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Park sells policies for middle class in TV forum

Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Park Geun-hye speaks in a television forum Monday evening. (National Assembly photo pool)
Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Park Geun-hye speaks in a television forum Monday evening. (National Assembly photo pool)


Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye's first televised debate late Monday focused on plans to protect the middle class which is regarded to hold the key to the Dec. 19 election.

In the solo-debate, she reiterated her pledges to reduce household debt, create jobs, reduce private education costs, cut college tuitions and fight crime.

She also expressed determination on maintaining strong national security. Some have been skeptical of her abilities in these areas as a woman without military experience.

But her performance in the 70-minute “Interview by the People” was criticized for lacking concrete plans and offering little beyond reiterating her campaign platform.

The debate was between Park and four panelists in front of an audience, and was televised live by the major broadcasters.

“I have prepared the ‘Project for People’s Happiness’ to reconstruct the economy of those in the middle-income bracket,” Park said, explaining the priority was to solve the household debt reaching 1 quadrillion won ($921.7 billion) by creating a fund.

“I will make a society where 70 percent of the people are included in the middle class.”

Sitting on a round stage surrounded by spectators and faced by the panelists, Park appeared mostly calm, and smiling when difficult questions were posed at her, but sometimes stumbled on her words.

Park faced the hardest questions from panelist Jeong Jin-hong, an editorial writer for theJoongAng Ilbo, who questioned Park’s will for political reform, citing her appointments of “old-time” politicians.

Other panelists including professors Seo Mi-ah of Dankook University, Lee Eun-joo of Seoul National University, and Hong Sung-gul of Kookmin University, concentrated their questions on her pledges on livelihood.

Members of the public in the audience also asked questions, mainly focused on her sincerity in the economic democratization drive and reducing high college tuition.

Park had faced criticism from opponents upon her release of economic democratization pledges vowing to create a “fair economy,” for excluding some of the symbolic measures such as penalizing existing circular shareholdings.

In a carefully-choreographed sequence, Park appeared at the debate hall from behind a sliding door upon introduction by host, former KBS announcer Song Ji-heon.

Dressed in a vivid red jacket with a black-grey brooch, Park spend the first 5 minutes exchanging casual conversation with Song about her career path and her cooking skills.

Park’s television forum brought about heated dispute before it even began, following the main opposition Democratic United Party’s claim, citing a news report, that the entire show was pre-scripted, down to when she would shed a tear and wipe a sweat.

Fanning doubts over how the debate was arranged, the Saenuri Party did not disclose the full list of panelists participating until the actual airing time.

The Saenuri Party angrily countered the claim, shooting it down as a ridiculous attempt to sabotage Park and warned they may take legal measures.

Park’s solo forum was arranged last week as DUP candidate Moon Jae-in and former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo set up a one-on-one television debate that aired live on Nov. 21 on the occasion of their single candidacy talks. Park’s side, which had previously refused a three-way debate citing the opposition’s pending single candidacy negotiation, demanded a separate show for a fair opportunity.

Welfare policies

The focus of the forum was welfare policy, in which she pledged to make Korea a crime-free society, enhance the country’s public education and offer better welfare benefits.

Park said she would root out the country’s four major “social evils” -- domestic violence, sexual violence, school violence and unhealthy food -- to rebuild the middle class and to help Korea become a true advanced country.

The state should be responsible for child care and support working couples facing increasing education costs, she said.

“Even though working couples work hard to make money, they can’t spare (money) for their retirement plans, but end up with spending their income on private education,“ she said.

Curbing spending on private education is a crucial way to release the financial burden from parents, she said, adding that her government would develop new textbooks to enable students to study without the assistance of private lessons.

Park plans to increase government support to provide scholarships according to students’ family income, instead of cutting tuition in half for all.

The presidential contender vowed to cut the vicious circle of poverty passing from generation to generation by creating quality jobs and offering opportunities to secure a stable income.

On the issue of job creation, Park noted a “mismatch” in the country’s labor market where employers suffer from a labor shortages while highly-educated people struggle to land decent jobs.

