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[Reporter's Column] Summertime blues for Park

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Published : 2014-07-24 21:26
Updated : 2014-07-24 21:26

In recent weeks, not only officials but also journalists at Cheong Wa Dae have all been asking the same question: When will President Park Geun-hye leave for summer vacation?

It may seem like an easy question to answer. But Cheong Wa Dae has been hesitating to talk about her vacation plans this year, due to the unresolved Sewol crisis.

“We have two subjects under consideration in regard to the president’s vacation plans,” said presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook on Wednesday.

“I understand that she is contemplating the Sewol situation, a return to everyday life and the revitalization of the public’s livelihood,” he said, adding that he would take a vacation next week, from July 28 to Aug. 1. Presidential spokesmen usually go on vacation at the same time as the president.

Min’s remarks clearly indicated that Park is worried that taking a trip for her vacation could possibly give the wrong impression to the public and stimulate her political opponents. More than three months have passed after the doomed ferry sank, resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 passengers. The authorities are still struggling to find the last missing passengers. The nation is still suffering from emotional damage as well as the political and economic repercussions of the tragedy. 
President Park Geun-hye writes “Memory on Jeodo Island” in the sand near Cheong Hae Dae on Jeodo Island, South Gyeongsang Province, last summer. The photo was released on her Facebook page on July 30 last year.

On the other hand, some Cheong Wa Dae officials have reportedly suggested that she leave the presidential mansion for a day or two, in a symbolic gesture that it is time “to return to everyday life” and move on from the disaster. They believe that if the president takes a trip it will encourage many Koreans to take some time off and stimulate the nation’s economy, which was hit hard by the ferry fiasco.

Recent studies suggest that many Koreans, like Park, remain indecisive about their summer vacation this year. A recent survey showed that the proportion of Koreans who said they would take a vacation this year fell to 54.7 percent, an 8 percent decrease from last year. A majority of the respondents who had no plans this year said they couldn’t think of taking a break because they don’t have room in their mind to do so. Experts believe the tragic ferry accident may have weakened people’s desire to take time off.

With the Sewol wound remaining untreated, Park is likely to spend her five-day holiday at Cheong Wa Dae, reading books and, perhaps, setting the direction of her future state agendas.

She is also likely to minimize public exposure so she can rest and refuel.

Last year, Park had her first break as president in the last week of July. The presidential office said afterwards that she had stayed at Cheong Hae Dae, a vacation home of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, on Jeodo Island in South Gyeongsang Province. Traditionally, the destinations of presidents’ vacation trips are not made known in advance for security reasons.

Her vacation last year became the talk of the town as many wondered how a single, female president would spend her first break since being inaugurated. Several photos were released showing the president wearing sunglasses, summer dresses and sandals, with a smile reminiscent of those of her parents. The small port village was a frequent summer vacation destination for her family back in the 1960s during her father’s presidency.

In stark contrast to Park, government officials, as well as reporters at Chunchugwan, the press center at Cheong Wa Dae, have been hoping for her to take a break.

“It is the only time when we can rest, too,” said a reporter who declined to be named.

The president’s vacation exerts a great influence on public officials.

Most of the presidential secretaries and ministers in Korea usually time their vacation to coincide with the president’s. Cheong Wa Dae, for instance, becomes nearly vacant, although key aides, including the chief of staff, national security office chief and senior secretary for political affairs, continue working during Park’s absence.

So too, for those in lower offices. Competition is high among officials in ministries and agencies to take their vacation the same week as the president.

The bizarre contest reflects how the government system revolves around the elected leader and how much the public servants fear losing favor with their ultimate boss ― the president.

In light of Park’s vacation dilemma, it feels like a pity that Korean presidents’ summer vacations are not simply a matter of personal choice.

Presidents in Korea typically have a five-day vacation. But they only spend a day or two in the countryside. It is also taboo for a president to go abroad for vacation, or to play golf, which is regarded as a luxury sport here.

Past presidents including Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun often spent their vacation with their families at military resort facilities. The most popular destination before was Cheongnamdae, built by former President Chun Doo-hwan in Cheongwon, North Chungcheong Province, in 1983. The villa was frequented by presidents for relaxation or to gather their thoughts during difficult times until 2003, when Roh opened up the area to the public.

The summer vacations of Korean presidents are usually quite different from those of other world leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama said he plans to take a 16-day vacation in California in August.

The plan by the U.S. president has already made headlines around the world, with many arguing that his vacation is too long and expensive.

Before reacting scornfully to news that a leader is going on vacation, one needs to keep in mind that a summer vacation is not an abandonment of his or her duty to serve the people. A retreat helps one to act better and think better. And perhaps to have some time for a self-examination, so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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