[OUTLOOK]Foreign Ministry lacking skills

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[OUTLOOK]Foreign Ministry lacking skills

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has come under fire again due to the incident of Choi Wook-il, a South Korean fisherman who was abducted by North Korea decades ago. The fisherman escaped from the communist country 31 years after his abduction and, on his way home, asked for help from an employee at the South Korean consulat in Shenyang, China. Instead of providing help, the consular employee confronted him, asking how he got his cell phone number, and hung up. Enraged South Koreans complained that a civil servant who is paid with taxpayer money cannot do that.
The ministry has come up with many plans to repair its damaged reputation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade posted an apology on its Web site and said will intensify its employees’ education program on good service and that the employees’ attendance on the public will be reflected in their evaluations.
The ministry also revealed its plan to make an educational film on how to answer calls from the public and distribute it to all legations. All employees, including the chief of a legation, will watch the film every morning before offering service to the public. This is pathetic. These measures are made in haste and are not good enough to resolve the problems.
Civil servants are supposed to work for the country and the people. This applies to diplomats also. But it seems that some employees at the Foreign Ministry still have the old idea that they are a group of elites who are way above stupid ordinary people. How an employee at the ministry could have been that rude and irresponsible cannot be explained otherwise. Mere education on how to answer phone calls cannot resolve such a problem. The problem is not how the employees answer the phone, but how they think of themselves and others.
A long time ago, employees at the Foreign Ministry were regarded as privileged as they had lived abroad, spoke foreign languages and knew much about foreign countries, unlike ordinary people. But these days, 10 million Koreans travel overseas each year. There are many people who speak foreign languages more fluently than the employees at the Foreign Ministry. Most people know what is going on outside the country. Staff members at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have an old-fashioned perception, while that of ordinary people has improved drastically.
Even without the incident with Mr. Choi, the Foreign Ministry was under fire for other reasons. The ministry has constantly been under criticism since this administration entered office. Some 40 diplomats had to resign because of a restructuring of the ministry. A person from another ministry became the vice minister. Before the ministry complains that it is unjustly treated, it should think hard about what caused the current situation.
In 2005, in a government evaluation of 22 government bodies, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was last on the list. There are no major achievements for the ministry. North Korea’s nuclear issue has not been resolved. Diplomacy toward the United States is not going smoothly.
The ministry should stop blaming the Blue House but instead should think seriously about its capabilities and performance. If the ministry insists that producing the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, was its achievement, that is the same as insisting that good luck is part of its capabilities.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will join a new system in which some seniority will break down among high government officials. The workers of the foreign ministry claim that the new system ignores the uniqueness and professionalism of diplomats, but few agree with them because the level of people outside the ministry has advanced a great deal while workers at the ministry have remained at the same level. It is hard to acknowledge this as professionalism and uniqueness.
The ministry should present methods to enhance its capabilities. For instance, the United States is also changing how it employs its diplomats. In the past, written tests and interviews were important, but in the new system, capabilities have become more important. Our current national exams to hire diplomats are mainly written tests, so it is hard to employ people who have professional skills, knowledge and a sense of duty.
The methods to hire diplomats should be changed and then training should be intensified. Newly employed people should feel a strong sense of duty as civil servants. Malpractice and corruption among diplomats should disappear entirely.
There is no other country where diplomats are given such prestige and look down on people. Our foreign ministry has a long way to go.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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