[INSIGHT]A Last Chance for Meaningful Reform

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[INSIGHT]A Last Chance for Meaningful Reform

Since the April 13, 2000, general elections, the public has handed three electoral defeats to the ruling Millennium Democratic Party. In last year's general elections, the party did manage to win more seats for the 16th National Assembly than it had in the 15th Assembly, in the period 1996-2000. It still trailed the Grand National Party by 18 seats and this was the first time since the 3d National Assembly that the ruling party did not have a majority in the Assembly. But the MDP consoled itself with the thought that it had increased its representation.

But the defeat it suffered in the two sets of by-elections this year were serious ones that leave no room for excuses. In the April 26 by-elections to fill seven local offices, the party lost in all four districts in Seoul and in South Jeolla province, despite the fact that the Jeolla provinces are the party's power base.

In the Oct. 25 by-elections in three districts, the ruling party lost all the seats to the Grand National Party despite the MDP party leadership's heavy involvement in electioneering in Seoul and Gangwon province, where the seats were contested.

With a track record like that, it is not hard to figure out where public sentiment lies. When the opposition criticized, half a year ago, that the defeat at the April 26 by-elections reflected public discontent with the MDP, the party went into denial.

But it now acknowledges that the election defeats reflect public discontent. Internal calls for party reform, which always appear in times of crisis, have again surged. Six months ago, a group of younger lawmakers called for a sweeping overhaul, after which President Kim Dae-jung pledged that he would announce a party and government reshuffle on June 15. His pledge came to naught when a drought swept the nation and the MDP's coalition with the United Liberal Democrats broke down.

More calls are heard for the Donggyo-dong faction to be dismantled, that Kwon Roh-kap, the faction's boss, retire altogether from politics and that the president reshape the party and government leadership. There are also calls for the party to nominate a presidential candidate early.

It is doubtful, however, whether a reshuffle this time would prove to be more than turning a new page of an old book. The Blue House seems hesitant to agree to a sweeping restructuring of the party and government. Its hesitance is understandable; its talent pool is limited.

The Blue House has already carried out a partial reshuffle, changing the MDP party chairman and chief of staff. Even if more changes were made, there would be no guarantee that they would satisfy people and the administration could be accused of sabotaging the government's work by disrupting its continuity.

What is needed is a qualitative, not quantitative reshuffle, and the president will have to change his anti-lame duck strategy. First, the changes should allay public suspicions. Are the public's questions about the Lee Yong-ho financial scandal being answered? If so, all is well. If not, public suspicion of the prosecution will increase, and the prosecutor general, whose brother is implicated in the scandal, will be targeted.

Prior to the National Tax Service's inquiry into media companies, it was reported that the government appointed officials "who can be trusted." The former chief of the tax service who engineered the tax inquiry moved on to a short-lived career as a minister, but the central tax agency's major posts, filled by those "officials who can be trusted," have not been changed. Can the ruling administration talk of reform while letting those persons remain in office?

In addition to these problems, Lim Dong-won, despite his removal as unification minister, moved on to become the special adviser to the president for foreign policy, national security and unification. There is also a figure whose name keeps popping up in every major scandal and also a certain presidential secretary who is not an object of public trust.

The prosecution and the National Tax Service are the two swords that allow the ruler to dominate the domestic political terrain. Those figures are the president's most trusted men - those who have made the "sunshine policy" possible.

To lose his grip over the prosecution and the tax service would be to lose his grip on the sword, and to lose his loyalists would be like crippling him. The ruler may worry that a party and government leadership reshuffle will accelerate the onset of the lame-duck period when his instructions are cheerfully ignored.

It will remain to be seen whether President Kim Dae-jung will look squarely into the disaffection and defection of the public, and move quickly to change the party's leadership and direction.

We can only hope that his remaining tenure does not become twisted or distorted by futile efforts to prevent the inevitable decline of his political power and to engineer his party to another term in the Blue House.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Song Byeong-wook

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