At what price security?

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At what price security?

If one has a keen political eye, here’s a query that may have crossed your mind. Is there an instruction manual senior government officials study that includes specific instructions on the depth and length of the bow that is appropriate before the president when they receive appointment credentials? If there isn’t, it’s an odd coincidence that all cabinet nominees slam their heads down to their waists to achieve a 90 degree bow. Maybe it comes out naturally from an overwhelming gratitude and respect for the president. Or maybe people eligible for top government posts are simply born with exquisite manners. Or someone whispered in their ears.

But it turns out, there’s a more practical explanation. Lee Kwang-jae, former Gangwon Governor who served as a state affairs secretary for President Roh Moo-hyun, was also curious about this phenomenon. He wondered why cabinet ministers ducked so low before the president. He found out it was all about the pictures.

The president and ministers stand at a certain angle to allow the best shot for the presidential press corps. There is a small distance between the press and the minister receiving his or her credentials. The best full shot can be achieved with the minister bowing his head to his waist by keeping an arm’s distance from the president. It had nothing to do with the character or manners of the nominees, but merely provided the best angle for the morning papers.

A certain distance between the president and his guests needs, of course, to be kept for security reasons though the regulation is less strict for cabinet members as they obviously should not pose a threat to the president. Lee later recalled that all the formalities are a part of a legacy from authoritarian governments.

Tension between the presidential staff and security service persists. A bodyguard of the presidential security service wearing a wire stood in the presidential office when the president-elect was meeting with the president five years ago.

When he was asked to leave, he politely declined, citing regulations. Yim Tae-hee, then-chief secretary for President-elect Lee Myung-bak, pulled him out, insisting on privacy. One presidential staffer later said of the incident: “How could one talk freely when there is someone out there listening?” - referring to the chief of the Presidential Security Service, who could be tuning in to whatever came through that agent’s microphone. Other presidents and their staffs also had complaints. President Kim Young-sam learned of the strict security regulations three months after being in office, but it was too late to change anything. President Lee Myung-bak’s transition team made amendments before starting.

President Lee not only kept bodyguards outside his office, but also downgraded the head of the security service to the vice ministerial level. Lee, as executive of a large company, had been humiliated and intimidated by the security officials whenever he visited the presidential office. Visitors were given scripts to read from before the president in the 1970s.

Regardless of the downgrade, the security service remains strong. The president cannot go to places the security officials forbid. One senior presidential secretary wanted to drive his own car after he joined the Blue House, but the security office demanded all senior staff drive security-proof cars provided by the Blue House. He protested for several days by going to work by taxi. The chief of the security service also runs errands for the president unrelated to security affairs. The security service still wields mighty influence in the Blue House.

Some aides complain that the stewards of the Blue House are actually the security officials. They are not simple bodyguards as in other countries as they physically stand between the president and aides. There is some worth to their arguments. The president and staff come and go every five years. The security service stays on. They are the keepers of the rules and the customs of the Blue House. If security is always first and foremost, however, the president could be overly isolated and become out-of-touch and authoritarian. Past presidents have tried to lower the guard and bring the presidential residence closer to the citizens. But President-elect Park Geun-hye is turning back the clock. She upgraded the security service chief to the ministerial level and nominated a former Army chief of staff to the post. Those signs are not good.

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

by Ko Jung-ae
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