[Viewpoint]Insider politicsPersonnel affairs have always been a touchy job, even for renowned King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty. The great ruler, in his 29th year on the throne, came up with the idea that he would select talented and creative civil servants by asking important questions on state exams.
“The king said a man of ability is a national treasure. All kings want to hire men of ability. However, there are three cases in which this does not happen. First, a king fails to see a man’s ability; second, a king does not seek out a man of ability; and third, the king and the talented man have different ambitions and goals.” (From “Like Sejong” by Park Hyeon-mo.)
What King Sejong said about leaders and their appointees having similar political views is often called “code” in modern-day Korea. Whether the president and officials share common goals has become paramount.
In fact, personnel affairs based on “code” is reality. It is only natural that people with the right to appoint others will want to choose talented candidates who share their ideas. This has been true throughout history in both the East and West.
In modern society, this is a key to party politics. When a political party wins power, it’s because voters support the party’s policies and want them to be realized. To this end, the people who understand the goals of the policies often fill posts of responsibility and authority.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who was elected on a platform of unity, is no exception. He filled key White House posts with his confidantes.
In Korea, appointing those closest to you, however, makes you subject to criticism. It is seen as a form of despotism or incompetence in personnel affairs. This trend has been in place since the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
Since 2003, whether a person shared “code” with Roh or not became the top priority for a civil servant’s appointment, and 386 generation figures filled key posts using their personal ties to Roh despite a lack of ability. They led “Roh Moo-hyun-style” reform.
The Roh era has ended, but the word “code” did not disappear. In fact, it is used even more widely. These days, when a president appoints a trusted aide to a civil service post, it becomes a subject of criticism no matter how talented the person, whose ties to the president disqualify him in the eyes of many.
The Jan. 19 cabinet shake-up was a classic example.
The decision to name Won Sei-hoon as the National Intelligence Service chief may be a legitimate target for criticism, considering that he has worked with President Lee Myung-bak since Lee was mayor of Seoul. The selection of Hyun In-taek as unification minister is also questionable, because he has been known to be Lee’s policy making brain.
However, the criticism against Yoon Jeung-hyun as finance minister goes too far. Critics say Yoon shares pro-business ideas with Lee. They also said Yoon worked as an adviser on Lee’s presidential transition team.
But what do they say about Yoon’s three years of experience with the Roh administration as chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission? When Roh appointed Yoon to that post, Roh’s Blue House said Yoon was deeply trusted by both the financial community and the government.
Now, the Democratic Party has focused on Yoon’s work for the Kim Young-sam administration, saying, “We do not want another financial crisis.”
The Grand National Party pledged to vote on a list of 80 bills before the end of last year, and the Democrats called them “evil MB bills,” tarring them with President Lee’s name. Of the 80, both the GNP and DP have already approved 50. This means that political attacks can be independent of reality.
The controversy over hiring confidantes is similar. It is unrealistic and inefficient to pressure the president not to hire those whom he trusts. To a certain degree, this is unavoidable. Critics may also miss an important point by harping on newly appointed officials’ personal connections to the president.
What is important is placing talented people around the president.
Many said they feel scared when a president frowns. It is hard to voice an opinion different from the president’s. President Lee is known to have a particularly powerful voice.
What critics must pay attention to is if the newly chosen officials have convictions and personalities strong enough to present varied opinions to the president without losing his trust.
Whether they are confidantes and whether they used to be political rivals are secondary matters.
“I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that’s how the best decisions are made,” the new U.S. President Barack Obama has said.
And behind the great, peaceful reign of King Sejong, there were Hwang Hee, a Confucian; Heo Jo, a jurist; Maeng Sa-seong, a Taoist, and Byeon Gye-ryang, a Buddhist.
*The writer is a political news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae