Lee and Christine Kim, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Bill Tarrant)

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