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Feud surfaces between old, new governments

Park gets aggressive on predecessor over river refurbishment project

Tensions are high between President Park Geun-hye and her predecessor’s administration after her aggressive attack on its four-river refurbishment project that the state auditor recently found to have misled the public.

Continuing Korea’s long-festering custom of confrontation between past and current governments, former aides of Lee expressed discomfort with the current government after it quickly sided with the Board of Audit and Inspection.

The BAI claimed in a report on Wednesday that Lee’s project had been intended to revive a thwarted cross-country canal network.

Cheong Wa Dae immediately called the project a “deception,” while Lee’s aides countered the report as being “politically motivated.“

Park and Lee’s short-lived truce has long been broken since her transition committee period, when a number of events, including Lee’s special pardon of his close associates, prompted Park’s opposition.

Park, who has seen her support ratings surge to more than 60 percent recently, looks to continue guarding her government against Lee’s problematic legacy as she seeks to manage volatile domestic politics, political observers said.

“For one, Park appears to believe that she has succeeded in changing, not succeeding, the government despite (both Park and Lee) coming from the same conservative party. Park is in fact preemptively blocking any issue that can target her government by differentiating hers from the past administration,” said politics professor Kim Hyung-joon of Myongji University.

While such moves may be effective in the short-term, they could spark a backlash later on, he said.

“More often than not, an administration tends to see its approval ratings fall when its ‘electoral coalition’ that successfully brought him or her to an election win clashes with the coalition in governance,” Kim said. In other words, Park’s offensive against Lee may prompt division among conservative voters by scuppering support for her governance.

Simmering tension between Park and Lee started to reemerge upon the latter’s special pardon, followed by Lee’s veto of a parliamentary-approved bill giving subsidies to the taxi industry in the same month.

Park expressed dissatisfaction in April over the lack of help she received from the preceding government by saying there was no “data” to refer to when she faced criticism over her personnel choices. Lee’s side immediately rejected this charge by claiming it passed on personnel data of over 20,000 figures.

More recently, Park’s team distanced themselves from the growing political controversy over the National Intelligence Service’s alleged interference in the presidential election through an online smear campaign, calling for the clarification of truth.

The confrontation peaked this week when Park’s most entrusted aide and senior press secretary Lee Jung-hyun volunteered a press briefing immediately upon the BAI’s report on Lee’s river refurbishment project.

“(The Lee government) has deceived the people…It has caused immense damage to the country if the BAI report is true,” Lee said, specifically asking the press to identify his name, an unusual request for Cheong Wa Dae which prefers to remain anonymous. “We have to tell the people what has gone wrong and fix the damage.”

Former members of Lee’s administration strongly denied the allegation and expressed discomfort.

“The four-river project is irrelevant to the grand canal project and former President Lee Myung-bak has repeatedly declared in public that he would not be pushing the grand canal plan,” said former presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha in a press release Thursday.

“The essence of the project lies in strengthening capacity to respond to flooding due to climate change, securing water resources and improving water quality.”

He added it was regretful that the four-river project was being used for a political dispute.

The latest BAI report revealed that the four-river restoration project was drawn up with the suspended canal in mind at the request of Lee’s presidential office.

It cited how the plan allowed a consortium of builders initially recruited for the grand canal to participate in the four-river project, enabling them to fix the price to win bids. The project caused a number of serious problems such as bid rigging, increased costs and poor water quality management, the report said.

This was the BAI’s third audit of the river project. The first conducted in January, 2011, had found the project to have no specific problem. The second report in January this year said the project was “faulty overall” and the Park administration pledged to conduct a “thorough investigation” into a number of allegations the project.

Park and Lee’s relations have never really been friendly, as they were fierce rivals in the 2007 presidential primary and have since butted heads over Lee’s key policy directions over the past five years.

Their brief reconciliatory mood upon Park’s election last December showed a refreshing change from the familiarly hostile administration switch that at times lead to full investigations into the predecessor’s irregularity allegations.

The former Kim Dae-jung administration, for instance, clashed with predecessor Kim Young-sam as he struggled through the economic crisis that broke out in 1997.

Relations between Kim and his liberal successor Roh Moo-hyun eventually deteriorated upon the special probe into illegal transfer of funds to North Korea that led to an arrest of Kim’s key aides.

Roh and Lee also collided over the presidential records that Roh brought with him upon his retirement.

Roh committed suicide in May 2009 in the midst of the prosecutors’ probe into his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal, leading to his supporters’ intense hostility against the Lee administration.

By Lee Joo-hee (