[Outlook]If it walks like a duck and quacks...‘Public servants are working hard, so there seems to be no lame-duck symptoms happening inside the government.”
This is what President Roh said in wrapping up a Cabinet meeting that he presided over in May. He seemed to feel uncomfortable that there were a lot of tasks that he had started but still not finished. He perhaps felt pressure that his term is nearing its end, so he said, “I’m losing energy and motivation because my term is nearing its end in the single-term presidency.”
He felt sad that a Constitutional revision for a two-term presidency fell through, and he felt bitter that the political circle did not help him to push forward the revision. The president said hard-working public servants actually assisted him in having fewer difficulties at the last phase of the single-term presidency, and he concluded that there was no lame-duck phenomenon inside the government.
But is it really like that? Even if we agree that a single-term presidency has some problems, can we agree with the president’s evaluation without hesitation? Perhaps not, if we look at a series of incidents that occurred last week.
On Thursday, the parents who took part in a fire drill at an elementary school in Seoul fell from an aerial ladder and died, while all the students were watching. The cause was that the fire station which organized the drill had failed to give safety instructions and had not checked the equipment thoroughly. We cannot say that the government is not responsible for the accident. In a sense, the government was the offender.
Elsewhere, some people made a gas fire and cooked at an event held inside the area of a royal tomb. What’s shocking is that the head of the Culture Heritage Administration, whose duty it is to protect and preserve precious Korean cultural assets, was on the scene and overlooked it.
Another scandal involved the government-appointed auditors’ excursion to South America. Under the pretext of holding seminars on “reform,” a key slogan of this administration, 21 auditors left for South America. But the itinerary included sightseeing, such as a tour to the Iguazu Falls. As the negative aspects of the trip were reported, there arose harsh criticism from society. So the auditors cut short the schedule and hurried home. The public was enraged by the fact that the auditors received 8 million won ($8,500) in government funds. And the government did not stop the excursion, which has nothing to do with reform by any standard. It was nothing but a moral hazard for the auditors and a neglect of duty by the government.
Most of the auditors are former politicians who made a contribution to the Roh presidential campaign, or ran in variety of elections as candidates of the ruling party.
Goh Jae-bang, a professor at Gwangju University, used to serve as a presidential secretary and was the assistant vice education minister in the Kim Dae-jung administration. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo six months ago, he said the lame-duck mindset begins with the inner circle of government officials.
As a close aide to the president, he experienced the physiology of power vividly. He pointed out that the signs of a lame duck first appear when government positions are reshuffled.
When the administration’s term is nearing the end, government officials fight over the positions that guarantee tenure, rather than the positions that can exercise power. That is because that they can have better chances to keep their jobs even after the new administration enters office. Thus, people from the political circle are busy using their networking with the power group to obtain a position at government agencies or state-run corporations that can guarantee a certain period of tenure. One of the most attractive jobs is auditor, because the position has relatively little responsibility but pays well. Even high-ranking government officials prefer moving to state-run corporations or overseas service. I do not mean that all civil servants do not work hard because the administration’s term is ending. But the dark side that Professor Goh witnessed in the last administration is seeming to repeat itself in this administration.
This year, many high-ranking government officials left the administration for state-run corporations or government agencies. Most of the auditors who went on the trip to South America had gone through fierce competition last year to get their present positions. The problem is that the lame- duck phenomenon falls on the people in the end. The Blue House revealed its plan to investigate the auditors’ trip on Thursday, following the swing of the pendulum.
Does the president still believe that there is no lame duck inside the administration?
*The writer is the senior editor on the business desk at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Sohn Byong-soo