[OUTLOOK]Rhee bets the house, rolls the dice

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[OUTLOOK]Rhee bets the house, rolls the dice

Does a conspiracy really exist to manipulate the Millennium Democratic Party's primary to select Roh Moo-hyun, an adviser of the ruling party, as the party's presidential candidate? It is difficult to come to a conclusion; there is no proof. But conspiracy has no proof, supporters of Rhee In-je are fond of saying. Mr. Rhee is also an adviser and contender for the presidential nomination of the ruling party.

An "invisible hand," is behind the conspiracy, Mr. Rhee said. That hand is "the core of political power" and it is assisting Mr. Roh in the primaries, he asserted. This is why, Mr. Rhee says, he has been defeated in some recent primaries. Thus, in Mr. Rhee's mind his opponent is no longer Mr. Roh but some shadowy political bosses.

This is why he dismantled the campaign headquarters that had been formed to direct his primary election campaign. The effort to earn a few more votes is now meaningless, he said.

But he has not given up the primary fight. He thinks there is still a chance to win the primary if he wins the fight with "the core of the political power." The fight has already begun, he said, although it is invisible, just like the conspiracy.

"It is impossible to win by attacking Roh Moo-hyun. The recent boom in support of Roh Moo-hyun is being assisted by President Kim Dae-jung," one of the closest supporters of Mr. Rhee said. Thus, Mr. Rhee needs to change the target of his attack from Mr. Roh to the core of the power. Then he can defeat Roh Moo-hyun in the series of primary elections now going on.

"Is the Blue House aware of Mr. Rhee's new tactics?" I asked the adviser.

"The Blue House must have sensed it. Calls are pouring in from numerous places. They have started appeasing Mr. Rhee."

"Has Park Jie-won called?" Mr. Park is one of the Blue House secretaries.

"Everyone one might think of has been calling."

"What has Rhee In-je said to them?"

"Mr. Rhee has already said almost everything that can be said under the circumstances."

"Such as what?"

The aide refused to give any further answers, but he was suggesting an unspoken threat by Mr. Rhee.

Rhee In-je's threat is not unprecedented. Last year, Mr. Rhee warned those in the Donggyo-dong camp, longtime supporters of President Kim led by Kwon Roh-kap, after faction members who had supported him unconditionally in the past tried to withdraw that support. Then came, the story goes, a threat from Mr. Rhee that he would not go away quietly.

"I heard a story to that effect, too," said Hahn Hwa-kap, advisor of the ruing party and one of leaders of the Donggyo-dong camp. "I heard it directly from the Donggyo-dong camp," said an aide of Lee Soo-sung, former prime minister. He said he knew when and where the threat was made and what it was. But the rumors vanished after Kwon Roh-kap said they were nonsense.

I talked with another aide of Rhee In-je.

"Is he considering leaving the ruling party?"

"It is beyond that," this man said. Mr. Rhee reportedly commented that it would be the end of his political career if he were defeated in the primary. So, he is going for broke. "He is capable of doing anything," still another aide of Mr. Rhee said.

One option is for Mr. Rhee to begin his counterattack about Monday after the primaries in Daegu, Incheon and North Gyeongsang province. Another option is around April 15, after the primary election in South Jeolla province. Mr. Rhee may be watching to see if that back-door support for Mr. Roh ends.

Word has it that the Blue House is embarrassed at Mr. Rhee's offensive, hinting that it has an idea what Mr. Rhee is thinking. But what can it do?

"Does Mr. Rhee want us to come up with a real conspiracy?" one close aide to the leadership asked rhetorically. He asserts that no conspiracy exists and that the leadership never had any interest in mounting one. It is difficult to stop doing something you never started to do.

Roh Moo-hyun's side is at a loss as well. They are worried that the impact of the primary vote, if he wins it, would be frittered away by the controversy over hidden hands and skullduggery.

In any case, Rhee In-je is betting everything he has. He has burned his bridges behind him; he is about to take the last gamble, an open fight with President Kim Dae-jung.

He seems to believe that is the only way to win.


The writer is a political reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Youn-hong

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