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Presidential safe house

Posted January. 31, 2013 08:27,   


Beyond the fences surrounding the Bureau of Audit and Inspection in Samcheong-dong, Seoul is a path that leads to a hill. On the way up the hill, a small traditional Korean house is found covering 661 square meters of land. One might wonder why the house is on the hill, but it is a safe house belonging to the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae. Surveillance cameras are discreetly installed around the house to check movements in surrounding areas.

The safe house is not for the president but for his staff. About 15 Cheong Wa Dae officials under the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs work there, occasionally overnight. Security guards and a ping pong table are in a separate building that looks like a warehouse. The officials also use the facility when they “interrogate” nominees for high-ranking government posts. Most of the officials are from powerful government agencies such as the Board of Audit and Investigation, the Strategy and Finance Ministry, the prosecution, the National Tax Service and the Defense Security Command. Yet few people are aware of the safe house`s existence.

The main job of the Office of the Secretary to the President for Public Office Discipline is to check the backgrounds of senior high-ranking officials, including ministers and vice ministers. The office on the hill is used because of the use of personal information that must be kept confidential. The safe house keeps files on the personal records of more than 10,000 public officials, including documents showing family relations, criminal records, taxes, military service, property, drunk driving and even academic papers the officials authored. Around 15 investigators are said to need 10 days or so to check the background of a politically appointed official. Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, 452 of 16,849 people failed to pass the screening process, the first barrier before appointment to a high office. Most who failed did so because of questionable property transactions, criminal records or military service issues.

The safe house has lately remained idle because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration is nearly at the end of its term. President Lee did not use the facility five years ago because he did not trust the personnel records handed over to him by his predecessor. So the severe criticism he faced for giving key government posts to those with personal connections with him was no coincidence. President-elect Park Geun-hye is also said to be snubbing the safe house, possibly because of her notoriously strong sense of confidentiality in her personnel appointments and her distrust of the Lee administration. What would have happened had she conducted a basic background check on Kim Yong-joon, her first prime minister nominee who dropped out of the running Tuesday amid mounting suspicion over speculative land deals and draft dodging by his two sons? The hope is that the next president will use the safe house when she nominates a new prime minister and other Cabinet officials for her administration.

Editorial Writer Choi Yeong-hae (yhchoi65@donga.com)