A domineering bureaucracy

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A domineering bureaucracy

Earlier this year, some 20 former and incumbent high-level officials from the same region got together at a restaurant in a hotel in Seoul. They all hailed from Daegu, the bastion of conservative forces in Korea and birthplace of President Park Geun-hye. Kim Ki-choon, the chief of staff, Park Joon-woo, the presidential secretary for political affairs, and other key figures in the Park administration were invited to the dinner.

While the attendees made plain their hopes for success for the current administration, they also lamented that people from their region were neglected in promotions and appointments when, arguably, they made the biggest contribution to the president’s election victory. They asked for improvements in the infrastructure of the region, which is among the poorest in the country, and bigger budgets for regional development.

It is interesting that those who are from the president’s hometown say they suffer from “reverse discrimination.” It’s a total contrast to the Lee Myung-bak administration, in which people from Lee’s hometown, Pohang, landed key positions. It is a symbol of President Park’s extreme wariness of being accused of having personal interests in personnel decisions.

However, you can find problems anywhere if you look hard enough. While the president is determined to focus on national interests, bureaucrats and politicians are busy seeking their own place at the feeding trough. Leadership positions at public financial institutions and associations have now become spoils sought by former Finance Ministry alums. Experienced CEOs and financial specialists from the outside are never even considered. When bureaucrats, who are accustomed to following orders from above, monopolize core positions in key financial positions, can we ever dream of an era of creativity and innovation? Hardly. Not when back-scratching is all that counts.

Korea’s shameful 81st place among 148 countries in financial competitiveness, as judged by the World Economic Forum, is a direct outcome of bureaucracy undermining the president’s desire for a more creative economy. Former officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, the Ministry of Education, the Board of Audit and Inspection and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport also dominate positions at many government-owned financial organizations. They should be put out to pasture instead.

Appointments at public corporations go the same way - to the wrong people. President Park made a pledge right after being elected last year to cut back on such “parachute” appointments, but they have increased. A Supreme Council member of the ruling party openly asked the deputy prime minister for the economy to consider heads of the party’ local councils for appointments. The officials in this administration are ready to entrust unqualified and unprofessional figures with the job of public corporation reform. It is pathetic that the government claims to be fixing any problem with parachute appointees.

Government officials want to cut public corporations’ debt. As of the end of last year, public corporations had 493 trillion won ($468 billion) in debt, even more than the national debt of 446 trillion won. They treat public corporation executives and employees as the culprits and threaten to cut back their salaries and benefits.

But no one in the government mentions the problem of the snowballing civil servants’ pension fund. The public fund allocation liability, which is the current value of the total pension amount to be paid to civil servants and military servicemen, was 436 trillion won as of last year. It grew by 94 trillion won in a year and is nearly as big as the national debt. It is a liability that innocent taxpayers have to bear.

Hyun Oh-seok, deputy prime minister for the economy, declared, “The party is over.” But government officials continue to whoop it up. Former high-level officials are guaranteed millions of won every month in pensions and are paid large salaries in their parachute positions. Powerless, pitiful citizens feel glad to receive an average of 300,000 won a month. Can we really ask them, “How are you doing these days?”

Moreover, the officials have cast a spell to turn the president’s promises ambiguous. According to the Office of Government Policy Coordination’s National Agenda Signals, 127 of the 140 tasks are “in progress without problems and on schedule.” But key promises - including free treatment for the so-called four major illnesses, a 200,000 won basic pension for all citizens over the age of 65 and full tuition subsidies for a third child - have been retracted due to a lack of funds. Those officials are far more creative than the financial engineering specialists who marked high-risk derivatives as “risk free” and ignited the global financial crisis.

Our “president of principles” and officials of irregularities co-exist because they have different interests. The president will become an ordinary civilian after her five-year term. But the officials try to survive from administration to administration. It is hard for them to make a straight comment to the president. The president must find out the “uncomfortable reality” hidden behind the sugar-coated reports that hit her overburdened desk. A minister confided to me that he had sent his men into the field in order not to miss the rough reality not covered in the reports. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo talked to dozens of average citizens in the field who received benefits from government policies in order to hear the real unvarnished truth not reflected in the reports he received.

President Park needs to go back to her mindset before her election victory. We hope to see her break out from the bureaucratic prison and face the cold reality her citizens understand all too well.

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

by Lee Ha-kyung
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