[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Reigning in the bureaucracy

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Reigning in the bureaucracy

The current spat between the Blue House and Ministry of Foreign Affairs raises interesting questions about the boundaries between presidential appointees and the bureaucracy.
The Blue House has initiated an investigation into alleged comments by diplomats at the North American Affairs Bureau that were critical of the Roh administration’s policy toward the United States and of the qualifications of members of the appointed National Security Council. A tip-off from an unidentified official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prompted the Blue House to begin the investigation.
President Roh Moo-hyun’s stormy relations with the National Assembly have focused attention on the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. The ongoing investigation of political funding scandals has focused attention of the power of the judicial branch of government. After the executive-branch-centered Kim Dae-jung era, power has flowed to the legislative and judicial branches of government since the beginning of the Roh administration.
The marked weakening of the presidency since 2003 has made President Roh look feckless, but, in the long view, it may turn out to be a good thing. For a democracy to function well, leaders must always be accountable to those who elected them. Accountability comes from a system of checks and balances of political power. The greater the number of checks, the less chance politicians will risk abusing power. In 2003, the legislative and judicial branches of government gained enough confidence to function as checks on presidential power for the first time in Korean history.
Too many checks, however, can pin a leader down, making it impossible to provide leadership when needed. In the United States, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both won re-election by large margins, but faced a hostile Congress under control of the opposition party. Scandals aside, their second terms ended with few, if any, significant accomplishments. The ability to work with Congress and provide leadership are closely linked. History shows that, in most cases, historians give high marks to presidents with substantial legislative accomplishments.
In the Korean system, the bureaucracy belongs to the executive branch because the heads of the various ministries and agencies are appointed by the president. Civil service bureaucrats are not policy makers, but policy implementers. They are responsible for executing the policies that are developed by the president and his appointees. As bureaucrats, they must remain loyal to the policies developed by the governing administration.
A recalcitrant bureaucracy can have a stifling influence on policy making. The problem is particularly serious in Japan, where the inherently conservative bureaucracy resists change and thwarts the best intentions of reform-minded politicians. Many observers of Japanese politics blame the bureaucracy for hindering efforts at economic reform after the bubble burst in the early 1990s. The result, they argue, has been more than 10 years of unnecessary stagnation.
None of this means that the bureaucracy should rubber stamp everything the president wants to do. A professional bureaucracy must provide policy makers with dispassionate advice and information so that realistic policy choices can be developed and implemented. In this way, the bureaucracy plays an important role in checking the idealistic and overly ambitious plans of politicians. The process of filtering and organizing information implies debate and disagreement, but such discussions are state secrets and should remain so. Individual bureaucrats may passionately oppose official policy, but they are duty bound to support it publicly as long as they hold their positions.
Foreign affairs is a world of stiff upper lips. Emotions and exaggerations can lead to unforeseen misunderstandings within the government and between governments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should provide the president with dispassionate advice on how to deal with the United States effectively, but it must leave it up to the president to follow the advice or not. If the president’s rejection of sound advice damages relations between the two nations, the administration and political leaders will ultimately take the responsibility. In such situations, the professionalism of the diplomats on both sides can smooth out the rough edges created by politicians.
With less than a year in office, the Roh presidency has become an experiment in power diffusion. Instead of grabbing the reigns of power tightly as his predecessors did, President Roh has let go of power, allowing it to shift to the legislative and judicial branches. Giving away power has weakened his ability to lead, but it will strengthen democracy by making politicians more accountable to the people and the law over the long term. Seen in this light, reigning in the power of the bureaucracy is an important part of the effort toward greater political accountability.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.


by Robert J. Fouser
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