[VIEWPOINT]Cabinet Musical Chairs Hurts Us Badly

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[VIEWPOINT]Cabinet Musical Chairs Hurts Us Badly

On Sept. 20, the revolving door spun again at the office of the minister of culture and tourism. The ministry has overall responsibility for cultural administration for 47 million persons. About 2,000 staff members work at the ministry, which has an annual budget of about 1.05 trillion won ($800 million). Imagine a company whose top management is changed every year; it would certainly be doomed to fail.

We can see that the whole world is now mired in a "cultural war." In a deep swamp of Western cultural colonialism, pragmatism and new trends of culture in a super-speed age, our small country has now seen its fourth culture minister in less than four years.

A staff member at the culture ministry tried to play down the situation, saying that his ministry is not that bad a case compared with other ministries. But many people, with good reason, say that the frequent replacement of ministers is among the chronic ills of Korean politics. They also argue that the practice demonstrates how underdeveloped Korean politics is.

In general, male ministers have stepped down for being involved in corruption cases or for accumulating wealth through illegal means. They deserve to be fired and punished. Female ministers, they seem to have been fired for "inappropriate" words or behavior. One was fired for using "unsuitable" words at a commencement ceremony of the Korea Military Academy, another for being too apt to cry and keeping her hands in her pockets at formal occasions. The third was sacked for receiving a contribution, just once, which was modest in amount compared with the mammoth scandals these days. There also was a case in which a female minister was forced to leave her office one month after her appointment following an outburst of skepticism about her qualifications after she failed to win the affection of news reporters.

After these ministers leave office, they are often rewarded with high posts in public corporations. Some intellectuals even argue that ministers are frequently replaced on purpose; a ministerial job is a prestigious position, and there are many followers a president has to take care of during his tenure. Thus, presidents have used appointments as tools to reward their many loyal followers.

Korean politicians have always sought to emulate their Western counterparts, but when it comes to this issue, they all seem to turn a blind eye. The situation is too serious to be dismissed as a result of immature politics.

If the terrorist attacks on New York or Washington had taken place in Korea, the opposition party would have already demanded some resignations, and persons such as the ministers of defense and transportation would have been forced to resign. The very persons who are responsible for addressing the aftermath of an incident would have disappeared, and newcomers would be left at a loss as to what to do.

Nobody has yet been sacked in the United States. A public hearing to find who should be held accountable for the disaster commenced quietly about a month after the terrorist attacks.

During the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, was under severe attack from the press. But President Clinton would not budge, and supported and protected her throughout his term. It seemed that the president, senators and congressman, the general public and especially the media recognized what is more important.

Kim Han-gill, who recently resigned as culture minister, said he left office to run for a seat in the Assembly in a by-election. He may have calculated that it would be far better to become an assemblyman, who is guaranteed four years of political life, than to remain a minister with the life expectancy of a fruit fly, especially when the president's term has only one more year to run. The ruling party, because its future is uncertain, may think it wiser to secure one more seat in the National Assembly.

The "cultural" logic has disappeared in this "political" calculation. In the next presidential election, I will cast a vote for the candidate who pledges that he will seek the Assembly's approval for his appointment of ministers and will not replace them unless it is unavoidable.


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The writer is a professor of art history at Ewha Woman's University.

by Kim Hong-nam

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