[Viewpoint]The perils of reshuffles
There was a book that the Chinese leader Mao Zedong was said to have wished to get a chance to read once more right before his death.
It was a Chinese classic written by Mae Hong, a 12th century scholar from the Southern Song Dynasty. The book sharply analyzed and critiqued matters of history, literature, philosophy and art.
It also offered extensive advice on the appointment of talented people, with the underlying theme that one of the key tasks for a government administration is the appointment of talented people.
One such passage along these lines in the book reads: “Only those who recognize the talented will be able to manage the present.” It infers that using talented people at the right place and the right time is essential to overcoming present problems.
President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday carried out a cabinet reshuffle, replacing four cabinet ministers. Will this reshuffle be viewe as one in which talented people with the ability to overcome an unprecedented financial crisis were appointed?
Unfortunately, the reshuffle carried out in the second year of Lee Myung-bak’s administration has not broken away from the old practices that repeatedly misled previous administrations.
Reshuffles carried out in the second year of each administration in Korea, a country with a single five-year presidential term, have tended to see the president try to establish a system of direct control over state affairs.
Kim Young-sam reshuffled his cabinet after just 10 months in office. He appointed Choi Hyung-woo, his closest aide and a lawmaker, as minister of home affairs, and Public Information Vice Minister Lee Won-jong as a senior presidential secretary for political affairs.
Kim Dae-jung replaced a staggering 14 out of his total 17 cabinet ministers in May 1999. He appointed his closest aide, Park Jie-won, who was the senior presidential secretary for public affairs, as minister of culture and tourism, and made former lawmaker Han Gwang-ok his chief of staff.
Roh Moo-hyun carried out a “mosaic-style” political reshuffle in three stages in a period of 70 days after the National Assembly attempt to impeach him was foiled in 2004.
He appointed Chung Dong-young, Kim Keun-tae and Chun Jung-bae, ruling party lawmakers who were hopeful of running in the next presidential race, as cabinet ministers, in order to nurture the next generation of leaders under his command.
At the same time, Roh made the ruling party powerless by separating it from the administration.
He then strengthened his direct rule by appointing young aides of the “386 generation” (Koreans in their 30s who were born in the 1960s and attended college in the 1980s) as presidential secretaries.
Although it has been referred to as “a reshuffle of economic ministers,” replacing the economic team led by Lee Myung bank’s first finance minister, Kang Man-soo, who caused quite a stir during his tumultuous term, the president has also appointed his closest aides to key government posts in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of planning, finance and education.
It is only natural that trusted presidential aides who understand the intentions of the president are appointed to important posts, as they generally support the president’s philosophy on national affairs and pursue major government tasks with determination.
Although our presidents have created a system with strong, direct, top-down presidential control in their second year by positioning close aides on top - as was done by past administrations - the results have been the exact opposite.
The credibility of the government nosedived, factional conflicts in the ruling party worsened and the approval ratings of the president plummeted.
The reason is that although outwardly it appears that the system of direct presidential rule succeeded in grasping power over government organizations, it actually worked to distanced the president from the people and politics.
Instead of increasing the number of those who give honest, outspoken advice and allowing for the free flow of accurate information to the president, and letting the party, government and the Blue House work in sync, the system saw an “inverse synergy effect” take place.
This was because important reports to the president were blocked, people close to the president wielded their own power, the cabinet and the ruling party were too busy watching what the Blue House would say, and, therefore, the president became isolated and failed to communicate with the people.
The Lee Myung-bak administration must take a decisive measure to cure the disease that had crippled the cabinets of previous administrations when they reshuffled the cabinet in their second year in power.
First of all, the controversy over “privatization of power” by key presidential aides should not be repeated.
The insiders close to the president should be thoroughly managed to prevent abnormal interference in state affairs. If they show even the slightest sign of showing off their imagined power, they should be sternly punished and taught to respect the rules.
Furthermore, the new economic team led by Yoon Jeung-hyun should, learn a lesson from the Kang Man-soo economic team, - restore the confidence of the market while maintaining consistency of policy guidelines and taking firm control over economy-related ministries.
A close cooperative structure should be established so the economic troika of the minister of finance and planning, the president of the Financial Services Commission and the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs can operate as a team.
The new team must inspire the confidence of the people by responding discreetly, as well as quickly and confidently, to sensitive issues which have a serious impact on the market.
The writer is a professor of political science at Myongji University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Hyung-joon
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?