By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Nov. 18 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye said Monday she will "respect and accept" whatever agreement the rival parties make, leaving open the possibility of accepting an independent counsel probe into the alleged state tampering in last year's presidential race.
Park made the remark during her first budget speech at the National Assembly that was watched closely to see whether she would state her position on the opposition's demand for a special prosecutor investigation into the election scandal.
"At the center of politics is the National Assembly," she said during a nationally televised address. "Should the ruling and opposition parties find an agreement ... on whatever issues, including the ones the opposition party has recently been raising, I will respect and accept it."
Though Park made no direct mention of an independent counsel probe, the remark was seen as a hint that she could accept it as long as the rival parties agree to it. Still, chances of Park's ruling Saenuri Party accepting the opposition's demand do not appear high.
The scandal, which began nearly a year ago, centers on allegations that state agencies, including the National Intelligence Service (NIS), attempted to influence the tight presidential race with online political postings in favor of Park.
The case drew traction last month as fresh allegations emerged that the alleged state meddling was much more extensive than originally thought. Denouncing last year's vote as an illegitimate election, the opposition Democratic Party (DP) has been boycotting some of the parliamentary proceedings.
Park has categorically denied any link to the scandal, saying she neither had any knowledge of the agency's alleged wrongdoing nor did she benefit from it. The spy agency has also claimed the online activity was part of its routine anti-North Korea psychological warfare.
"As president, I consider it very unfortunate that confrontation and rows continue nearly one year after the presidential election," she said. "The government will uncover the truth about the issues of national suspicions at an early date and take due measures, if necessary, as soon as a judiciary judgment comes."
Later in the day, the Saenuri Party decided to accept the DP's another persistent demand to set up a special committee on reforming the spy agency during its emergency leadership meeting.
The ruling party, however, reaffirmed its refusal to the opposition's demand for an independent counsel probe into the election scandal, citing the prosecution's ongoing probe into the case.
On the offered olive branch, the opposition party insisted the Saenuri Party accept its demands for a special probe as well.
Rep. Kim Kwan-young, a senior DP spokesman, said, "Saenuri's accommodation of our demand for a special panel is a move forward, but there should be a discussion about the special investigation, too."
Park also pledged to firm up discipline among public officials to make sure there will be no suspicions of election meddling. She also said the government will submit a proposal to reform the spy agency to the National Assembly soon.
Opposition party chief Kim Han-gil denounced Park's address as "lukewarm."
"A lot has been said, but there has been no answer," Kim told Yonhap News Agency after the end of the speech. "We cannot cook rice with lukewarm water."
Right after the speech, opposition lawmakers rallied in front of the National Assembly building, demanding Park state a clearer position on the scandal and pledge to file parliamentary motions calling for the dismissal of the justice minister, the spy agency chief and other officials they accuse of committing wrongdoing in the scandal.
The ruling party welcomed the speech, saying it sufficiently addressed the opposition's demands.
Upon arrival at the National Assembly, Park entered the main building past a group of five lawmakers holding signs above their shaved heads in protest of the government's filing of a petition calling for the dismantlement of their minor opposition Unified Progressive Party.
The petition came after some of the UPP members, including Rep. Lee Seok-ki, were arrested and indicted on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in a scheme suspected of links to North Korea. The party denounces the move as political oppression.
The protesters attended the speech, wearing masks with "democracy" written on them.
Many lawmakers from both the ruling Saenuri and the main opposition Democratic parties rose to greet Park as she entered the main National Assembly hall and walked down the aisle to the podium. Most ruling party members and some opposition lawmakers applauded.
During the speech, Saenuri members clapped many times while opposition members remained silent.
After the speech, a minor scuffle broke out between a group of five or six opposition lawmakers and presidential security staff as the lawmakers demanded presidential vehicles parked in front of the main National Assembly building leave to make room for the opposition party to hold a rally.
After the presidential bodyguards asked the lawmakers for more time, Rep. Kang Gi-jung kicked one of the parked vehicles, prompting a security officer to grab the back of Kang's neck. That led to a shouting and shoving match where Kang hit the officer on the mouth with the back of his head and inflicted an injury that required stitches, according to the Presidential Security Service.
The office said it is considering taking legal action against Kang.
The rest of the address was devoted to pushing the National Assembly to pass a string of economic revitalization bills pending amid the political standoff, stressing Asia's fourth-largest economy is showing signs of recovery, but that the momentum will be lost unless those bills are passed.
"We have only rekindled embers (of recovery). It is very important to keep this momentum alive," she said.
The government submitted a 357.7 trillion won (US$336 billion) budget for next year, up 4.6 percent from this year. Park said the government put the biggest focus of the budget on jump-starting the economy and creating jobs.
"Unless these bills are passed at a proper time, our economy, which is showing signs of recovery, may plunge again into the swamp of recession," she said. "I earnestly ask for your cooperation in getting these bills passed through during the current parliamentary session."
Park also pledged to clean up deep-rooted corruption at public firms and agencies while ensuring no taxpayer money is wasted at those agencies. She also said she will disclose all management information at public firms so that such agencies will reform themselves.
On North Korea, Park said she will patiently seek to build trust and improve relations with Pyongyang. She held out the prospect of expanding economic cooperation with the impoverished communist nation if progress is made in the trust-building drive and efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff.
"I hope North Korea will keep its promises to the international community and step forward for dialogue and cooperation," she said. "In that case, we can link Eurasian railways and open up the Sik Road Express that starts from Busan and runs through to Europe via Russia, China and Central Asia."
Park's address marked the fourth time for a president to make a budget speech in person after former Presidents Roh Tae-woo in 1988, Roh Moo-hyun in 2003 and Lee Myung-bak in 2008. In other cases, the presidents have had their prime ministers read addresses on their behalf.
<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>