[Viewpoint] President MIA as country falls apart

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[Viewpoint] President MIA as country falls apart

The president is nowhere to be seen. He isn’t where people expect him to be. The country appears to be breaking down these days, but where is the president’s will to correct the situation?

An inspection commissioner of the Board of Audit and Inspection received bribes and worked as its lobbyist for a bank that he was supposed to audit. The head of the Financial Services Commission who was supposed to supervise the bank is currently under investigation for abusing his power to stop audits on the bank. Businessmen paid for entertainment for members of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs while they were holding workshops. And an incumbent official was arrested on charges of receiving bribes.

The military opened fire on a civilian airliner and procurement projects were marred by bribery.

Police and prosecutors are fighting over their investigative power and civil servants are criticized for abandoning their duties to achieve their own gains. Public servants appeared to be working for their private benefit rather than working for the interest of the community.

The situation is now so serious that President Lee Myung-bak lamented that “the entire country is rotten.” There are more problems. The National Intelligence Service had made embarrassing mistakes in their operations and Foreign Ministry diplomats were involved in a honey trap in Shanghai. The Korea Water Resources Corporation must take responsibility for a tap water supply cut in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, and the Agriculture Ministry was criticized for poorly managing foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks. More and more government policies are failing. The president is frustrated by the situation, and it is imaginable how Koreans feel about the sad state of affairs.

It is hard to say when and how public servants became slackened and immoral.

Media and civic society continuously monitors politicians but officialdom has remained closed and authoritative, making it relatively free from outside monitoring. The National Assembly is supposed to be a check on the administration but the system was weak, and that is probably another reason for the current deplorable situation.

But no matter what the shortcomings are, President Lee must assume responsibility for the malfunctioning government. When Lee said “the country is rotten” and “the police and prosecutors are having a power struggle,” many people were shocked because he was dishing out criticism as if it was someone else’s job, although he is the one who is responsible. Perhaps his bystander attitude brought about this situation.

In fact, the recent crises show the limits of the Lee Myung-bak style of leadership.

Since the early days of his administration, Lee did not hide his repulsion of politics. Rather than having a political discussion, he stressed the importance of working-level, administrative discussions.

Such an attitude makes civil servants value achievements and outcomes, while paying less attention to diligent processes.

Questioning Lee was often rejected on the grounds of ideological conflict and the critical view of the media and civic society were somewhat weakened. The ruling party also failed to effectively criticize and check Lee’s major policies.

Because of the president’s attitude, government offices were insulated from outside criticism and monitoring.

Civil servants easily gave into the temptation of graft and corruption. The political and social ecosystem surrounding state affairs is in ruin.

President Lee gathered his ministers and vice ministers to yell at them. He ordered investigative authorities to tighten monitoring but it’s too late for that.

The situation won’t likely be resolved easily. Lee must admit to his shortcomings and show a willingness to change. Only then will reform be possible.

Frankly, the people no longer have high expectations for Lee. The president is lucky to get even one mention around a family’s dinner table.

Maybe it’s because his term is nearing an end but more importantly, it’s probably because he is nowhere to be seen. We need to see him taking responsibility and bringing about change.

The sign “The Buck Stops Here” was on President Harry Truman’s desk in his White House office when he was president of the United States. Lee should recall this and make it the starting point of change.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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