Ending the ‘bureaucratic mafia’Public anger over the appalling oversight, rampant malpractice and corruption stemming from decades-old dubious connections between the shipping industry and public offices in the run up to the Sewol disaster has produced a new name for Korean bureaucrats: “gwan-fia.” The first syllable refers to officials and the second to the mafia, the Italian criminal organization. Apologizing for the April 16 sinking of the ferry that cost the lives of more than 300, mostly high school students, President Park Geun-hye borrowed the newly minted term and declared to root out the “bureaucratic mafia.” Despite such angry and resolute words, the public remains doubtful. In a heated voice, the president said she would keep investigating until the people were convinced. But again, there are few who believe her.
There are, of course, things that can be accomplished with political will and a sense of resolution. But bureaucratic reform is one task that cannot be done with will alone. In the first place, the president would make enemies with one million employees in public office. It is a fight against long-standing cozy relationships and arrangements in the old-boys network of businessmen and officialdom that goes back more than 40 years. The cartel that connects officials — both retired and incumbent — with the business sector is deep, extensive and tight. Prospects for comfortable and lucrative retirement have always been one of the biggest perks in public offices. High-paying jobs are secure in the banking and financial sector for retirees from the Finance Ministry, in the construction sector for the Land and Transportation Ministry, the academic sector for the Education Ministry, and the shipping sector for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. To exaggerate just a bit, Park would be starting a crusade against the entire bureaucratic, corporate and public-sector society. It would too bloody and extensive for a government with a mere five-year term to handle. Such reforms are promised in the early stage of every administration. We have yet to see any results.
Reform, however, is not entirely a “mission impossible.” It can be initiated if the backing of the people is there. There has been an opportunity before. When the country sought an international bailout due to its liquidity crisis in 1997, conglomerates and bureaucrats were blamed as culprits for the crisis. Demands for reform mounted. Instead of clamping down on both groups, the Kim Dae-jung government stopped at restructuring the chaebol. That work was bestowed upon bureaucrats — who also needed to be reformed. The administration argued that it needed economic experts in order to fight the currency crisis. Kim Han-gill, current co-head of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, who was then the policy chief to President Kim, admitted later it was a huge mistake. “It was wrong to place the economic policy entirely in the hands of bureaucrats. None of the national reforms on the agenda made progress due to interference and resistance from bureaucrats when we were halfway into our term.” The succeeding Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak administrations followed the same path. They spoke of reforms in the early stage, but no real opportunity to enact these or the will to do so was later seen.
What can be done to make things different this time? Retired and active bureaucrats share the same thought — the world has changed so much and yet the civil sector is stuck in its old practices. The pension for government employees is one example. Government officials are steadfastly against any restructuring of the pension system even if it is deep in deficit and requires taxpayers’ money to make up its losses. The long-standing “descending from heaven” tradition is another example. About 10 years ago, giving cushy post-retirement posts to civil servants in umbrella associations or the corporate sector was accepted. There weren’t that many retirees and people paid little attention to the jobs they ended up getting.
But the country is now rapidly aging, the economy is in a slow growth period and there are fewer and fewer jobs available for all the baby boomers going into anxiety-ridden retirements. The comfortable and lucrative retirements that senior government officials enjoy — three years running government umbrella associations, three years overseeing related industry associations, and three years in posh executive jobs in the private sector — are now resented as excessive privileges and elements of a very basic form of corruption.
However, changes and reforms must be incremental and convincing in order to minimize adverse side effects. Bureaucrats have to retire if they cannot be promoted after they exceed the age of 50. The highest level of office lasts no more than a year. In the final term of any administration, officials at the director-general level are entirely preoccupied with the competition to keep jobs. They come to an arrangement — and the arrangement is to give CEO jobs at state-run enterprises and associations to the people that have to go. This tradition must end. Such practices should be banned and, instead, senior officials should be allowed to continue to work in public office even under people younger than themselves. A salary peak system — agreeing to taking a cut in pay to be able to keep working — should be introduced in the public office sector as well as in private business in order for reforms to work on a sustainable basis.
The Sewol ferry has sunk. But our collective fury and sadness has made many things like bureaucratic reform float to the surface of the national consciousness. We have sacrificed more than 300 lives to change our society and must not allow their deaths to be in vain.