Free meal deal becoming key 2010 election issue

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Free meal deal becoming key 2010 election issue

One of the hottest issues arising before the June 2 local elections is a free school lunch policy, with clear battle lines being drawn between the ruling and opposition parties.

Last month, the main opposition Democratic Party pledged to offer free meals to all elementary and middle school students across the country. Other opposition parties, including the Liberty Forward Party, have agreed to back the measure.

The Grand National Party however, has been brushing off the proposal, saying it is merely a populist campaign measure meant to win the hearts of the voters before local elections. The GNP argues that providing free meals to all elementary and middle school students in Korea will be too costly and that providing meals even to children from high income brackets is unnecessary.

The GNP estimates that 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion) a year is needed to adopt the DP’s universal free meal proposal.

“The Democratic Party’s argument to provide free lunches [for students] despite the country’s limited budget, is not right,” said GNP floor leader Ahn Sang-soo earlier this month during a press meeting. “We must provide those in need of help with more provisions and not spend people’s taxes on providing meals to well-off children.”

Education Minister Ahn Byong-man has also expressed opposition to the DP plan. “Is Korea well-off enough to provide 100 percent [of meals free] when the U.S. and the U.K. only provide 49 percent and 34 percent, respectively, to students?” he asked on Thursday during a press conference.

The DP as well as other opposition parties want the government to get the funds necessary for universal meal service by cutting back from the four river renovation project.

Amid the heated controversy, the government and the ruling party agreed last week to increase the number of children entitled to free meals from the present 1.3 million, to around 2 million by 2012. This new figure will include all students at elementary and middle schools in agricultural, fishing and mountain villages as well as students from low-income families in urban elementary and middle schools.

During a Blue House meeting, President Lee Myung-bak said that whether it is the four rivers project or the free meal policy, opposing government policy is “not necessarily an offensive thing.” He added that the GNP should be grateful for an opposing stance and should note certain points for future policies. But he said if the proposals are only for short-term political gains, they should be challenged.

The DP however, continues to play hardball. DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun said that the GNP’s revision plans are “nothing new” and that the government’s new policy is “merely wordplay.” The DP and other opposition parties also argued that selective free meals will create a stronger divide between students from high and low income families.

The government and the GNP say the selection process for students who will benefit from free meals will be based on the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s social welfare database and that the identities of beneficiaries will be kept secret.

By Cho Jae-eun, Lee Won-jean [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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홍준표(56·전 원내대표) 한나라당 의원과 박주선(61·최고위원) 민주당 의원이 맞짱 토론을 벌였다.

6·2 지방선거의 최대 이슈로 떠오르고 있는 무상급식 문제를 놓고서다. 박 의원은 올 1월 초·중학교의 무상급식을 의무화하는 ‘초중등교육법 개정안’을 발의했다. 민주당이 무상급식을 당론화하는 데 주도적 역할을 했다. 반면 홍 의원은 지난 10일 당 회의에서 “무상급식은 좌파 포퓰리즘”이라고 비판했다. 무상급식 문제를 놓고 두 의원이 첨예한 시각차를 보이고 있다.

두 사람은 모두 검사 출신이다. 홍 의원(4선)이 박 의원(재선)보다 원내에는 먼저 진출했지만 검사로서는 박 의원이 선배다. 박 의원은 사시 16회고, 홍 의원은 24회다. 사석에서 홍 의원은 박 의원을 ‘형님’이라고 부른다.

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