[NOTEBOOK]‘My men’ aren’t always the bestRight after he was elected president, Kim Dae-jung chose Lee Hun-jai to head the government’s restructuring drive. During Mr. Kim’s days as president-elect, Mr. Lee served as the chief coordinator of an emergency economic task force. In the first half of Mr. Kim’s presidency, Mr. Lee led the restructuring process as the first Financial Supervisory Commis-sion chairman and then as minister of finance and economy.
But Mr. Lee was not one of the so-called “DJ men.” Mr. Kim’s entourage considered him affiliated with the United Liberal Democrats, the other half of the coalition government. Strictly speaking, Mr. Lee was not one of the United Liberal Democrats in the government either; he had been a strategist for Lee Hoi-chang, who contested the 1997 presidential election against Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim chose to offer a key position to an enemy commander. Mr. Kim’s cohort was not happy with the decision and spoke ill of Mr. Lee. But Mr. Kim kept Mr. Lee in the crucial posts for nearly two-and-a-half years. Why?
When Mr. Kim first learned about Mr. Lee, he was very impressed with the latter’s report on how to overcome the economic crisis. Especially, Mr. Kim paid attention to a prediction by Mr. Kim that the country would become unstable because of serious unemployment in about April 1998.
The most urgent challenge to the newly-elected Mr. Kim was the foreign currency crisis, and while that was going on, Mr. Kim could not afford to separate ally from enemy. Mr. Kim desperately needed someone who had a clever idea to cope with the crisis and did not care what side he was from. If he couldn’t find a man from his side, he was willing to pick someone from the other side if he were the man for the job.
While Mr. Lee worked for Lee Hoi-chang, he proved himself to be an expert technician in restructuring who was not politically or ideologically biased. By hiring Mr. Lee the technician, Mr. Kim was able to get through the foreign currency meltdown. If Mr. Kim had branded Mr. Lee an enemy and refused to give him a job, the crisis might have been much worse.
Even so, Mr. Kim’s personnel policy was not very fair or reasonable. Most key posts were taken by “his men.” To qualify to be a Kim Dae-jung man, one needed to have the proper regional credentials. One Korean embassy was filled with people from Jeolla from top to bottom.
Officials joked about how the “standard language” has changed. During the Kim Young-sam administration, high-ranking officials used the Busan dialect, but in the Kim Dae-jung administration, the Jeolla dialect became the choice of speech patterns.
If the officials promoted because of regional ties were competent and did their jobs well, things would have been perfect. Unfortunately, history has taught us that such personnel management is destined to fail.
If Mr. Kim chose “his men” based on regional preferences, President Roh Moo-hyun highly values his “code.” Regional background no longer guarantees a government post, but the code, or shared political outlook, has replaced the regional dialect. But the problem is that turning to a code is not the best way to place the best man in the right job. In the complex modern world, it is impossible to fill all key posts with “my men.” Each post would be filled with someone who was a little out of place.
In a structure where having the same code as the president counted the most, officials would be discouraged to speak their own opinion and go against the mainstream. Such a characteristic can unite an organization and make it powerful when fighting against an external enemy. But it is inefficient for making policy decisions and solving complex problems.
The Blue House reportedly plans to reshuffle its secretarial lineup soon. The cabinet could be reshuffled as well. We need to pay attention whether Mr. Roh’s government can free itself from a narrow-minded “my men” policy.
* The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo
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