Provincial reps slammed for European junket

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Provincial reps slammed for European junket

CHEONGJU, North Chungcheong - Four North Chungcheong provincial legislators faced a public backlash for taking off from the flood-stricken town for a European tour.

Now their parties are planning to punish them.

According to the North Chungcheong Provincial Council, four lawmakers who left the country Tuesday for Europe decided to return to Korea after being excoriated for their 10-day trip.

Cheongju suffered the worst flood damage in 22 years in the aftermath of last weekend’s downpours. The council asked the central government on Monday to designate the entire province a special disaster zone. The four legislators left for France and Italy the next day.

The lawmakers are Reps. Kim Hak-cheol, Park Bong-soon and Park Han-beum of the Liberty Korea Party and Rep. Choi Byeong-yoon of the Democratic Party. Park Bong-soon and Choi returned to Korea on Thursday, while the other two said they will return as soon as they buy tickets.

The 10-day trip was meant to survey cultural and tourist resources of advanced countries. Because most of their destinations are tourist venues, criticism snowballed that they were on a pure boondoggle. The Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice’s North Chungcheong office issued a statement to demand their immediate resignations.

One of the lawmakers issued an unusually strong response to the public backlash. “The trip was postponed twice due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and the snap presidential election,” Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday from France.

“Because of the contract with the travel agent and the schedules arranged with public authorities in Europe, we thought it was inappropriate to cancel the trip. But we decided to return.”

Kim claimed he checked the flood-stricken areas and confirmed that there were no problems before his departure. “Even if I went to the recovery site, I would be nothing but a burden to the public servants,” he said. “The provincial lawmakers are better used to secure the budget for the recovery operation.”

Kim complained that it is hard to serve as a provincial representative. “The situations are tough, including the floods, but we are not here for a picnic,” he said. “I wonder why 50 million people have to suspend whatever they are doing whenever a disaster takes place, as we saw during the Sewol ferry incident.”

He said the public and media are particularly unforgiving of provincial politicians, stressing that even “Mr. Moon Jae-in” went on vacation, without using the president’s formal title.

Kim complained to KBS on Wednesday that the public reaction was inappropriate, fueling further criticism.

“The people are strange, as we saw in the Sewol ferry incident. They seemed like lemmings, the rodents that act in a group,” he said.

In 1980, John A. Wickham, then-head of United States Forces Korea, prompted a controversy by comparing the Korean people with lemmings in a media interview.

“Koreans are like lemmings. They follow whoever becomes the leader, no matter who the leader may be,” he said at the time.

The Liberty Korea Party and the Democratic Party said they will take disciplinary action against the representatives.

“We will take steps to punish them,” said Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hong Joon-pyo, who visited a flood recovery operation in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, on Wednesday. An official of the Democratic Party said an internal investigation will take place along with an ethics committee meeting.

BY CHOI JONG-KWON [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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