[NOTEBOOK]Leader's health is public concern

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[NOTEBOOK]Leader's health is public concern

Reporters become hesitant when they are working on certain issues in the political sector; one of those issues is the health of the president. Many of the taboos on news reports have been abolished under the rule of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, after the ending of the age of authoritarian governments here. Still, reporters become cautious when they deal with the president's health because solid information is so hard to come by. In addition, the destructive power of a report on such an issue is so strong.

Such reporting could dampen the activities of businesses and stock markets and stir unrest in the country. Still, it would be irresponsible for the media and the Blue House to duck the growing number of questions about the president's health.

In Kim Dae-jung's case, his health has been an issue since 1997 when he was running for the presidency. After the pace of electioneering was stepped up, reporters began to notice some signs of problems in the candidate's health.

Mr. Kim's aides asked Huh Kap-bum, a medical professor at Yonsei University and now Mr. Kim's chief physician, to examine Mr. Kim. Mr. Huh gave a diagnosis of "no abnormalities," but that was not true. Some reporters knew the doctor's statement was not true but did not report the fact. Some wanted Mr. Kim to win the election; some were earnestly asked not to report the facts by Mr. Kim's aides; some thought it was too sensitive an issue to write about.

It is an open secret that the opposition United Liberal Democrats, who formed a coalition with the Millennium Democratic Party at the initial stages of the Kim Dae-jung administration, wrote a contingency plan to prepare for "an accident to President Kim."

Some politicians saw in Mr. Kim's health problems the reason that Prime Minister Lee Han-dong wanted to remain in the cabinet despite public sentiment that he should be replaced.

It is also said that Mr. Kim showed some signs of abnormalities in his health several times during his term of office. Mr. Kim's health problems attracted attention in January, when he looked ill during a televised press conference. Mr. Kim used a wheelchair for a while in April after suffering what was called a sprain in a thigh muscle on March 31. The Blue House announced on Apr. 8, "Mr. Kim will no longer use a wheelchair because his health has improved."

The very next day, Mr. Kim checked in to an army hospital in Seoul.

Rumors from some politicians and high-ranking government officials said the president has spent more time in his residence than in his office or that he has been undergoing dialysis. Rumors coming from his close associates are even more troubling. Some were to the effect that he had excess urine sugar, usually associated with diabetes, and has had a stroke. Complications could occur, politicians whispered.

"He may have to recuperate for a long time in a foreign country," others worried. "Former President Kim Young-sam and United Liberal Democratic leader Kim Jong-pil know the fact, so they are refraining from criticizing President Kim," others said. "The army hospital is moving the exclusive ward for the president from the second floor to the third floor."

Even in the United States, health problems of the president are often not reported to the public immediately. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former U.S. president, had several heart attacks during his term in office. But the president's doctor used to say, "He is good for another 10 years," or "He only has indigestion."

When George W. Bush recently fell to the floor as he choked on a pretzel, the White House hid the fact until the media pressed hard, for fear of the effect on the country and the administration.

Rumors of health problems will dog an aged leader. It is the responsibility of the Blue House to rebut such rumors convincingly. The public has a right to know the condition of the health of the president. In addition, the Korean Constitution has no obvious guidance on the procedures and order in succession to power if the president is incapacitated.

We should demand full information on President Kim's health and open examinations of the health of presidential candidates.


The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Du-woo

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