Slip of tongue seen as leading to resignations

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Slip of tongue seen as leading to resignations

President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to get rid of his defense minister and presidential secretary for defense affairs in the aftermath of the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island appeared to be linked to their slip of the tongue.

Standing at the center of the snowballing controversy is the veracity of Lee’s initial reaction to the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

In an emergency presidential secretariat meeting shortly after Tuesday’s attack began, Lee was quoted as saying by the Blue House that the military should refrain from actions that would escalate the situation into a full-blown war.

Hours later, the Blue House retracted the remarks, saying that Lee had never said so, amid growing criticism by the nation’s conservatives about the president’s soft reaction.

According to sources at the Blue House, the most direct reason why Lee forced the resignations of National Defense Minister Kim Tae-young and presidential secretary for defense affairs, Kim Byoung-gi, was because of the controversy.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Kim told the National Assembly in the morning that the president’s initial order was to “counter the attack sternly but make sure to avoid a broad war.” He then changed his statement in the afternoon, saying that he had not received that order.

Kim later explained to the Blue House that he was not aware of the controversy surrounding Lee’s remarks, prompting the presidential office’s anger.

He told the Blue House that he had merely told the lawmakers what he read in newspapers.

According to sources, Kim had not attended the initial secretariat meeting, where the controversial remark was allegedly made.

Presidential defense secretary Kim also resigned Thursday night because of his slip of the tongue, a Blue House official said.

According to an internal investigation, Kim was found to be responsible for starting the controversy.

A source at the Blue House said Kim inaccurately told presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung what Lee had said at the meeting, leading her to misquote the president to journalists later.

Although Lee sacked his defense minister and defense affairs secretary, concerns still linger over how the public affairs officials handled the situation.

The spokeswoman, after receiving the information from the defense secretary, telephoned an official at the Chunchugwan, the Blue House’s press center, to provide the readout of Lee’s first message.

While Chunchugwan officials were worried that the remark was too sensitive to be reported as Lee’s first message, the spokeswoman and the defense secretary apparently lacked judgment on the aftermath.

Grand National Party Representative Chun Yu-ok complained on her Web site about the issue’s poor handling.

“What kind of presidential officials quote what’s discussed among working-level officials as if it were the president’s remarks?” Chun said. “Is this how the Blue House handled its past press briefings?”

Senior Blue House officials have tried to avoid responsibility by saying that the spokeswoman hastily briefed the reporters and provided the wrong information.

Officials who are close to the spokeswoman, however, said she had become a scapegoat.

“She had consulted with her bosses on what she should announce,” a source said. “She probably feels the situation is unfair.”

Others also say that some were becoming scapegoats in a move by the Blue House to save face.


By Ser Myo-ja, Seo Seung-wook [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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