Lee shifts Sejong decision to National Assembly

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Lee shifts Sejong decision to National Assembly

Admitting that his signature development projects have divided the country, President Lee Myung-bak yesterday urged the National Assembly to vote on the Sejong City revision bills this month to bring an end to the political fights surrounding the project.

Lee addressed the nation yesterday morning in a speech aired live on major TV and radio networks. Responding seriously to the ruling Grand National Party’s defeat in the June 2 local elections, he vowed to rethink his government’s priorities.

Lee said he will leave it up to the legislature to decide how to develop Sejong City, but he made it clear that the government will continue the four major rivers development project. And he said he is prepared to clean house within his administration.

“I will improve the systems of the Blue House and the cabinet and reshuffle the officials as soon as the preparations are completed,” the president said.

“The government will also try to find ways to maintain amicable and productive ties with the ruling party and the National Assembly.”

Lee also said he will explore new ways to communicate with younger Koreans, perhaps a response to the plummeting popularity of the GNP among young voters.

Though he pledged to punish the military for its bungled response to the Cheonan crisis, the president said he would not back down from the hard line he has taken against North Korea. Defending his tough stance, Lee sought the nation’s united support in punishing Pyongyang for its latest provocation that killed 46 South Korean sailors to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident.

In his speech, Lee reiterated that he had wanted to revise the development plans for Sejong City in South Chung-cheong to create an industrial, science and education center rather than an administrative hub not because it would benefit his administration, but for the future of the nation.

“I still have a strong conviction about that,” he said, adding that moving major government offices to Sejong City will be regretted in the future.

“Yet I can no longer allow the issue to split the nation and deepen the political rupture,” Lee said, emphasizing the need for unity in times of economic and security crisis.

“Companies that have planned to invest in Sejong City can no longer wait.”

The original Sejong City plan was put forward by Roh Moo-hyun in 2002, and the project was given the weight of law by the National Assembly in 2005. Lee’s plan to revise the city blueprint ignited fierce resistance from opposition parties as well as Grand Nationals loyal to his political rival Park Geun-hye, but this March the cabinet approved five bills to shift the focus of development.

The revision bills have been pending before the National Assembly since March, and Lee asked that they be voted on before the current session ends on June 29. He said, “I urge each and every one of the lawmakers to make a wise decision, leaving aside their party affiliations. The government will respect the decision of the National Assembly.”

Lee’s change of heart appears to be a political compromise to escape from the current deadlock, and prevent the Sejong controversy from hindering the rest of his agenda items for the remainder of his term.

“GNP lawmakers will be able to vote their conscience, without being restricted by the party’s official line,” Blue House spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said. “We can no longer delay this issue.”

The spokesman insisted that the president has not given up on the Sejong City revision, but the Blue House is well aware that pro-Lee lawmakers alone cannot unilaterally push forward the changes.

The next step to moving forward - or rejecting - the revision bills will be a vote at the legislature’s Land and Maritime Affairs Committee.

Of the 31 lawmakers on the committee, 21, including eight pro-Park Grand Nationals, have said they support the initial administrative hub plan.

Even if the committee approves the bills, the revision plans are unlikely to win a majority vote at a legislative session because pro-Lee Grand Nationals who support the revision are largely outnumbered by the pro-Park Grand Nationals and opposition lawmakers.

The Grand National Party’s floor leader, Kim Moo-sung, said the party will discuss the Sejong City issue intensively this week to decide how to proceed.

But Representative Woo Sang-ho, the DP’s spokesman, said Lee’s speech effectively killed the Sejong City revision bills.

He criticized the president for passing the buck to the National Assembly. “To mend the rupture in public opinion, the government must immediately withdraw the bills, and not force the legislature to hold a vote,” he said.

Lee also addressed the four rivers restoration project in his speech, saying the government plans to continue the project and that results will be seen within a few years.

However, he said the administration will be more open to the opinions of local governments in the affected communities.

As a part of its green growth campaign, the Lee administration advanced a 22.2 trillion won ($19.1 billion) plan to develop South Korea’s major rivers - the Han, Yeongsan, Geum and Nakdong - by 2012 to prevent floods and spur regional growth.

Although environmentalists and opposition parties resisted the program, groundbreaking took place in November.

As to the administrative reshuffle, the spokesman refused to say when it would take place, but said Lee is searching for talented people in their 40s and 50s to assist him.

As he promised to recruit young, reform-minded officials to revamp his government, Lee urged the GNP to embrace the generational change in the upcoming leadership.

Lee said more details about how he will steer the nation for the rest of his term will be made public once they are finalized.

His spokesman said an announcement is expected to come around Liberation Day on Aug. 15.

The opposition Democratic Party was critical of Lee’s speech.

“The president did not present any details including the timeline of reshuffles,” said Woo, the DP spokesman. “It was an arrogant speech with no substance.”

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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