It only gets tougher for Park since taking office

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It only gets tougher for Park since taking office

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President Park Geun-hye’s leadership is facing a test after her first 100 days in the Blue House.

Park, the country’s first woman president, took the oath of office on Feb. 25. While she received positive reviews for her handling of the North Korea crisis and largely successful premier presidential trip to the United States, a series of thorny regional issues has emerged, putting her crisis management ability to the test.

Her leadership in handling sensitive domestic issues over the next few months is also expected to be an important factor in deciding the ruling Saenuri Party’s performance in the local election in June next year, widely seen as a midterm test for the president.

The first in the series of many conflicts emerged last month. After weeks of controversy, the South Gyeongsang Provincial Government decided on May 29 to shut down the Jinju Medical Center, citing a high loss incurred by the troubled institution, although many see the move as contrary to Park’s presidential pledge of more extensive state health service.

“The accumulated loss of the medical center is about 28 billion won [$25 million], and the South Gyeongsang area has a total debt of 1.4 trillion won,” said Gov. Hong Joon-pyo. “Shutting down the medical center is unavoidable.”

The decision to close the nation’s second-oldest public hospital fueled the controversy surrounding the public medical service.

“Park promised to expand the state-financed medical services during her presidential campaign,” Kim Han-gill, the new chairman of the largest opposition Democratic Party, said. “Marking the 100th day of her inauguration, she is giving a gift to the people and that is the closure of the Jinju Medical Center. The Park administration and the ruling Saenuri Party will face severe resistance from the people.”

Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent lawmaker and former presidential contender, also issued a statement criticizing the Saenuri-affiliated governor’s decision to shut down the medical center. “It was decided without care for the patients’ lives and the employment issues of the hospital workers,” Ahn said. “Efficiency shouldn’t be the top priority in public health and medical policy.”

The ruling party made its own statement.

“The party will come up with a resolution after reviewing the situation comprehensively,” said Representative Choi Kyung-hwan, the newly elected floor leader of the Saenuri Party and a close confidant of President Park.

The Saenuri Party has suffered from “welfare trauma” because it already lost the 2010 local elections and the 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election after making public that it was opposed to the idea of offering free school lunches to all students. It is also a political burden to Park and the ruling party that South Gyeongsang Governor Hong, despite his ties to the party, made the decision that went against Park’s presidential pledge.

The seven-year-old dispute over the construction of a high-voltage transmission tower in Miryang, South Gyeongsang, recently found breathing room, but it still is another challenge for Park.

Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Yoon Sang-jick, Cho Whan-eik, CEO of the Korea Electric Power Corporation, and Kim Jun-han, head of the residents’ committee to protest the project, agreed on May 29 to suspend the construction for about 40 days to search for an alternative way to resolve the situation.

The project is intended to build a transmission tower in the city to link power supply cables to send the electricity generated from the Singori nuclear plant in Ulsan to the Gyeongsang areas. The residents of the construction site have fiercely protested the project, citing safety issues and a negative impact on land prices. Work has been stopped for about five years.

The residents of Miryang demand that the power cables avoid the area or be buried underground, but either option will add a large financial burden to the project, making it difficult for the government to make a change.

“The conflict surrounding the transmission tower construction in Miryang stemmed from the government’s stubbornness in pushing forward with a state project with the unchanged attitude from the development dictatorship era and the wrong judgment of the Korea Electric Power Corporation,” said Representative Cho Kyoung-tae of the Democratic Party.

The two cases, however, appeared to be only the beginning of an avalanche of more sensitive conflicts around the country.

Although President Park asked her cabinet to improve its crisis management ability to handle thorny regional issues, more difficult challenges lie ahead in her presidency.

On April 30, the Office for Government Policy Coordination reported to the president about 69 risk factors that could bring about a major crisis in state affairs. The risk factors included the discord over the transmission tower construction in Miryang and the issue already emerged as a problem shortly after the briefing.

Tensions are already boiling over some other sensitive regional issues. One of the most volatile controversies is the plan to build a new airport in the southeastern part of the country. Although it was one of Park’s key presidential pledges, the plan to build a new airport was dropped from the 140 national agenda items finalized at the cabinet meeting on May 28. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport also told the local governments of Busan, Ulsan, Daegu and South and North Gyeongsang that a feasibility study will be conducted only after they sign an agreement to accept the outcome. Busan Mayor Hur Nam-sik met with Land Minister Suh Seoung-whan on May 28 and pressured him to present a road map as soon as possible, citing the uneasiness of the Busan people.

While the minister reportedly asked the mayor to make the agreement to prevent any fallout after the government selects a site, the mayor said it is hard to accept the condition because the people’s distrust in the government is already high.

As of now, Gadeok Island of Busan and Miryang are fiercely competing to host the new airport. Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, decided in 2011 to scrap the planned construction of the new southeastern airport. Park, then the ruling party lawmaker, made a public statement that the project must go on.

A senior official of the Blue House said the decision on the new airport has not been made, and the Blue House will announce a road map to implement Park’s pledges for major regional projects this month. He also asked for the people’s patience, noting that building an airport sometimes takes a decade. The plan to relocate the National Pension Service’s fund management center to North Jeolla is also a cause for controversy. While Park and her opposition Moon Jae-in both promised the relocation as part of their presidential pledges before the election, no progress has been made since Park won, angering the region’s residents. Other regional governments are also expressing discontent with the government’s recent announcement to curtail spending in social infrastructure construction projects to come up with financial resources to follow through with Park’s pledges mainly on wider welfare benefits.

“I was informed that no investment will be made on new road and railroad projects for the next five years,” said Gangwon Gov. Choi Moon-soon. “Building an express railroad between Chuncheon and Sokcho was Park’s election campaign promise. It must be realized separately from the government’s latest stance.”

Officials, politicians and experts all agree that managing various crises at the beginning of the presidency is a crucial first step to determine the course of the president’s five-year term.

Experts said the problems that Park is facing are largely concerning infrastructure programs, and they are very sensitive and difficult challenges to resolve because there is a clear winner and loser when the government makes a decision. Park, on May 28, scolded her ministers at the cabinet meeting for having failed to deal with growing regional conflicts properly.


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

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