[VIEWPOINT]Whose interests are being served?There is a new trend in the Roh Moo-hyun government. Cabinet ministers take sides with civic groups or issues that stand for the names of their ministry. When different interest groups confront each other over an issue, the ministries concerned fight against each other fiercely.
Typical is the confrontation between the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry over the Saemangeum wetland reclamation project. Over the Korea-Chile Free Trade Agreement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is at loggerheads with the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism confronts the Ministry of Finance and Economy over the “screen-quota system” at local cinemas that reserves 106 days a year on every screen for Korean movies.
It seems that the government branches are waging proxy wars for the interest groups that profess the cause of each ministry. In some cases, these wars are led by a minister who hails from the interest group championing the ministry’s causes.
Culture and Tourism Minister Lee Chang-dong spearheads the move to protect the screen quota. He is a former film director. He was appointed to the post in recognition of his active role in reviving the Korean film industry and leading the campaign against abolishing the screen quota.
It seems that a review of the quota system is inevitable, because the government is under pressure from the United States to open the nation’s movie and broadcasting markets. The Ministry of Finance and Economy calls for gradual abolition of the system in order to promote trade with the United States. The ministry has been complaining that the system is a major obstacle in negotiations on a treaty that will lure about $3.2 billion in foreign direct investment to Korea.
Mr. Lee scorns the treaty. “The assertion that the treaty will lure $3.2 billion in foreign investment is not well grounded,” he said. “Even the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Agenda on the service sector excludes culture from its negotiations. It is absurd that the U.S.-Korea bilateral investment treaty should make it a precondition to abolish the screen-quota system.
“The screen quota,” he continued, “is not just an issue for the film industry; it is vital to the future of our visual media industry as a whole. If we lower our guard on film, then the rest of the market is lost.”
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde when he was attending the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mr. Lee said, “American movies are like dinosaurs in the jungle. I have no plans to make any change to the screen-quota system.”
Whether Mr. Lee is aware of it or not, what he said in defense of the Korean film market is the same logic he used when he was a film director. These were the same points he used to make as a leader of the campaign to defend the screen-quota system. But the words of a cabinet minister are different from the words of a film director. His words quoted above and others will be regarded as official government policy by other governments and overseas film industries.
Even before intra-government consultations and policy coordination with the Ministry of Finance and Economy and other ministries, Mr. Lee declared that the Korean government would make no concessions on the current screen quota. He has made his supporters, people in the film industry, happy and urged them to be vigilant against the Finance Ministry’s effort to change the current quota. But as national policy, the screen quota cannot be solved in this way.
There are ethical codes and regulations designed to prevent conflicts of interest arising from interchange between the private sector and public office. The most typical is barring retired public officials from taking jobs in related fields for a certain period of time after they leave government. Serious problems can arise when an individual moves from the private sector to a policy job in government.
The minister for information and communication, Chin Dae-je, acquired stock options from Samsung Electronics Co. when he worked for the company. Civic groups claim that a conflict of interest may arise because Mr. Chin’s decisions can influence Samsung Electronics’ share price.
The culture minister has to be aware that his taking sides with the film industry may raise questions about conflicts of interest, since his own films will also be protected by the quota system.
Aside from conflicts involving a person’s commercial interests, the trend of cabinet members defending the agendas of the groups they came from raises a further question of whether the ministers are loyal to the government they serve or are using their official positions to promote the interests of the groups they once belonged to.
* The writer is opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo