[OUTLOOK]Current categories of cronyism

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[OUTLOOK]Current categories of cronyism

In May 2004, Jeong Chan-yong, then presidential senior secretary for personnel affairs, gave advice to the executives of public enterprises and government-affiliated organizations to “Leave on your own accord.” What Mr. Jeong was telling the executives was that there was a long line of people that the government had promised jobs and that the acting executives should move out to make room for these people.
“Parachute personnel” nomination, “cronyism” and “code personnel” are some of the terms used to describe the way this government decides who to place in executive positions in various government-affiliated organizations. If you want the job, you have to be a crony first and foremost. Competence and expertise seem to be considered options rather than requirements in deciding a person’s value in this government’s personnel policy.
Roughly speaking, there are four levels of personnel categories in this government. The first is the “competent crony” category and the second is the “incompetent crony” category. The third and fourth categories are “competent non-crony” and “incompetent non-crony.” The former vice minister for culture, Yoo Jin-ryong, who was recently dismissed, could be classified as having been in the third category.
Of course, even in profit-making businesses where competency is usually the first and foremost virtue, favoritism and personal ties influence personnel affairs to a certain extent. Compliancy is as important as competency in deciding a staff member’s value in Korean workplaces and many Korean bosses prefer compliant employees to non-compliant ones, even if they are somewhat less competent. Those who are both incompetent and non-compliant are, of course, not welcome anywhere.
From the point of view of a personnel decision-maker, competency and expertise are things that can always be outsourced. However, he or she knows that there are simply some people that he or she can trust. These people share his or her thoughts and there is a sense of camaraderie with them.
Ultimately, any personnel decision-making process cannot but be personal. Oftentimes in Korea, trust is formed because of the connections, family background, regional and school ties that a candidate holds. Personnel exams and interviews are relatively inconsequential.
In lower-ranking jobs, it is not so important whether the employee shares the same “code” as the boss, provided he or she gets the job done. However, as one climbs up in the hierarchy of an organization, things become different. It is not enough that one merely gets the job done. One needs to win the trust of one’s boss. This is the reality. It is the reality no matter which administration takes over the government. It will probably be the same in the next administration.
To be perfectly honest, favoritism in personnel policies is not an evil that was created by the Roh Moo-hyun government. It has always existed in any administration. In the past, ex-generals and colonels were given high-ranking jobs in the government and even appointed as ambassadors as well as heads of public enterprises. During the time of certain administrations, people from certain regions were given advantages over those from other regions in all sorts of government personnel policies. These decisions were always justified in one way or other but there was no denying that having connections with the president helped one’s way up in government circles.
So, the Blue House might complain, why is the Roh Moo-hyun administration being singled out as being particularly preferential in its personnel policies?
The answer is simple. This administration has stepped over the line and made the public go beyond the limits of its tolerance for such practices. To put it differently, the Roh administration has broken the delicate balance between “code” and “competency” in its personnel affairs.
Objectively speaking, the number of “parachute” candidates selected by the Roh government may not be particularly larger than in the past. However, the level of tolerance the Korean public feels toward these “parachute” personnel has become much lower. The Roh government brought this shortage of tolerance upon itself.
There is a saying, “Contentment begins in the barn.” That is, if the economy had been going well, if domestic politics and foreign affairs were stable and the president’s popularity had been higher, the public wouldn’t have been so critical of the government’s intervention in the personnel affairs of public organizations. Perhaps, the president’s cronies should consider these facts and act accordingly if they want their jobs to last long under this unpopular political power.

* The writer is the deputy head of the economics news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Yoon-ho
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