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[Editorial] Yoon-Lee meeting

Yoon, Lee will be able to find common ground if their top priority is nation's future

By Korea Herald

Published : April 26, 2024 - 05:30

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The presidential office and the Democratic Party of Korea are having difficulties agreeing on the agenda for the first-ever meeting between President Yoon Suk Yeol and the main opposition party's leader Lee Jae-myung.

The two sides held their second working-level meeting on Thursday, but the presidential office did not provide any specific feedback on suggestions the Democratic Party had made Tuesday, according to Lee's aide.

The presidential office proposed that Yoon and Lee meet at the nearest possible date without limits to what they will talk about, and seek to find solutions to the issues raised after the meeting, Yoon's senior secretary for political affairs told reporters.

The Democratic Party reportedly suggested implementing Lee’s campaign pledge to offer 250,000 won ($180) to every South Korean and passing a special counsel bill to investigate the presidential office’s alleged interference in a probe into Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun‘s death. The Democratic Party also demanded that Yoon apologize for repeatedly exercising his veto on bills that it sought to pass.

But why should Yoon apologize for exercising his legal right to veto or ask the parliament to reconsider problematic bills that he thinks should not be enacted?

Choo Mi-ae, who was elected in her constituency two weeks ago and is running for National Assembly speaker, said a special counsel bill to investigate first lady Kim Keon Hee should also be on the agenda at the Yoon-Lee meeting.

Hard-liners of the Democratic Party say the special counsel investigation into the Cpl. Chae case will be “unavoidable,” citing their election victory. Why? The party won a majority, but that does not mean a majority of voters support whatever special counsel bill they want to pass.

The Democratic Party and the Korean-language media refer to the Cpl. Chae case as one of suspected “external pressure,” meaning someone allegedly exerted undue influence on the probe. But the Marine Corps’ probe, led by Col. Park Jung-hoon, into why Cpl. Chae went into an overflowing stream without a life vest and was swept away by a torrent was an internal inquiry to find out what had happened before the Marine Corps handed over the case to police.

Col. Park had accused eight people, including the commander of the 1st Marine Division Lim Seong-geun, of manslaughter by occupational negligence in his report to the defense minister. The defense minister signed off on the report on July 30, and the next day he changed his mind and ordered through the Marine Corps deputy commander to defer the transfer of the case to police, citing a need for legal review.

Park, who later said it was not clearly conveyed to him as the minister’s order, went ahead and transferred the case to police anyway. The ministry retrieved the report from police, did a review and reduced the number of people accused of manslaughter to two, excluding Lim. There may have been procedural problems during the process, but it is disputable whether someone exercised “undue influence” on the internal inquiry.

Some in the media have alleged that Lee ordered that the transfer to police be deferred because he got a call from the presidential office. Even if someone at Yoon’s office told him to defer it, would that construe “undue influence” considering that the president is above the minister? A special counsel investigation into the Cpl. Chae case may be necessary to clarify that, if the lawmakers think it truly is of paramount importance. The ruling party would have no reason to block it other than that a special counsel probe is costly and can overshadow other important policy issues.

It is also highly questionable whether Lee Jae-myung’s 13 trillion-won plan to have the government hand out 250,000 won to every South Korean would actually help amid the high prices of basic food items. To enact the plan, the government would need to issue an additional 13 trillion won of bonds, which would put upward pressure on interest rates. This would increase the financial burden for people who are already suffering from high borrowing rates. The Democratic Party should think twice about this idea. Giving 250,000 won to everyone could make one happy for a day, but that would be it.

The most pressing issues Yoon and Lee should work on now are the prolonged strike by trainee doctors and passing the pension reform bill next month. The presidential office and the majority-controlling opposition party must cooperate to revise the national pension plan to make it sustainable in the long run.

Since it will be very hard to agree on the agenda due to the two sides‘ sizable differences, Yoon and Lee should just meet and see what they can do as the country’s two most powerful men. As long as both of them have the nation's future as their top priority, they will be able to find common ground.