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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Sorry about the Jamboree debacle, gender minister tells lawmakers

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Minister of Gender Equality and Family Kim Hyun-sook looks up as she attends a plenary session of the parliamentary Special Committee on Budget and Accounts at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, Wednesday. She made her first apology for the poor management of the World Scout Jamboree. [YONHAP]
Minister of Gender Equality and Family Kim Hyun-sook looks up as she attends a plenary session of the parliamentary Special Committee on Budget and Accounts at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, Wednesday. She made her first apology for the poor management of the World Scout Jamboree. [YONHAP]

Minister of Gender Equality and Family Kim Hyun-sook made her first apology for her part in the fiasco that was the World Scout Jamboree in a National Assembly plenary session Wednesday.

Kim and other Cabinet members appeared in front of the parliamentary Special Committee on Budget and Accounts, grilled by lawmakers of rival parties over a slew of contentious issues including the mishandling of the recent Jamboree, concerns over the Fukushima wastewater release and the government’s budget for next year.

“As the gender equality and family minister and one of the co-chairs of the Saemangeum Jamboree organizing committee, I sincerely apologize to the scouts who suffered inconveniences while camping and to the parents who were worried,” Kim told lawmakers.

The 25th World Scout Jamboree held in Saemangeum, a reclaimed wetland in Buan County, North Jeolla, from Aug. 1 to 12, came under fierce local and international scrutiny over unsanitary conditions at the campsite, inadequate food and a lack of heat-reducing measures amid a nationwide heat wave.

Though the campsite situation was eventually improved through the Korean government and companies’ support to alleviate the immediate issues, the scouts had to evacuate from Saemangeum early because of a looming typhoon. They were split up to stay in accommodations across the nation for the rest of their stay, closing with a massive K-pop concert in Seoul.

Kim received flak for her ministry’s handling of the problems, and she especially came under fire after it was revealed she had stayed in more comfortable, air-conditioned accommodations during the duration of the Jamboree. This went against the prime minister’s orders for her to remain within the campsite as part of the government’s crisis management efforts alongside other ministers in charge.

This marks the first time Kim has made a direct apology for the Jamboree mismanagement issue and comes after she failed to appear for a parliamentary hearing into the Jamboree issue last Friday.

After the Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers went on a search for her, to find she hadn’t turned up, they convened the meeting alone, also without PPP members who boycotted the meeting after claiming that a witness list had not been agreed upon prior to the session.

Kim told reporters at the National Assembly later Wednesday on the Jamboree chaos, “I think the responsible parties will be revealed through an audit of the Board of Audit and Inspection.”

The PPP has blamed the previous administration and the North Jeolla provincial government for not properly preparing for the event in advance and mismanaging funds.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo ordered the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to review the Saemangeum development plan from scratch, taking into consideration the necessity and feasibility of the existing project and to increase its economic impact.

Han instructed the Land Ministry and Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency, the organization within the ministry in charge of managing and procuring investments for the Saemangeum project, to consider resetting its goals for the Saemangeum infrastructure project, according to a government official.

Han asked Land Minister Won Hee-ryong and others to “go beyond the existing plan and come up with a ‘Saemangeum big picture’ that truly boosts the North Jeolla economy,” according to this official.

There has been controversy surrounding the use of the Jamboree event as a pretext to secure funding for the Saemangeum International Airport and related social overhead capital (SOC) projects, such as ports, road and railway construction. Covering around 40,900 hectares, the Saemangeum project envisions new land and lakes, including 29,100 hectares of land and 11,800 hectares of freshwater reservoirs.

Although the project dates back more than 30 years, the Saemangeum development plan had been delayed due to various difficulties in the past but saw 6.6 trillion won in private investments during the Yoon Suk Yeol administration.

On Monday, the Finance Ministry said it will slash next year’s budget for Saemangeum infrastructure projects by nearly 80 percent, or more than 500 billion won.

This comes as the government set the total expenditure for next year at 656.9 trillion won, up 2.8 percent from the previous year and the lowest budget growth level since 2005.

However, the official said that the Saemangeum development plan periodically has been updated every five to 10 years to reflect the changing economic situation, and that the review was not because of the botched Jamboree preparations.

Lawmakers also locked horns over Japan’s release of water from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant starting last week, another issue leaving parliament divided along party lines.

Prime Minister Han told the parliamentary budget committee Wednesday that the government would consider changing the term used to refer to the water being released from Japan’s crippled Fukushima plant.

The current terminology used by the government is translated in Korean to “contaminated water,” and the term has also been consistently used in the daily government briefings on Japan’s Fukushima discharge progress.

Han said in the parliamentary hearing when asked by a PPP lawmaker to clarify the terminology, “It is not the discharge of contaminated water, but rather the discharge of the contaminated water that has been treated according to scientific standards.”

He rejected comparisons to the water release to a “nuclear bomb” explosion, calling it “completely inaccurate.”

Han added that it would be even more scientifically accurate to refer to it as “contaminated water treated through Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), as referred to by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

The PPP decided to refer to the water as “treated contaminated water,” PPP Rep. Yoo Sang-bum told reporters Wednesday, though the party’s chairman later said this was not an official change.

This came following a request from National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives to use the term “treated water” as a part of efforts to encourage local seafood consumption during a meeting with the PPP that day.

Yoo said it is also the terminology used by the IAEA, which refers to it as “treated water.”

However, PPP Chairman Kim Gi-hyeon told reporters later in the afternoon, “We are not at the stage that the party has decided on an official position,” but added, “I understand that internationally, it is also referred to as ‘treated water.'”

PPP lawmakers have in turn criticized the DP for spreading “fake news” on the Fukushima release, which it said could harm the local seafood industry.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]