[EDITORIALS]Get to the bottom of garlic

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[EDITORIALS]Get to the bottom of garlic

The excuses voiced by public officials for what they did or did not do in the negotiations with China on the trading of garlic are getting increasingly ludicrous. We have already had a round of conflicting testimonies from officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture. Now the agriculture minister at the time and the former top presidential aide for economic affairs are claiming ignorance and trying to avoid responsibility. They make us believe that no one was responsible for a national affair, which makes us wonder how low ethics in public service can sink. The public is understandably outraged when it questions if the government is in fact operating properly.

Former Agriculture Minister Kim Sung-hoon's comments cannot be overlooked in what they reveal about the decision-making process of trade policies in government and the general attitude of public officials. Mr. Kim denied there were any discussions on the suspension of the high tariff on Chinese garlic at the three cabinet-level meetings that coincided with the 2000 negotiations. The top economic aide to the president at the time, Lee Ki-ho, also denied any knowledge, saying he was out of the loop of that information. The Foreign Ministry is not accepting Mr. Kim's claims; they have asked him, did you not put your signature on the document?

It is not inconceivable that, on crucial issues such as an agricultural market opening, there can be disagreement and friction between government agencies. But that is for the government to resolve internally. There could very well have been disagreements on the garlic issue at the time, but it is unacceptable that the officials are aggravating the situation more than a year later. Mr. Lee will also be hard-pressed to escape responsibility for checking negotiation results.

The issue cannot be left to slip by without a thorough investigation. The Board of Audit and Inspection must step in to find out whether the communications channels worked properly and whether there are other officials who are trying to evade responsibility. The investigation should be an initiative to transform the Foreign Ministry into a professional organization for trade negotiators. Only then will it be possible to ride out the imminent multilateral negotiations on the eventual opening of the rice market.
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