Opposition leaders see doubts rise over pension

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Opposition leaders see doubts rise over pension

Amid a legislative tug-of-war between the two main parties over a change to the country’s national pension system, moderates inside the opposition have begun expressing skepticism toward the leadership’s stance, pointing out that the intended modification is unpopular.

During the New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s (NPAD) Supreme Council meeting, Rep. Kim Choon-jin, the chairman of the parliamentary Health and Welfare Committee, and Rep. Choo Mi-ae, a senior party leader, voiced concerns about party leaders’ adamant push to stipulate a change in the national pension system.

“[Senior opposition members] said the NPAD’s argument widely deviates from what the public wants, and a debate started,” a key NPAD member told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday. “This is the first time that kind of debate took place at a Supreme Council meeting.”

Other party officials said Kim was particularly concerned about the situation ahead of the Health and Welfare Committee meeting.

“We will grill Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo - but I want to say that we are not reading public sentiment correctly,” he was quoted as saying. “No one likes the idea of increasing pension premiums.”

The political tussle over the plan to modify the national pension system started earlier this month when the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition NPAD struck a deal to reform the debt-ridden pension system for civil servants.

On the sidelines of the deal, they also decided to create a panel to improve the efficiency of the national pension system and agreed to respect a recommendation from the special committee on civil servant pension reform that the income replacement ratio for the national pension - the percentage of working income an individual requires to maintain the same standard of living in retirement - be raised to 50 percent. This is an increase from the current 40 percent.

While the NPAD insisted that the intended change in the national pension system would be promised in a written agreement, the Saenuri Party opposed it.

President Park Geun-hye has repeatedly criticized the legislature’s attempt to change the national pension system - which covers more than 21.1 million people - without properly gauging public opinion. The government added that the change would cost 1,669 trillion won ($1.53 trillion) by 2083.

According to NPAD sources, Rep. Choo also expressed skepticism during Monday’s Supreme Council meeting.

“We may win the battle, but we could lose the war,” she was quoted as saying. “The Blue House is making an unreasonable argument, but they won’t give up the justification that public consensus is a pre-requisite.”

The sources added that Moon Jae-in, the chairman of the party, has also become more flexible on the issue.

“At the preparatory meeting for the Supreme Council on Friday, Moon said the deal by the ruling and opposition parties to reform the pension for civil servants was good, so it may be appropriate to vote on the plan as it was without stipulating a change in the national pension plan,” another key NPAD official said.

Wrapping up months of wrangling over the scope and depth of the changes to be made to the civil servant pension system, the ruling and opposition parties signed a deal on May 3 to reform the program by increasing government workers’ monthly contributions while reducing their entitlement payments.

If the reform had been approved last week as originally agreed, the economic burden on the government to keep the civil servant pension system afloat would have been reduced from 10 billion won a day to 6 billion won daily.

Moon said Tuesday that he was aware of the controversy surrounding the plan to change the national pension, though he believes that a pragmatic resolution can be reached when the panel discusses the matter thoroughly.

As a sign of a possible breakthrough in the deadlocked negotiation over the pension reform is seen from inside the NPAD leadership, Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung further pressured the opposition to act quickly to overhaul the pension system for civil servants.

“The president said she has to sigh every time she thinks about the civil servant pension,” Kim said. “For me, my heart was about to stop from sheer frustration.”

The civil servant pension reform, he added, is an issue that is completely separate from modifying the national pension plan. It’s meaningless to fight about them, he continued.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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