[Viewpoint] We must restore trust in government

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[Viewpoint] We must restore trust in government

Poet Kim Ji-ha published one of his most well-known poems, “Five Enemies,” in 1970, when the country was undergoing massive economic development. Kim used the stories of five thieves in downtown Seoul to satirize the corruption of the ruling class at the time.

The five thieves that Kim criticized represented high-ranking civil servants, military generals, ministers and vice ministers, lawmakers and conglomerates.

In the poem, Kim criticized society’s leaders for pursuing private gains over national interests. At the time of its publication, the country’s wealth gap was widening with rapid economic development.

Corruption was rampant, and the Wau Apartments collapsed from poor construction. Political freedoms were largely restricted. The poem depicted a society that lacked leaders with morals.

As I observe society today, I wonder how much it has changed from the era of “Five Enemies.” The Busan Savings Bank scandal is as shocking as the collapse of the Wau Apartments. A large number of innocent depositors were victimized, but those with power withdrew their money on the eve of the bank’s suspension.

The bank executives were engaged in massive illegal loans based on lobbying to politicians and government officials.

During the course of the irregularities, Financial Supervisory Service officials built an inappropriate relationship with some bank executives, and a commissioner of the Board of Audit and Inspection even asked the head of the FSS to go easy on the banks.

Now, the head of the Korea Financial Intelligence Unit and the minister of government legislation are mentioned in the influence-peddling scandal. It is a classic example of leaders seeking private gain by abusing their public power. It’s like asking a cat to watch fish.

It is easy to discover conflicts of interest in our society. When ministers and vice ministers leave their posts, they are hired at law firms and work as lobbyists for on companies’ behalf by influencing government offices. Sometimes, they return to ministerial posts after working at law firms. The revolving door linking senior civil servants and private firms is seen as a norm in our society.

In the Busan Savings Bank case, criticism grew that former FSS officials were working at the bank after retiring from the FSS.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Almost all ministers, vice ministers and senior officials of the government are recruiting targets of law firms and private companies. There is even a joke that a large law firm’s executive meetings remind those in attendance of a cabinet meeting.

Although a revision was made recently, a tradition in the legal community where retired judges receive favorable rulings from their former colleagues is an example of how the judiciary abuses its power for private gains. The practice is a clear example that sentencing could be influenced by personal connections between judge and lawyer.

Amidst increasing tensions between the two Koreas, more and more cases of procurement corruption and poor maintenance of military arms have been uncovered. Even national defense is being overlooked for private gain.

It is, of course, wrong to simply compare the days of “Five Enemies” to today. Democracy has progressed, and society’s transparency, government oversight and freedom of the press have improved significantly.

But the series of recent scandals shows that the ethics and morals of senior civil servants are not any better than in the days of “Five Enemies.” Top government posts appear to be seen as tools for individual success, rather than tool for serving the community and the country.

This is not a problem of conservatives or liberals. Unless there is determination to fix the root of the problem, the problems will continue in both conservative and liberal governments.

Whenever a scandal is made public, lawmakers are often involved. But politicians are judged through elections and their every move is monitored by press and civic groups.

On the other hand, it is hard to supervise senior officials of the administration and judiciary, and there is no mechanism in place to monitor them after they leave their posts.

Many people are feeling disappointed and betrayed. Government distrust is a more serious threat to our society than North Korea.

The collapse of the Wau Apartments symbolized the era of “Five Enemies.” Sadly, today the tower of trust in Korea’s civil servants is collapsing as we speak.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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