[VIEWPOINT]Placing ‘code’ over competencyThe Ministry of Labor and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions announced in March 1991 that they would promote the establishment of a labor bank. This was something the Federation of Korean Trade Unions had badly wanted since the mid-1980s and had been was one of the campaign pledges of former President Roh Tae-woo.
Right after the Labor Ministry’s announcement, the Ministry of Finance ― now the Ministry of Finance and Economy ― released material for the press. It was not an official press release by the ministry, but it stated the ministry’s position: It was against the establishment of the bank.
The ministry had dared to oppose the campaign pledge of an incumbent president.
However, the Finance Ministry had to issue an official press release on “the necessity for the establishment of a labor bank” a few months later.
Finally, in November 1992, Peace Bank of Korea, the labor bank, was established. The bank became insolvent during the foreign exchange crisis in 1998, but as it was propped up by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, was able to stay in operation for two more years without going bankrupt.
In 2000, the bank was finally turned into a subsidiary of the Woori Financial Group, and the next year, it dropped its name and was swallowed up by Woori Bank.
The Peace Bank affair is a good example of how hard it is for public servants to say anything openly against the will of the president. Yet despite that, many officials these days are voicing anger over what they call “the code of the president” that is imposed on them.
What does the code of the president mean to public servants, and to what extent should they follow it?
In principle, the goal and the ideas of all public officials should be focused on “the people” and “the interests of the people.”
When the ideas of the president and those of the majority of public servants differ, it can create conflict over to what extent the officials should follow the ideas of the president.
It was not an exaggeration in practice that the public servants had no worries over the disagreement of their code with that of the president till the government under former President Kim Young-sam.
For instance, during the administration of former President Chun Doo Hwan, the presidential senior secretary for economic affairs, Kim Jae-ik, might have agonized over the question of whether to cooperate with a military dictatorship. But as officials, they exerted all their effort for the common goal of economic development.
At most, there were small confrontations over whether to prioritize growth or stability, and when those in power demanded an economic policy fit to their political interests.
Under former President Kim Dae-jung, the first opposition member to come to power democratically, it was highly likely that the problem of discord in the “code” would arise. But there was no room for a conflict because the whole country was concentrating on recovering from the foreign exchange crisis.
In the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the situation seems to have changed greatly.
It seems that public servants have serious doubts about the government’s policies.
Some officials complain that it is hard for them to work because they do not share the same code as the people in power.
When there are personnel reshuffled in the government, we hear that “someone was moved because he did not share the same ‘code’ as the Blue House.”
The real estate policy, the most controversial issue under the current administration, seems to be an example of the discord between public servants and the Blue House.
Ultimately, the Ministry of Finance and Economy and the Ministry of Construction and Transportation announced a real estate policy that can be summarized as “suppressing Gangnam’s housing prices” and “tax bombs,” but there were a lot of complaints from officials who were concerned about the policy.
It is said that there were far more radical ideas, but the officials at the economy-related ministries softened them by persistently resisting the adoption of anything seen as too radical.
It is also said that drafts produced by the economy-related ministries were ignored.
It is not known what thoughts the deputy prime minister of economy and finance and the minister of construction and transportation had in their minds, but it is said that there were many working-level officials who expressed their sense of shame over the adoption of the policies, saying it shouldn’t have happened that way.
There are also complaints from officials that they do not know whether it is right to follow the “code of the president” in policies regarding social welfare and taxes.
As another reshuffling of vice ministerial posts is around the corner, we are beginning to hear rumors of “code appointments” again.
It is said that a candidate to the position of deputy head of a government agency under an economy-related ministry, who was recommended by the head of the organization, has been rejected by the Blue House simply because he does not share the same “code” as the president.
The vice minister of another ministry is rumored to be up for replacement this time because he does not share the code of those in power.
Moreover, the reshuffling this time will be the first since the government adopted its new personnel management system, dubbed “the high-ranking public servants corps,” under which officials at the ranks of grade 2 or grade 3 can be promoted to vice-ministerial posts.
The Blue House has already announced that it will also not limit the candidates for promotion to vice-ministerial posts to grade 1 officials.
I have a hunch that more officials who hold the same “code” as the Blue House will be appointed in the vice-ministerial reshuffle this time.
High-ranking officials in the Blue House who were formerly public servants are also said to be overpowered by what is known as the “386 generation” ― the generation of 30-somethings (now mostly 40-somethings) who were born in the 1960s and attended university in 1980s, in the presidential office.
In a sense, following the code of the president is an obligation of public servants, so it is unusual for officials to openly express dissatisfaction with the ideas of the president. The degree of their dissatisfaction seems to surpass the limit that can be categorized as typical bureaucratic selfishness.
The Blue House should reflect on whether this is the result of forcing its code on officials who do not agree with it and who cannot be flexible enough to accept it.
* The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Se-jung