Resolute Steps to Avoid the Storm

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Resolute Steps to Avoid the Storm

To Avoid a Repeat of 1997, President Kim Dae-jung Must End the Spoils System.

Korea''s current state of politics reminds one of the lyrics to the blues song, "Stormy Monday." The song begins with the lyrics, "They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday''s just as bad."

Koreans thought it had been a stormy Sunday for the nation''s politics, economy and society, but Tuesday is proving to be just as bad. They thought that the financial crisis that began in late 1997 near the end of Kim Young-sam term signaled the stormiest Monday. They also believed the current Kim Dae-jung administration was going to overcome the financial crisis and a bright day would dawn on Tuesday. Unfortunately, Tuesday turned out to be just as bad as Monday - with the nation beset with one crisis after another. That Mr. Kim received the Nobel Prize provides us with little comfort in this storm.

What''s more, the latest storm is proving to be even worse, with no visible escape from the torrential downpours. In 1997, the people joined together to blow the storm clouds away, donating gold to help the nation raise much-need foreign currency.

The nation is in a state of emergency today, scrambling to find a way out of the gathering storm. To date, the government has devised policy-level prescriptions to weather the storm. It is raising public funds to resuscitate ailing companies. It is now time for the president to take decisive, resolute action to ensure that the nation comes through the most recent crises.

But what, if any, effect can the president have now that his administration has alienated the public? As results of recent public polls show, more than two thirds of Koreans are no longer willing to pitch in to avert a national crisis. They no longer have confidence in the administration, the market or the president. Mr. Kim made countless pledges to the people, many of which he broke, seemingly without qualms. The people do not know how much of what Mr. Kim says can be trusted. This is why any moves Mr. Kim makes now have to focus on restoring public confidence in his rule.

A shortcut to recovering public confidence is to do away with the spoils system, also known as the patronage system - the practice of handing out appointments to loyal members of the ruling party. In a way, it is impossible to totally eradicate the spoils system in partisan politics, since the talented followers of Mr. Kim could inject new life and creativity into the rigid bureaucracy. But the abuses of the spoils system in Korea has now been shown to be too wasteful and corrupt.

It was this practice of rewarding loyal supporters of the president and ruling party members with government appointments that had alienated the public from the Kim Young-sam administration, and which ultimately brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy. It is for the same reason that the Kim Dae-jung administration is now contributing to the nation''s economic collapse.

The origin of the spoils system can be traced to implementing politics that allow the leader''s loyal supporters to monopolize the administration of state affairs. The essence of such politics lies in the followers giving precedence to loyalty to their boss over the good of the nation. In some ways, it is a byproduct of Koreans'' value system which attaches greatest importance to hierarchical structure and loyalties to their personal connections like university classmates and co-workers.

Korean society awards those who champion the interest of their immediate groups and leaders, but not those trying to promote the interest of the public or the nation. This is one of the reasons why regionalism is endemic, and such a heavy weight is given to all kinds of personal and school connections.

To Koreans, democratization meant getting rid of an oppressive political system and doing away with the antiquated social values and politics which have been dominated by a group of loyalist followers. Previous administration, however, justified the anachronistic system of allowing its loyal supporters free rein in running the nation in the name of reforms, and the current administration reinforced the system for the goal of breaking down the resistance of established forces.

As a result, the slogans espousing democratic ideals, the free market economy and rule of law were abandoned in the interests of the leader''s loyal followers.

Ordinary citizens were the losers as a result of market competition and driven out of their jobs, but the leader''s cronies, even the politicians rejected by the voters, were given government positions. This led to the birth of a community ruled by the leader''s followers, who monopolized its political, bureaucratic, financial, and information sectors. The end result was systematic corruption on a massive-scale.

Mr. Kim is now at the crossroads of making perhaps the most important decisions of his presidency. His party might break apart if he decides to cast out his loyal followers, but the nation will be jeopardized if he fails to banish them. He has to make the right choice, if only for the sake of ensuring responsible politics by his successors.

The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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