[Viewpoint] President Lee versus the FSS

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[Viewpoint] President Lee versus the FSS

What someone wears is often an assertion of who that person is and what he or she stands for, and never so much as with a nation’s president, who is supposed to stand out in a crowd.

President Lee Myung-bak wears a navy blue windbreaker embroidered with the national flag on his visits to military or civilian events. But when the president took the red-and-blue Taegeuk flag off his jacket, it was a small but significant gesture.

Last week, the president was grumpy and stone-faced from early in the morning. That morning, he had read news of the Financial Supervisory Service’s deeply-rooted involvement in the corruption scandal engulfing Busan Savings Bank Group.

Lee suddenly changed his schedule and announced that he wanted to pay an impromptu visit to the FSS. He commanded his aides to get ready, and he wanted to wear his favorite windbreaker. Some of his aides advised against it for fear that the president would look awkward in casual attire surrounded by high-brow FSS executives wearing suits and ties. He sneered at that advice and said he was not planning to address the officials or chat with them, but deliver a reproach.

He was dressed and ready to go. And then the president noticed the flag on his windbreaker. He wanted it off, but had no time. In the presidential van, he again ordered his staff to get the seal off, saying that the dignity of the national flag didn’t belong in a place and among Koreans that had brought disgrace to the nation. His secretary came out with a penknife and meticulously detached the seal from the jacket.

The president wears his flag-decorated windbreaker whenever he mingles with the public - in marketplaces and restaurants - and it adds a patriotic note in a casual scene. It’s the no-nonsense president’s style and a way of connecting with the people.

The corruption scandal involving Busan Savings Bank Group, in which inside information and negligent oversight from bribed FSS officials helped enrich shareholders and officers at the expense of the hard-earned savings of average citizens, had prompted indignation among ordinary people.

The removal of the Taegeuk flag symbolized Lee’s severe disappointment and anger toward financial authorities. It was a strong reprimand and showed the determination of the country’s leader to strip the financial watchdog of its elite status.

The president scolded a group of FSS employees in a harsh tone for 20 minutes. Financial Services Commission Chairman Kim Seok-dong and FSS Governor Kwon Hyouk-se sat next to him awkwardly with their heads down. (The FSC is the higher agency that oversees the FSS.) The two sat in the hot seats. The FSS, an organization that financial elites envy, is now known as a pitiful culprit that brought shame and indignity to the government and nation.

FSC Chairman Kim is known to be proud and shrewd. Yet he does not seem to be familiar with the president’s emotions. He was clueless to his boss’ coldness and fury, demonstrated by the absence of the Taegeuk seal on his jacket.

His actions after the president’s visit underscored his insensitivity. The president wanted the two heads out of the way and ordered a task force within the Prime Minister’s Office to reform the FSS. But the day the task force was launched, Kim told reporters that the FSS should not be rocked by outside forces. “I gave birth to the FSS,” Kim said. “Authority in supervision should not be given to any agency. It goes against constitutional principles.”

Kim may have only been speaking his mind. But the response from the government was cold, questioning if he was ignoring the president or defending his organization out of selfishness or some other ulterior motive. Whatever the motive, his remark undermined and discredited the president’s resolution to reform the FSS. Kim ended up joining the ranks of people trying to make the president a lame duck.

Financial reform is a demanding and challenging task. The president’s words must carry weight. But the FSS is deft in turning crises into self-serving opportunities. Amid criticism of its role in the disaster of the savings bank industry, the FSS added 50 more to its team of inspectors. The agency has evolved into an elephantine group of domineering and well-paid bureaucrats.

The president in the early days vowed sweeping changes in public service. With just a year and a half left, he doesn’t have much time to prove himself. We hope the FSS will be the culmination of his reform pledge.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAngIlbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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