Park pledged to establish a database of workers who are trained to overcome their shortcomings through a state-sponsored mentoring system. Companies can capitalize on the database to address their labor shortage, she said.

Under her plan, mentors are to help job-seekers receive specialized counseling to discover and address their weaknesses.

She said the plan also envisages a fair hiring system that looks for applicants’ potential and zeal, rather than whether they have graduated from top-tier schools. All this should begin from the public sector, she said.

Economic democratization

When it came to economic policies, Park placed her focus on reducing consumer debt, circumventing the controversial issue of economic democratization.

“If I become president, my top priority task will be to solve the problem of household debt, which does not only affect individuals but also the entire state economy,” the candidate said.

As a key solution, she suggested the People’s Happiness Fund, to offer financial support to those who are unable to pay back their debt.

“The program does not require additional funding as it is to be built on the existing fund from the Credit Counseling and Recovery Service,” she explained.

“Based on this 1.8 trillion won ($1.65 billion), we may create bonds amounting to 18 trillion won.”

The corresponding money is to help out some 3 million people who suffer from excessive debt, but only those who are willing to stand on their own feet, Park added.

“Unless we suggest relief measures to these people, they will lose hope and thus become obstacles to unity,” she said.

The Saenuri Party candidate initially focused on economic democratization program aimed at weakening conglomerates’ domination and reducing the gap between the rich and poor.

Her plans, however, toned down over the past months as she disapproved of some key chaebol reform measures such as penalizing existing circular shareholdings and referring all conglomerate irregularities to a jury.

Political reform

On political reform, she reiterated her program to reduce the excessive power of political parties and the administration.

“Political reform should not be limited to the National Assembly, but also include the executive branch and the political parties,” Park said. She added that the process of reforming the parties begins with taking away the power to nominate candidates for national and provincial posts.

“For the National Assembly, taking away privileges is at the core. Measures such as forming the National Assembly ethics committee and the committee for designating electoral districts entirely with outside individuals will go a long way to eliminate crass and violent politics.”

Park went on to add that “great political impartiality” will be her principle for appointing public officials, saying that those deemed capable will be selected regardless of their party affiliation.

Under her political reform plans, the power to appoint ministers will be transferred to the prime minister, and selecting chiefs for state-run organizations will be given to the minister in charge of the relevant ministry.

The plans will also see the National Assembly members’ pension and immunity from arrest abolished, and candidates for national and provincial legislatures will be selected in open primaries conducted by all the parties simultaneously.

In addition, the plans include fining those involved in nomination scandals 30 times the bribe received, and barring them from taking public office for 20 years.

North Korea

Regarding North Korea and security issues, Park said that territory and sovereignty-related issues are not subject to negotiation, dismissing concern over a female commander in chief.

“Under any circumstance, I will thoroughly protect our territory and sovereignty,” she said.

“I have already said I would establish a security consultative body involving the Unification Ministry, Defense Ministry, the National Intelligence Service and other bodies to deal with these issues in a manner weighing various factors.”

She also cited her past visits to North Korea in 2002 and a series of other foreign countries over the last decade, saying that she is qualified to build trust with Pyongyang and maintain good external relations.

Concerning the North, Park has stressed a “flexible and balanced” approach as the current government’s strictly reciprocal policy has resulted in escalated tension with the communist state.

Park has pledged to seek dialogue and build confidence with Pyongyang under her “peninsular trust-building process,” while underscoring “comprehensive defense capabilities” to deter provocations through a robust alliance with the U.S.

To enhance bilateral communication, she has pledged to push to establish representatives’ offices in Seoul and Pyongyang. To deal with North Korean issues, she has stressed a multilateral consultation mechanism including a strategic dialogue among Seoul, Washington and Beijing.

Her other security pledges include establishing a “control tower” to handle security and diplomatic issues more consistently and effectively, and ensuring the process of retaking wartime operational control in December 2015 proceeds seamlessly.

(Additional reporting by Cho Chung-un, Choi He-suk, Song Sang-ho, Bae Hyun-jung, Shin Hyon-hee)

By Lee Joo-hee (jhl@heraldcorp.com)

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