[VIEWPOINT]Cleanup is off on the wrong foot

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[VIEWPOINT]Cleanup is off on the wrong foot

At President Kim Dae-jung's traditional January press conference, he announced a variety of measures to root out corruption in public life, a problem that was highlighted by the scandals which have come to light recently.

The measures can be summarized as investigations into start-up company managers who resorted to foul play, the establishment of a special prosecutor's office and a monthly ministerial meeting on corruption. But a comprehensive overhaul of the plans will soon be necessary, because the whole plan is based on faulty assumptions.

The government will conduct a special audit of start-up firms to divide erring corporations and market raiders from genuine technology-based start-ups. The government believes that corruption among entrepreneurs has gotten worse, but it does not seem to recognize that the government-led start-up stimulus package is the main cause of the corporate raid on Seoul's coffers. Many start-ups have been more focused on forming close ties with government offices that have the authority to screen firms that wanted support, rather than concentrating their efforts on developing new technology.

The government seal of approval has meant money for the firms to promote themselves in overseas markets, and since exports are always a buzzword, that also contributed to sending share prices upward. All this gave rise to a ripe opportunity for corruption among start-up managers and led to the recent series of scandals involving high-profile figures.

But the government still has not shown that it has any inclination to step back from its habit of exercising life-and-death power over these start-ups - indeed, it intends to try to solve the problem of corruption by using more of its power, the special investigations. When power is concentrated to one place, rot sets in. The government should turn over the authority to determine the fate of business concerns to the market.

The special prosecutors office poses another problem. The Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor's Office have advocated the establishment of a special investigation office every time critics demanded prosecutorial reforms. At his traditional January press conference, the president sided with them and pledged to open such an office.

But it is certainly not clear whether the new body can conduct investigations free from the influence of the chain of command and disregarding the larger interests of the Prosecutor's Office. That is especially so when we see that the prosecutor general, whose term is guaranteed by law, can be forced to step down by political pressure. If the purpose is an independent investigation, free from political intervention, it would be better to get the anti-corruption committee to do the job.

The anti-corruption committee is drawn from the three branches of government; the terms of the members are guaranteed for three years and their independence and legal integrity are also guaranteed. The committee has the authority to investigate allegations of corruption by senior government officials, so there is no overlapping of jurisdictions among government bodies.

The most critical problem, though, is the Prosecutor's Office. That organization has the exclusive authority to indict and investigate, and that exclusive power, if left unchecked, can be more dangerous than the danger of being checked by political power. In that office, there must be checks and balances, prosecutors must be screened and the courts' right to open their own legal proceedings should be expanded to add more review of prosecutors' decisions to proceed or not with any given case.

But the government seems to have a different focus. It is concentrating its efforts on civil servants, and the anti-corruption ministerial group will meet monthly to check on how those efforts are going.

The recent series of scandals has laid bare the culpability of government bodies that are supposed to be fighting corruption, but the government is looking most closely at other bureaucrats, who are less involved in these problems. The judicial and audit bodies should not meet every month to cover up their misdeeds. They should regulate and check each other intensively so that the same old problems do not recur. It is easier to hide corruption if the number of prying eyes is small.

So creating numerous observers all over the law enforcement and audit spectrum is important in rooting out corruption in government bodies. Widely dispersed power is the best solution to ensure that there are many eyes, including those of the public, watching for trouble.


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The writer is a professor of public administration at Seoul National University.

by Kim Byong-seob

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