[OUTLOOK]Keeping the damper on rivalriesAbout a month ago, Representative Rhee In-je, a member of the Supreme Council of the Millennium Democratic Party, called the Blue House to speak with Chief of Presidential Staff Lee Sang-joo.
"I would like to meet the president alone," Mr. Rhee requested.
"I will ask the president and let you know later," Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Rhee's call created some tension in the Blue House. Calling a senior Blue House aide to meet the president alone was an unexpected － or impossible － request at that time. President Kim Dae-jung had already declared his neutrality in the competition between ruling party members to be nominated for the presidential election next year. President Kim had stopped meeting the people from the ruling party to publicly affirm that he had stepped back.
So it was impossible for Mr. Rhee, an announced presidential candidate, to meet the president alone. Such a meeting could easily trigger other candidates' ire, and the timing was also delicate.
The Blue House reached a conclusion easily: no meeting.
"We were extremely shocked. It is my understanding that Chief of Staff Lee did brief the president on the request," a Blue House official said. "Still, the Blue House staff had already decided that such a meeting was not possible. The president accepted the chief secretary's advice that meeting with Mr. Rhee could trigger some troubles in the future." Turning down the request, Mr. Lee explained the situation to Mr. Rhee. "Let's talk about this matter after the president comes back from his tour of Europe," Mr. Lee said. "I understand," Mr. Rhee answered.
It seemed that Mr. Rhee was not expecting much to come of his effort, so why did he make the request in the first place? A source close to Mr. Rhee explained that Mr. Rhee was probably feeling depressed at that time. "He wanted to confirm personally what the president was thinking," said the source. "The president had sent no message after giving up the party leadership."
After his request was turned down, Mr. Rhee had some deep thoughts about the political agenda. It would be at least 15 days before the president came back from Europe and during that time, the ruling party planned discussions of several issues, including the party's national convention. Mr. Rhee had to prepare for those discussions on his own, but it did not take long for him to decide what he should do.
Mr. Rhee met with a Blue House staffer three days later. "The president seems to hope that the ruling party's candidate for the presidential election will be named before the local elections," the Blue House official told Mr. Rhee. That could mean nothing; the Blue House official did not talk about the president's preference among the ruling party candidates. Still, Mr. Rhee took the Blue House official's words seriously. It was important to him that the president's preference for the order of party events was the same as his. Mr. Rhee was concerned because of various reform moves which might destabilize his position in the party.
It was then that Mr. Rhee suggested an alliance of the three Kims － Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil. Around that time, his relationship with Kim Jong-pil, the United Liberal Democrats' leader, began to improve. So was the Blue House official's comment just idle chatter, or was it a hint from the top?
A source among Mr. Rhee's aides said the Blue House staffer called on Mr. Rhee, not vice versa, but the Blue House denied that version of the story. "There was a meeting of several people. While talking about other issues, I just told Mr. Rhee what I felt," the Blue House official said, "and election-related affairs inside the ruling party developed as I had said. The president said the ruling party should move on its own. Is it unusual that the party accepted his suggestion?"
The Blue House official meant that the talks he had with Mr. Rhee were of less significance than they earlier appeared to be. Sometime later, the ruling party's special committee on reform decided to hold its national convention in March, and so will name a presidential candidate well before the local elections. The situation seemed to develop the way Mr. Rhee wished, although who knows how things will turn out?
Han Hwa-kap, another member of the ruling party's supreme council, opposed the decision for a March convention but then withdrew his opposition. Mr. Han seemed to accept the decision of the party's majority. From the beginning, the ruling party had very limited choices.
In the end, no big change was made within the ruling party. There was no need for or trace of outside intervention. But the president ruled out one possibility － open party warfare led by Mr. Rhee － with a little help from the Blue House staff. Should we say that luck always accompanies the master politician?
The writer is a staff writer on political affairs of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Youn-hong