[Viewpoint]A mature oppositionIn late 1997 the Kim Young-sam administration was being pressed to take responsibility for the foreign currency crisis, and it seemed unlikely that the ruling party could stay in power. I asked then-New Korea Party lawmaker Park Gwan-yong, who had served as the Blue House chief of staff, about his forecast for the presidential election in December. He predicted the birth of the Kim Dae-jung administration. He said, “The ruling party will become the opposition, and the opposition party will become the ruling party. If we repeat this process a couple times, it will aid the development of Korean politics and national governance.”
As he predicted, the New Korea Party lost power, and the National Congress for New Politics gained it. Ten years later, the Uri Party, the predecessor of today’s Democratic Party, became the opposition, and the Grand National Party [the reincarnation of New Korea] came back as the ruling party. Has regime change contributed to the development of Korean politics? I found a small justification that allows me to say yes.
We have an airplane especially designated for presidential use, but it is hardly useful. It was purchased 23 years ago, and it can only fly 3,440 kilometers (2,137 miles) without refueling. So it is mostly used to visit countries in Northeast Asia; in the last 10 years, it has flown only 11 times. So when the President of the Republic of Korea goes abroad, he has to charter an airplane from Korean Air or Asiana Airlines. In the last 10 years, over 71.5 billion won ($59.3 million) have been paid for chartered planes, according to Grand National lawmaker Lee Beom-gwan. President Lee Myung-bak has already used a chartered plane on three occasions.
However, if the president wants to charter a plane, he has to go through a complicated process. Once the Blue House signs a charter contract with an airliner, the interior renovation takes over a month. The seats at the forward section are removed to create an office space for the president. Of course, the plane cannot be used for regular operation. For security reasons, the pilots and flight attendants have to be chosen and specially trained. There are significant physical and psychological costs associated with the charter.
When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was foreign minister, he had a meeting with the foreign ministers of Japan and the United States in a third country to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue. The U.S. president allowed the secretary of state to fly on Air Force One, and the prime minister of Japan, too, had the foreign minister use an exclusive aircraft. However, Minister Ban was late to the meeting because he had to use connecting flights on a commercial plane. Among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the British prime minister is the only other top official using chartered aircraft. When I covered multilateral summit meetings like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation as a Blue House reporter, I experienced the inconvenience of not having an exclusive presidential aircraft.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration applied for funds to purchase a presidential aircraft in 2006, but the then-opposition Grand National Party rejected the request. GNP lawmakers said Roh wanted the luxury of an exclusive aircraft when citizens were being frugal and struggling.
Now that power has shifted, the Lee administration hopes to purchase an aircraft for presidential use.
Having been humiliated once, the Democratic Party might want to get even.
However, we spotted an unexpected scene at the National Assembly steering committee meeting on Sept. 18. Democratic Party floor leader Won Hye-young said, “The purchase of an exclusive aircraft for the president is necessary for the safety of the chief executive of the country with the world’s [13th-largest] economy. It is not an issue of political interest. The Democratic Party supports the purchase from a broader viewpoint.” The Blue House might feel a little embarrassed.
Having watched past controversy over the presidential plane, I feel that regime change has indeed been meaningful. Am I exaggerating if I felt from Won’s comment how much more beautiful the politics of forgiveness is than the politics of retaliation? It might be a small step, but the change is impressive. Without a mature opposition party, we cannot expect mature politics.
Moreover, on the same day, Democratic lawmaker Suh Gab-won said that having worked at the Blue House, he realized that the director of the Presidential Secret Service could not leave his duty. And he said he understands the absence of the Blue House secretary for civil affairs and director of the Presidential Secret Service. GNP lawmakers were even more amazed. Known for his stubbornness, he is nicknamed “Mr. Rupture.” Suh was also President Roh Moo-hyun’s senior secretary for protocol.
*The writer is the deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Seung-hee