‘Gosi’ mentality is Korea officialdom’s shame

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‘Gosi’ mentality is Korea officialdom’s shame

When will government officials stop thinking of themselves as above the rest?

The second most powerful man in Korea had to bow his head in apology after putting his foot in his mouth about the recent personal data leaks from three credit card companies, the worst such leaks in Korea’s history.

Hyun Oh-seok, who is both deputy prime minister for the economy and finance minister, really stepped in it on Jan. 22, when he commented on the leaks by saying, “Foolish people always talk about responsibility and get concerned whenever something happens, whereas wise people take preventive measures, motivated by the occasion.”

Take that, foolish consumers! You obviously deserved to have your personal information stolen.

First of all, no one feels good about being called foolish even when they are - and even more so when they’re not. Korean consumers are some of the most tech-savvy and meticulous people in the world. They weren’t playing fast and loose with their personal information by getting credit cards. Not to mention customers of the related financial institutions who also lost their data without even owning credit cards.

In the Korean context, a public servant calling the hoi polloi foolish is not merely bad politics. It demonstrates the rampant and indestructible elitism in the world of high-ranking government officials. In Korea, such elitism is called “gosi” pride.

Gosi refers to annual state examinations to become a grade 5 public servant or above. These days, those who dream of working for the central government start studying for the exams as soon as they enter college. A single year of preparation for the exams is not considered enough for the average applicant. Two years is wiser and three years is by no means out of the question.

While studying for the exams, candidates sometimes shut themselves away from the outside world to do nothing but study. This goes on for a very long time.

After becoming government officials, they can remain cut off from the world of normal people.

Within the civil service, there is a stark distinction between people who passed the gosi and those who didn’t. All top and senior positions are filled with gosi passers. In some countries, top government posts may be offered to outsiders who are experts in a particular area after years in academia or the private sector.

In Korea, the idea is almost unimaginable.

Kim Jeong-hoon, a Korean-American tech entrepreneur, was nominated as the science, ICT and future planning minister when the Park Geun-hye government was sworn in.

He ended up withdrawing from consideration even before he was officially confirmed in frustration over the political chaos sparked by his nomination. The president’s handpicked nominee’s background was just too strange compared to the other ministers. Kim went back to the United States.

An official at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance frankly told me how gosi pride matters in the public world.

“I’ve never seen anyone move from the private sector to government service and survive the discrimination, all because of gosi pride” he said. “And yet government officials thrive when they go to the private sector.”

Of course, the gosi people are smart. We recognize the hard work they put in to pass the exams. They are qualified to formulate policies that will determine the country’s future.

But are they qualified to consider the lives of people to whom they intentionally refuse to relate?

What impact is there on society when the country’s top economic chief can’t understand the normal emotions of the people and cares even less about them?

Another example arose last summer when Deputy Prime Minister Hyun came up with a tax code revision that set the threshold for the middle class at a unreasonably low level. The minister then announced increased taxes for people earning 34.5 million won ($30,984) a year or more, saying they could afford it because they were part of the middle class. That sparked a strong backlash from the general public who detected a strong whiff of arrogance. The statistics confirmed that. The median income for Korea is 37.5 million won.

A week later, Hyun’s ministry raised the threshold to 55 million won.

At the time, Cho Won-dong, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, quoted publicly the famous dictum by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the 17th-century finance minister to France’s King Louis XIV: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.”

Cho said the government was sorry about cutting some tax credits, but appealed to the public to “open their hearts” and accept the plan.

The public hissed.

A similar howler cost Yoon Jin-sook her job as minister of oceans and fisheries. Early this month, after an oil spill at a southern port near Yeosu, South Jeolla, Yoon proclaimed that oil company GS Caltex, which owned the pipeline that leaked oil after a docking accident, was “the No. 1 victim of the leak.”

People who lived in the oil-drenched areas were secondary victims, apparently.

President Park sacked Yoon immediately and issued a verbal warning to Hyun, saying government officials were advised not to make remarks that hurt the feelings of the people.

It might make you nervous to realize the future of our country is in the hands of people who can comprehend jargon in textbooks but cannot understand the most common sentiments. People want leaders who are not just smart. but wise and with at least some compassion.

I have no doubt President Park cares about the people, but is she really taking care of them? A common description for the Park administration is bultong, meaning not communicative with the people. Communication matters, and leaders must speak to their people’s hearts.

Song Su-hyun [ssh@joongang.co.kr]

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