A silent ‘control tower’

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A silent ‘control tower’

Deputy Prime Minister Hyun Oh-Seok presents an image of disharmony. The weight of his position and the evaluation of his performance are not exactly aligned. When dynamism and decisiveness are key qualities for the leader of the country’s economy, such leadership must be demonstrated.

Hyun is known to be gentle and trustworthy. He is not considered the kind of strong leader to get through significant challenges. The disconnect between his abilities and the requirements of the job remains unchanged months into his performance.

The position of deputy prime minister for the economy was revived after being dispensed with for five years. Shortly after Park Geun-hye’s presidential victory, many veteran economic officials recommended she restore the post. Park was reluctant at first because it was more imperative to restructure the nation’s diplomatic strategy on the Korean Peninsula and redefine national security.

Accustomed to foreign affairs and national security issues, President Park has the ability to shine in those fields. Park had to focus on the area, so she decided to establish an economic “control tower” to work on those issues. When she announced her choice for the position, many who wanted the post revived were perplexed.

Park’s choice was short of their expectations. How she came to choose Hyun remains a mystery as he wasn’t in Park’s personal network. Many were surprised at Hyun’s good fortune.

Their attention shifted to how Hyun would fill the big boots given to him. The Park government presented a number of economic goals: The so-called “creative economy,” economic democracy, easing regulations and enhancing people’s welfare and happiness. The deputy prime minister needed to coordinate and control such complicated and sensitive issues.

Hyun recently revealed his aims. The first step was concentrating on services as a stepping stone to moving toward a more “creative economy.” Hyun’s plan had its focus on the medical and education industries to create good-quality jobs for the younger generation.

But the plan missed key points because Hyun failed to loosen sensitive and important regulations. Park was interested in pushing forward a plan for tele-medicine systems, but the plan lacked substance. Hyun’s team said, “We will push forward tasks involving conflicts of interests one by one.” But the plan was a boring iteration of what past administrations promised. It was perceived as hot air.

It’s been over 110 days since Hyun took his position. That’s a short time to make huge accomplishments. But it’s not too short to get going on something like an economic policy. During that time, Hyun’s team had serious discussions, but it was not clear how it reached its conclusions. Hyun was disappointing in making Park’s trust his main asset. That is a sensitive issue in the relationships of power, trust and loyalty.

National governance is about selection and concentration. Hyun must demonstrate a will to endure criticisms for the sake of getting something accomplished. The tasks may be hard, but as Park said, Hyun should have “the guts.”

The economic “control tower” sends messages. They must be timely and preemptive. It makes the government adjust to and push forward a policy. Hyun’s language, however, is always a little late. We only hear him after the president has shown an interest. He’s boring and the market doesn’t react.

Park trusts veteran officials because their strengths are stability and expertise. She came to know them from her experience as acting first lady in the 1970s. She chose Hyun because of a strong memory from that time. She entrusted her team with a mission to realize a second “Miracle on the Han.”

During the Park Chung Hee period, civil servants managed to create the industrialization of Korea. They spent weekends and holidays helping to prevent forest fires along trekking trails. At the time, public servants were rewarded and recognized for their achievements while strongly punished for their wrongdoings. They were criticized and punished for being lazy, while enjoying specific incentives for achievements beyond the call of duty.

Today, however, public servants are living a completely different kind of life. They have less patriotism or sense of responsibility and their rewards and punishments are also weaker. Instead, they are guaranteed jobs for life and the bureaucracy just gets stronger and stronger.

We are living in a golden day for bureaucrats. State-run enterprises are largely occupied by public servants, while those who had links with political circles were pushed out. With the campaign of “economic democratization,” public servants were tasked to supervise and regulate the process. They now have the upper hand in the job.

Park is praised for her diplomatic achievements and her approval rating is high. Diplomatic achievements are linked to domestic performance and domestic governance is about the economy. The leadership of the economic team under Hyun, however, doesn’t do credit to this government.

Park is famous for her style and part of it is that she doesn’t lose her trust in people easily. “The economic team is working hard,” she said during a meeting with senior editorial figures from the media earlier this month. Hyun’s economic team must reposition itself and aggressively tackle the big issues.

If creation is about courage and experimentation, a “creative economy” can only be achieved through challenges and imaginative power. The key to success is a drastic elimination of regulations. Hyun must lead the efforts for public servants to surrender their massive regulatory power. That should be the answer to Park’s trust in civil servants. That’s the very precondition for his economic leadership success.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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