S. Korea president apologises for welfare rollbacks

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea President Park Geun-Hye apologised to senior citizens on Friday over the latest in a series of damaging rollbacks over welfare spending - a key plank of her election campaign.

"I am truly regretful and apologetic," Park told pensioners during a lunch meeting a day after she reneged on a campaign pledge to provide a monthly allowance of 200,000 won (S$234 ) to all senior citizens aged 65 or above.

Earlier in the day, Health Minister Chin Young had offered to step down to take responsibility for the U-turn, but the prime minister rejected his resignation.

Social welfare was a top voter issue in last year's presidential campaign, with caring for the elderly a special concern in one of the world's most rapidly-ageing societies.

Park, who became the country's first woman president, had pitched herself as the welfare choice, suggesting her unmarried status meant she could devote herself to the people's well-being.

"You, the people, are my family," she said in her final TV address before election day.

"Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become the president who takes care of the lives of each one of you." But as well as shelving the pension allowance, she has been forced to postpone another campaign pledge - to halve college tuitions - until at least 2015.

Her administration has blamed the rollbacks on slower economic growth and dwindling tax revenues.

The Finance Ministry said Thursday that Asia's fourth-largest economy would run a fiscal deficit of 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product next year.

Next year's government revenue is expected to fall 0.5 per cent from 2013, its first decline in four years, the ministry added.

The main opposition Democratic Party argued that Park's promises had been empty from the outset.

"Her government simply spouts rhetoric about the welfare of the people, while trampling on them in the meantime," party leader Kim Han-Gil told a briefing for foreign reporters.

Opinion polls shows Park's popularity has slipped in recent weeks, although she still enjoys an approval rating of around 60 per cent.