[INSIGHT]With Every Step, We Slipped Some More

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[INSIGHT]With Every Step, We Slipped Some More

A series of debacles that cast serious doubt on the government's ability to run the nation's affairs has occurred in a wave lately.

Recently the government reported that the national health care finances were depleted due to hasty medical reform that went into effect July 2000 . The government's last minute decision to allow a civic delegation to visit Pyongyang for the Aug. 15 Liberation Day celebrations has deepened the divide among the conservatives and the progressives in the South and the division between South and North Koreas. The nation's credibility has sunk over the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's downgrading of the safety rating of the country's aviation industry.

In the case of the South Korean delegation, of course, the delegates themselves are responsible for the runaway activities. But the government must have been able to predict their actions, thus raising a bigger question of government responsibility.

In hindsight, the controversial events in Pyongyang may well have been foretold, looking at the way the government waddled over granting permission to the delegation.

On Aug. 13, Seoul opposed a delegation visiting Pyongyang as North Korean authorities insisted that the joint Korean Liberation Day be held at the ideological monument, the "Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification." The decision came at the National Security Council meeting. On Aug. 14, things began to take a different turn when southern organizers met with the unification minister and vice minister. That evening, the Unification Ministry said it would permit the southern delegation to go to Pyongyang, after the North alerted the southern organizers, saying they would act as host for the event, and the southern delegation could participate as observers. The visit, however, was allowed on the condition that the delegates would not participate at the opening and closing ceremonies at the monument.

The delegation hurriedly gathered at Myongdong Cathedral to receive government training required for all those visiting the North. The four representatives of the southern delegation signed a pledge, promising that they would remind each and every delegate of the conditions attached to the visit. But the fiasco that followed is a good indication of how incomplete the entire process must have been. There are rumors coming out of the prosecutor's office that their suggestion to bar members of the banned student movement Hanchongnyon and the Pan- Korea Alliance for Reunification from the delegation were ignored.

Taking into consideration the entire process and the unswerving North Korean stance, the government could have anticipated the ensuing behavior of some delegates. The government could have well anticipated public opinion would worsen, with calls for prosecution of the delegates who disobeyed the general guidelines.

The Unification Ministry may have been concerned that disallowing a southern delegation would dampen the conciliatory mood, as a Seoul visit by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, still looms. The action of the Unification Ministry, which ultimately weakened the government position in dealing with North Korea, should not be taken lightly, and if the ministry is not punished, the political blame will fall squarely on President Kim Dae-jung.

The downgrading of the safety rating of the nation's aviation system by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is more puzzling. American Airlines has broken code-sharing agreements, and the loss is not limited to the airline industry, but will spill over to tourism, exports and international finance. This disaster had been forewarned more than a year ago.

The nation's aviation authorities was warned in June 2000 by the International Civil Aviation Organization that South Korea must upgrade legislation governing aviation safety, add aviation safety officials and improve its training programs.

In May 2001, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a preliminary warning to the Construction and Transportation Ministry. But the government did not move on these warnings, and holding the minister in charge responsible is the right thing to do. The United Liberal Democrats, the party to which the minister is affiliated, agreed reluctantly with the dismissal. The honorary president of the United Liberal Democrats, Kim Jong-pil, dragged his feet and complained about the lack of prior consultations. His complaints have to do with his party but not with the people.

The ruling Millennium Democratic Party, for its part, is reluctant to take any measures against the Unification Ministry and Minister Lim Dong-won. As the party in power, it should make a move of good faith and clean up the mess it created.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byung-wook

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