[VIEWPOINT]Personnel rules are always changing

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[VIEWPOINT]Personnel rules are always changing

A director general of the Ministry of Finance and Economy was to be promoted to grade 1 early last month. The ministry even circulated an embargoed press release announcing his promotion. But he failed to pass the screening done by the Blue House. The reason? A record of drunken driving.
Since the Roh Moo-hyun administration came into power, a not-so-small number of civil servants have been hurt by a record of drunken driving.
The precedent set by Kim Sook, a former director-general of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who failed to get a promotion at the end of last year, is well-known. I am using his name here because his case was widely reported in the press at the time. Mr. Kim was to be promoted to the position of head of the office of strategy and coordination of the National Security Council. That post is presently called the presidential secretary for security policy affairs.
But he failed to pass the final Blue House screening.
Including the one committed a couple of decades ago, it was revealed that he had driven drunk twice in the past.
I have no idea whether there have been any other precedents in previous administrations in which a drunken driving record was taken into consideration when a civil servant was being promoted.
Anyway, the Roh Moo-hyun administration has made it a principle that driving drunk is a negative.
The rule is that if a civil servant has been convicted of drunken driving twice, then he should miss one chance at a promotion. One drunken driving conviction with a low level of alcohol concentration will be overlooked.
But even if there was only one violation, if the alcohol concentration level was high, someone was injured or the driver tried to cover up his identity as a civil servant, the violator is supposed to be punished in his job. Many might think it is not right to penalize a civil servant’s career for getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
It seems, however, that the Blue House considers drunken driving to be an ethical matter which civil servants should not violate.
It is quite like the Roh Moo-hyun administration to say that driving under the influence of alcohol is an act of breaking the law and that a violation of the law by a civil servant should not be overlooked.
Except drunken driving, however, what other standards are applied in the appointments of high-ranking civil servants?
According to the Blue House, there is a quite-lengthy paper with tens of pages that describes in detail the standards applicable to the personnel affairs of civil servants, including the military duty of civil servants’ children, real estate speculation, records of registering one’s residence at a false address and involvement in a controversy over litigation.
I could understand what irregularities involved in the military duty of civil servants’ offspring and records of false resident registration mean, but I was curious to know about the real estate speculation guidelines.
I was told that the typical case involved buying the right to own an apartment that would be built under a redevelopment plan or a rebuilding project in a neighborhood, even though one already owned a house in the nearby area.
Lee Byung-wan, the Blue House chief of staff and Lee Baek-man, former senior presidential secretary for public relations, did not violate this standard because they bought the right to own apartments in the Gangnam area from building companies, not from residents of the place being redeveloped or rebuilt.
I was told that young staff members of the office in the Blue House that deals with disciplinary affairs of civil servants under the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs make a decision after discussing and thoroughly investigating the candidates for promotion according to these standards whenever there is personnel movement in the high government posts.
I was also told that even the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs can not object to their decision. That is so-called decision making through a system.
In that sense, it can be said that the present government is equipped with a perfect system, more complete than those of previous governments, for sorting out civil servants with problems.
It occurs to me that the present government inspects, in its own way, the ethical aspects of civil servants quite thoroughly, although I have no idea whether it does the same on their ability.
However, I got confused when I watched the confirmation hearing of Lee Jae-joung, the minister-designate for unification affairs, which was held Friday at the National Assembly.
Mr. Lee was arrested in 2004 on charges of violating the political fund law during the presidential election in 2002 and sentenced to pay a penalty. Personally he might feel that he was mistreated, but he was punished, anyway, for violating the standard of “clean politics” pursued by the current government.
It was not only Mr. Lee. Lee Sang-soo, who was appointed to the post of labor minister in January this year, was sentenced to prison, a heavier penalty than on Lee Jae-joung, for being involved in illegal activities during the last presidential election.
The government, however, pardoned him and reinstated his rights last year on Liberation Day. He was allowed to resume political activities.
Lee Jae-joung was excluded from the list of amnesty granted to politicians last year because the penalty he paid was relatively low level and did not restrict his political activities. So, there was no legal problem in appointing the two as cabinet ministers.
Drunken driving is illegal, but it cannot be a legal hindrance for civil servants’ promotion, either. Maybe, there is no one who will say that drunken driving is a more serious crime than violation of the political fund law.
Even if the government makes an excuse that the political fund law violations committed by Lee Sang-soo and Lee Jae-joung were done before the inauguration of the current government, it goes against the principle of equity of penalizing drunken driving that happened more than 10 years ago. Moreover, drunken drivers were all given amnesty in 2002 to commemorate the South Korean soccer team’s success in the World Cup semifinals.
In that sense, the standard of personnel affairs of the present government changes every time, according to the person and the post. The so-called personnel affairs system, which the current government boasts of, doesn’t seem to work in the case of the appointment of cabinet ministers and the promotions of people friendly to the ruling camp. In other words, the strict standards that the government argues that it applies to civil servants, the objects of reform, are not applicable to those that belong to the ruling camp.
Isn’t this double standard one of the reasons for a lot of the criticism against the personnel affairs of this government?

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Se-jung
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