|President Park Geun-hye bows to greet a luncheon with representatives of elderly associations at Cheong Wa Dae on Friday. (Yonhap News)|
Controversy over the Park Geun-hye administration’s scaled-back pension plan escalated on Friday as Prime Minister Chung Hong-won sent back a resignation tendered by the health minister.
Health and Welfare Minister Chin Young offered to step down from his post via email sent to reporters to take responsibility over the government’s scaled-down pension scheme.
“I will resign because I feel deeply responsible as health and welfare minister,” Chin said. “I am sorry for causing the public’s concern so far and I wish for the people’s health and for the success of the Park Geun-hye government,” he added.
But a few hours later, the Prime Minister’s Office said Chin’s resignation was turned down, as his role is important in the ongoing regular parliamentary session and key pending issues, including the budget proposal for next year.
“I hope Minister Chin fulfills his duty until the regular parliamentary session is completed,” Chung was quoted as saying.
The presidential office said later in the afternoon that the prime minister’s decision was made after discussing the matter with the president.
Park requested her Cabinet members during a meeting on Thursday to have a sense of responsibility for their work in an apparent gesture to convince Chin to maintain his post.
Political pundits said the back-and-forth over Chin’s resignation will become another target for the opposition party determined to escalate its fight against the ruling camp.
“It seems Chin offered to resign in a show of responsibility, but the government urged him to stay on in the consideration that his intention was enough of a gesture, and also considering the difficulty the Park administration has always faced in making new personnel choices,” said professor Yun Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University.
“For the DP, it is determined to use all means possible to turn the situation as their protest so far has failed to bring down Park‘s approval ratings.”
The DP lambasted Chin’s offer to resign, saying the government was attempting to water down the controversy with no one in the administration taking responsibility.
Chin’s resignation email came shortly before Park apologized for the second time for cutting the scale of her new basic pension plan.
Park, at a luncheon inviting select senior citizens from across the country on the occasion of the annual Day of the Elderly, once again offered her explanation to the decision behind the downsizing of her original pledge to benefit all seniors aged 65 and older with 200,000 won a month in basic pension. Citing budgetary pressure and a slowing economy, Park excluded the top 30 percent of seniors in terms of income from the basic pension plan, breaking her election promise of offering the monthly allowance of 200,000 won to all Korean nationals aged 65 and over.
“It is with a heavy heart and apologies when I say we could not but adjust the plan,” Park said.
The health minister had been rumored to step down since Sunday while he was on a business trip to Saudi Arabia.
Upon returning Wednesday, the minister denied reports of him leaving office over the government’s scaled-down pension plan and called it “misinterpreted.”
The three-term lawmaker has been assisting Park since her presidential campaign and was the deputy chief of the transition committee.
For last six months, the politician-turned-minister has been leading Park’s ambitious welfare drive aimed at strengthening the nation’s social safety net. But he was left to face growing criticism from the public and the opposition party as the government struggled to secure funds to operate a series of expensive welfare programs and ended up reducing the scale of benefits instead.
Chin said earlier that he felt “helpless” and like he was “reaching the limit” as health minister.
“There are many other things I want to do, but there was nothing the Welfare Ministry could do about the budgetary decision by the Finance Ministry and the personnel decision by the Public Administration Ministry,” he said earlier this week.
By Cho Chung-un