Reinventing national governance

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Reinventing national governance

After paying a visit to a memorial altar for the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy, President Park Geun-hye apologized yesterday for the government’s inept response to the disaster. There, the president heard strong complaints from families of the victims. One parent asked, “Which nation’s police should we ask to rescue our children still trapped in the sunken ship?” Another said, “So many families want to leave this country.”

The president’s apology is the fourth since her inauguration last year. She previously expressed her regret over a series of scandals involving the National Intelligence Service’s fabrication of evidence in a highly publicized espionage case; backpedaling on her campaign promise for a basic pension; and a Blue House spokesman’s indecent behavior during her trip to Washington.

But this time is different, because it’s about a colossal breakdown in public safety systems. Despite repeated vows to make our society safer, nothing has changed since the government laid bare its inability to deal with the Sewol ferry tragedy from the very start.

The government may be tempted to excuse itself of the tough job of correcting decades-old malpractices. But it can only do that once it has done its best to reinvent the way the government functions. Working hard is one thing. Putting reform into action is another.

The most intractable problem turned out to be the red tape rampant in the officialdom, which was apparent in the government’s lethargic response and the incompetence of the ministries of security and public administration, oceans and fisheries and the Coast Guard. If a new president can’t demonstrate a stern will to reconstruct the bureaucracy, civil servants will only return to their old habits.

Has President Park won the battle? The answer is no, especially if you look at her appointments for high-profile positions in the government: She failed to pick qualified people to spearhead her reforms.

The Sewol tragedy epitomizes a fatal lack of open-mindedness to reform in the administration. The president plans to establish a new agency to handle national safety, but without relentless restructuring, no organization will be able to prove its credibility. The president must reinvent the government by first appointing officials who have an unflinching determination to carry out change.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 30
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