Rethinking the vetting process

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Rethinking the vetting process

As I watched the Feb. 25 presidential inauguration of President Park Geun-hye, I fell into some random thoughts. After the inauguration, she stepped out from the car on her way to the Blue House and waved at the people. It reminded me of the return of the princess after a time away.

Broadcasters reporting Park’s inauguration called her the second-generation president who benefited from the halo effect of her father, former strongman Park Chung Hee. And when the reports mentioned the dynastic power successions in other countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, I felt a little disturbed. “So, we are a politically underdeveloped country too,” I thought.

But if Park truly had a halo effect, it was strongest 34 years ago when her father was assassinated. What if she had taken the oath of the office 34 years ago? That would have been a true dynastic succession. But if she tried at the time, it is likely she wouldn’t have succeeded. Had she actually held an election, it’s doubtful she would have won. At the time, she had nothing but the label of daughter to Park Chung Hee. No one knew who she really was and what she was capable of. The Korean people were not so reckless to vote for her as president just because she was the daughter of a powerful man. And, of course, some Koreans wouldn’t have voted for Park’s daughter if she was the only person willing to take the job.

Today, the label of “president’s daughter” is not all we know about Park because she has achieved so much as a politician on her own. Whenever the Saenuri Party, then the Grand National Party, faced a crisis, she managed to redeem the party’s reputation.

She also won the nickname of “Election Queen” by winning all elections she seemed destined to lose. She built up an image as a politician who keeps her promises. Those achievements are enough to make any politician become presidential material.

So I had faith. When she and her supporters said she was already prepared to be the president, I took them at their word. When Park was a lawmaker, journalists covering her activities faced endless questions. The people asked them who the closest associates of Park were, who was her policy poobah. No journalist could answer clearly.

I still believed she assembled a pool of great people to support her. She was a politician who was standing just a step away from the Blue House, so I thought many talented people were willing to help her out. Rumors also spread that there was an endless queue of people who wanted to work with her.

Where have they all gone? Is this the outcome of picking nominees from a countless crowd? I was perplexed of what I may have missed - or whether I had been deceived.

Vetting can be an endless process. Although Park has gone through a long process of scrutiny, I think we do not know her that well. A leader is not a cute stationary product. We cannot choose our leader based on image alone. We must kick the tires on a potential leader’s vision, policies and ability to implement them.

Selecting a political leader is not about vetting that person alone, because no president is an island. But after the days of President Roh Moo-hyun, the opposition party is struggling with conflict between its old and new factions. Lee Myung-bak and Park actually started as leaders of minority factions inside the ruling party and eventually worked their ways up to win the presidency.

Still, the nominees of the Park administration who surrendered their posts after scandals surfaced have no excuse. It was revealed that they have committed unacceptable wrongdoings. Although they withdrew their nominations, we still need to talk about the standards of vetting for the sake of future governments.

First, I wonder why it is not acceptable for someone to have both money and honor. Profiteering through illegal means such as abuse of power deserves condemnation. But being rich cannot be a reason for denying someone a public servant post.

We stress the importance of being poor but honest because we want to be cautious about corruption. But we cannot force civil servants to stay poor because it will only drive away talented people who happen to be affluent. That is a loss for the country. We need to come up with an alternative to the blind trust system governing senior public servants. The new system needs to stop civil servants from abusing their powers for their own gains.

Second, we must rethink a way to pay back a person’s sacrifice to the country. When a retired Army general supports an arms dealer, he taints the honor of the military. During the Kim Young-sam administration, the military was barred from intervening in politics and the top brass were left with no guarantees for their retirements. Subsequently, they found no job after their retirement. A realistic measure is needed to restore the morale and honor of the military.

Third, we need a clearer definition of which jobs civil servants can take after their retirements. Large law firms are not an axis of evil. The government officially asks large law firms to help on important projects. It is too much to rule out capable people from holding public posts just because they worked for major law firms. Providing special treatment to retired public servants and offering special treatment to the people who in top government posts are twin issues that need to be resolved.

*The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook

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