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 Myungbak 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.

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