Special assistants part of Park’s reform plans

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Special assistants part of Park’s reform plans

At the heart of President Park Geun-hye’s announcement Monday that she would establish a team of special assistants within the Blue House lies her desire to successfully carry out her signature three-year economic innovation plan during her third year in office.

Past administrations have often relied upon some sort of special assistant system to gauge public opinion and consider outside criticism, though at the time of her inauguration in 2013, Park cast the notion aside.

She has repeatedly referred to 2015 as a “golden time” for which she can push ahead with her economic agenda. But if the president fails to do so, she could find herself facing an earlier-than-expected lame duck period.

According to multiple sources, Park wants to overhaul the human resources structure within the Blue House in tandem with reintroducing special assistants, an idea she relayed Monday during her New Year’s address.

The focus will likely now shift to political affairs and public relations, particularly given persistent demands by analysts and lawmakers that the president - who has consistently been accused of having poor communication skills - step up exchanges with the ruling and main opposition parties.

The Blue House may also go as far as to establish or abolish specific secretary offices and adjust the responsibilities of existing ones.

The ruling Saenuri Party this week welcomed the blueprint, with one of its executive members suggesting that a political heavyweight with extensive knowledge of National Assembly operations should take on the role of special assistant.

But when it comes to appointing special assistants for political affairs, he said, there should be two: one for the ruling party and the other for the main opposition.

A special assistant typically refers to someone who is hired part time by the Blue House, and receives no monthly salary, to complement the responsibilities of existing presidential secretaries, according to the precedents set under former administrations.

The system, inspired by the United States’ White House, was first adopted under the Park Chung Hee administration. Upon her inauguration, however, his daughter scrapped the idea to keep her staff as small as possible.

Candidates for these assistant positions have already circulated in the political arena, with names including current and former veteran lawmakers.

The Blue House has been agonizing since late last year over innovative measures to communicate better with the National Assembly and the media. Reviving the Government Information Agency, which was shut down under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration, was considered as a possible solution, though its implementation would require the revision of a government structure bill, which would undoubtedly be time-consuming.

Introducing a special assistant system, the presidential office concluded, would then be the most plausible move.

Past administrations have mobilized special assistant teams whenever they have faced challenging situations.

President Roh Moo-hyun appointed a group of special assistants ahead of the local elections in 2006.

And Lee, his successor, hired Kim Duk-ryong, a lawmaker with the former Grand National Party, as a special presidential assistant for national integration in the wake of a massive candlelight protest in 2008 against the government’s decision to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports.

In late 2010, he also hired his closest aides as special assistants for media and society.

Still, observers warn that the system isn’t a cure-all. When former President Lee seated two of his closest aides as special assistants, some complained that power had only migrated to “unofficial” staff members from the Blue House.

“Special assistants could be very useful, given that there is no limit on their responsibilities,” said Kim Byung-joon, a former special assistant for policy. “But nominally appointing special assistants and not giving current secretaries a chance to meet with the president [over certain issues] could cause conflicts.”

BY SHIN YONG-HO, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]
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