Disaster sparks calls for major changes in Korea

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Disaster sparks calls for major changes in Korea

The perception that the Sewol ferry disaster highlighted a lot of what is wrong with Korea has led to calls for major changes - especially in the way the government and its bureaucracy do business.

“The biggest priority at this moment would be sorting out the mess,” said a senior lawmaker with the ruling Saenuri Party, who asked not to be named. “But government-led measures to bring landmark changes in the bureaucracy and to prevent another disaster should follow.

“Certainly the insensitivity about safety that is predominant in Korean society should be rooted out.”

The lawmaker hinted that if President Park Geun-hye launches a major administration reshuffle before the June 4 local elections - as signaled by her threat to sack civil servants who reneged in their duties in coping with the capsized ship - that would be just the start of an overhaul of the system of overly powerful bureaucrats.

Sources in the government and political realm predict that the Park administration will announce a large-scale cleaning up of government and a “grand plan for remodeling the nation for the sake of safety.”

Park Kwan-yong, who served as chairman of the National Assembly from 2002 till 2004 under the Kim Dae-jung administration, advised the Park government to do more than merely replacing a few officials.

“A huge overhaul of perceptions, principles and spirit is a must,” he said. “The government structure and its ways of doing business should all be replaced. National remodeling is supposed to be directly linked to reconstruction of the minds of bureaucrats. They should be trained to break down the habit of relying on the peace-at-any-price principle, self protectionism and extreme egotism.”

Kim Han-gill, co-president of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), agreed with the idea.

“Blaming and punishing bureaucrats and those responsible does not make us less accountable,” he said. “Both the ruling and opposition parties should exert every effort to rebuild a Korea that is safe, putting themselves in the shoes of those parents who lost their children in the accident.”

The majority of government officials in Korea are selected through a highly challenging and competitive exam, and becoming a civil servant is synonymous with being guaranteed a job until the age 60 with an extremely low chance of getting fired in the middle of a career.

While Korea was on its rapid industrialization track in the 1970s and 1980s, they were the elite group that spearheaded economic development.

“A plan crafted by a single fifth-grade government official was strong enough to control the entire nation in the past,” said Lee Chang-won, a professor of public administration at Hansung University.

But the ferry accident last week has made it seem that Korea’s bureaucracy is not the source of solutions anymore but only causes problems - sometimes national tragedies.

“Korea’s government is a highly passive system that would never change until something big happens,” said Kim Hyun-jong, a former minister for trade in the Roh Moo-hyun administration. “The sinking of the Sewol is a wake-up call for them.”

Politicians also called into question the tradition in which retired government officials are hired by either private or public companies, being guaranteed high positions and massive salaries after retirement from public service. For instance, at the Korea Shipping Association, a supervisory body for coastal shipping companies, 12 out of its 10 past chairmen were former officials from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

“The government has manuals for disaster situations but they are drawn up by paper-pushers sitting at desks, not people who will actually be on the scene of a disaster,” said Park Chun-oh, professor of public administration at Myongji University. “That resulted in all the confusion at the actual scene [of the Sewol tragedy].”

Kim, the former minister for trade, proposed that the Park government introduce a system to make civil servants compete with each other for efficiency’s sake.

BY SHIN YONG-HO, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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