[Viewpoint] A never-ending deja vu

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[Viewpoint] A never-ending deja vu

Kim Chung-yum is one of the longest-serving chiefs of staff, serving under President Park Chung Hee for nearly a decade, from October 1969 to December 1978. He is also regarded as one of the cleanest politicians in modern Korean history. Even as the closest aide to an authoritarian leader, he managed to keep himself untarnished and upright.

He recalled that as soon as he was appointed chief of staff, he attended a congratulatory dinner hosted by several lawmakers he befriended while he was commerce minister. Then, dinner invitations kept coming in. He refused all of them.

“Some were too envious, and some sneered that I changed. But as time passed, they all understood,” he said.

Kim was modest and meticulously kept to himself. He would go straight home when the president went up to his quarters for the night while other aides entertained themselves in hotels and bars. For lunch, he would eat in the Blue House cafeteria with his aides if the president remained in his office, insisting they should not eat anything more extravagant than the president.

The chief of staff and senior secretaries for the president should be an “extraordinary” lot among all public officials. In a sense, they are the shadows of the president. Their actions define the president and the administration for which they work. Because they serve in the highest office of the land, they are expected to have extraordinary propriety. If not, the government could go wayward.

Unfortunately, few have come out clean from the Blue House. Hong In-gil, one of President Kim Young-sam’s closest confidantes and his secretary of state affairs, served a prison sentence for receiving bribes from Hanbo Group. President Kim Dae-jung’s top secretary, Han Kwang-ok, was imprisoned for pocketing 30 million won ($25,000) from Nara Financial Group’s chairman to save the bank from going insolvent. Close aides to President Roh Moo-hyun, including his senior secretary of civil affairs, Park Jung-kyu, also went to prison after accepting bribes from Park Yeon-cha, chairman of Taekwang Industrial.

In the United States, some close presidential aides have made a point of maintaining a modest public image while in office. For instance, when President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was married, he tried not to be too extravagant. In the U.S., grooms and brides open a wedding registry at a certain store, in which they indicate what gifts they would like to receive. Fleischer’s wedding registry listed only kitchenware, a tennis ball, a DVD of the 1954 film “Sabrina,” featuring Audrey Hepburn, and an outdoor cooler. The gifts did not cost more than $20 apiece, though Fleischer’s personal wealth is more than $200,000.

Presidential secretaries do not necessarily have to be poor to qualify. But once they take up the post, they must pursue a humble lifestyle while in the public eye, regardless of their personal wealth. Otherwise, the administration cannot come across as persuasive to the average citizen who leads a hard life. Once they set foot inside the Blue House, they must keep in check their ties with relatives, friends and past acquaintances. They must seclude themselves rigidly and rigorously. Any meetings they have should be for public service only.

But unfortunately, aides to President Lee Myung-bak are upholding the country’s sad tradition of corruption. Their summons to prosecutors amount to weary deja vu - a tedious, never-ending political episode. Many may harbor dreams of moving to the Blue House in 17 months. I suggest they complete a meditation camp before gearing up for the campaign. They must closely examine their character before standing in front of the voters.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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