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Inner clique politics

The only big decision from a cabinet meeting was the declaring of a temporary holiday.
Nov 16,2017
The government is pushing ahead with a crackdown on misdeeds that occurred under the past two administrations. Prosecutors investigating suspicions that the National Intelligence Service routinely channeled funds from its special operations account to the Blue House during the presidency of Park Geun-hye are trying to figure out where the money went. It could be a serious case if any of the money was used to pay for the former president’s beauty care or wardrobe through her friend Choi Soon-sil. Public anger would be reignited.

A separate investigation of allegations that the military’s Cyber Command manipulated online public opinion against liberals and anti-government forces under the presidency of Lee Myung-bak also could generate anger. If former President Lee places the blame on his defense minister Kim Kwan-jin and others, the conservative forces could be ruined beyond repair.

Media speculates that Baek Won-woo, senior secretary for civil affairs, is spearheading the campaign digging up dirt in the former conservative administrations. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party filed charges against presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok and Baek with the prosecution last month for power abuse after they issued an order to government offices to form interim task forces to investigate their own malpractices on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office. Lee’s aides also suspect that Baek is pulling the strings.

Baek, a former student activist, joined politics as a political aide to former President Roh Moo-hyun in the 2002 presidential election. After Roh was elected, he worked under Moon Jae-in, who had been Roh’s senior civil affairs secretary. Now Baek is in charge of supervising law enforcement for President Moon. When then-President Lee Myung-bak and the first lady came to pay their respects after Roh committed suicide amid investigations of corruption involving his family and aides, Baek called Lee a “murderer” and demanded an apology. Baek paid a heavy price. His family and aides came under rigorous surveillance during Lee’s administration. This is why conservatives suspect Baek is looking for payback.

Any wrongful conduct must be punished. But many are worried about the ongoing clampdown. It is not just because three former prosecutors already died after committing suicide. The motives and procedures are also questionable as they have not been done transparently. The campaign picked up after Moon returned from the Chuseok holiday in early October and ordered speed in correcting and removing “past ills” during a senior secretariat meeting. If the same order had been made in a cabinet meeting, the opposition would not have accused anyone of power abuse.

Moon has been making announcements about major policy decisions at secretariat meetings instead of cabinet meetings. In July, he vowed to raise the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($9). The tripartite committee of labor, employers and government then hurriedly reached an agreement to raise the minimum wage by 16.4 percent next year. In last month’s secretariat meeting, Moon commented on excessively long work hours, which again led the government to try to cut the legal work hours. Decisions that affect lives are made through orders in presidential secretary meetings.

In contrast, the cabinet is in a poor state. In the first several months, the administration had been an awkward mix of ministers named by the new president and the former president because many candidates failed to pass legislative confirmations. The only noteworthy decision that came from a cabinet meeting was making Oct. 2 a temporary holiday to connect it to the Chuseok holiday.

Major issues such as rooting out malfeasance should be discussed in cabinet meetings. Former President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed because she relied more on her inner clan. The cabinet is defined as the top policy deliberation body by the Constitution. Cabinet meetings are a constitutional mechanism to ensure checks and balances in the executive branch as the president hears opinions of ministers. In the constitutional context, we should see more scenes of cabinet meetings than presidential secretariat meetings on the TV news.

Minister of Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum reportedly questioned why the order to form interim reform task forces came from presidential secretaries instead of the Prime Minister’s Office. He also remarked that what should be overhauled is the system and culture in the bureaucracy, not the people. In a cabinet meeting in July, Kim proposed to hold a public debate on fiscal financing for the new government’s top 100 priorities as the spending plan would demand higher tax revenue. When the Blue House threatened to disclose classified files in the presidential office to help the prosecution probe the former president and her aides, he also criticized the move for stoking political conflict.

If the campaign to fix past wrongdoings and traditions had been discussed in a cabinet meeting, the scope and pace could have been moderated. No policy drive can be fair if it is entirely led by an inner circle comprised of former student activists and loyalists of the late president Roh. This is why the corruption clampdown looks more like a political vendetta and purging to the public.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 15, Page 35

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Chul-ho