Park criticized for appointing older politicians

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Park criticized for appointing older politicians

The “386 generation” refers to a group of people who were in their 30s (the 3) when they emerge as new political forces in the 1990s, who went to college in the 1980s (the 8) during Korea’s democratization movement, and who were born in the 1960s (the 6).

The term became popular in the 1990s.

But after two decades, it has been updated to the “neo-386 generation.” This is a whole other group: people born in the 1930s who are heading toward age 80 and who began their careers in the 1960s.

There’s sarcasm to the twist for it specifically refers to the Park Geun-hye administration’s fondness for appointing politicians over the age of 70 - many already retired - to key posts at the Blue House and other public offices.

The original 386 generation were known for the youthful idealism. Not so the new generation.

Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon, who is 74, triggered the “oldies controversy” in August 2013. The opposition claimed his comeback raised the specter of a return of a dictatorial sensibility in the Blue House. In the 1960s and 1970s, the former prosecutor was one of the most faithful aides to President Park Chung Hee, the incumbent president’s strongman father.

The debate was refueled recently after the administration assigned yet another batch of figures from the neo-386 generation to important public duties.

One of the much-talked-about figures is the former government official-turned multiple-term lawmaker Yoo Heung-soo, 76, who came back to the public service last month after the president named him ambassador to Japan.

He is the Park administration’s oldest official.

Some media reports put the modifier “old boy” before Yoo’s name, an inherent criticism of the government for assigning figures who saw their heydays decades earlier to roles that could determine the country’s future.

Tapped in the same month as Yoo were 78-year-old Korean-American comedian Johnny Yune as standing auditor for the Korea Tourism Organization, and Lee In-ho, a 78-year professor emeritus of Seoul National University, as chairwoman of the Korea Broadcasting System.

Yune was being rewarded for serving as President Park overseas campaign teams during the presidential primary and election in 2012.

Lee, known as an extremely right-wing historian, came under fire for her paternal grandfather being pro-Japanese during colonial rule and was accused of being supportive of Korea’s military dictatorships.

And some feel the appointees are just too old.

“Humans have been designed to inevitably have their ability to think properly degraded after age 50,” said a prosecutor turned lawyer in his 40s on the condition of anonymity, who says such appointments represent nothing more than “old people’s greed.”

“And if people in their 70s try to use methods that worked successful in the past in the current situation, which has changed immensely over time, they will undoubtedly fail,” he continues. “I wish oldies would just spend the rest of their life at home without causing not only their families but also the public much anxiety.”

Ambassador Yoo believes what really counts is capability, not age.

“I am not offended by the term ‘neo-386,’” he said in a recent interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “Whether you belong to the old 386 generation or the new, wouldn’t it suffice if you performed well at work?”

Lee Dong-woo, a professor of psychiatry at Inje University, said people shouldn’t necessarily worry about age affecting the physical, mental and intellectual abilities of politicians.

“The personal gap is huge when it comes to aging,” said Lee, who is an expert in the mental health of the elderly. “You can stay active at over 70 depending on how hard you have tried to stay young. Those in their 60s are not even categorized as old men from today’s clinical perspective.”

The retirement age for civil servants in Korea is 60 and many corporate workers are let go in their 50s. But there is no age limit on politicians. The oldest member of the National Assembly is Rep. Park Jie-won of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, who is 72. Kim Dae-jung was 72 when he was elected president in 1998 and completed his term at the age of 77.

This year, people aged 65 or older accounted for 12.2 percent of the total population in this rapidly aging country, according to Statistics Korea, and that age group will surge to nearly one quarter of the population by 2030. With life expectancy constantly rising, there is a common saying here that goes: “Youth begins at 60.”

Choi Jin, a political commentator who runs the Institute of Presidential Leadership, says very senior people can be good in public office because of their years of experience.

“Their career could help them run their organization in a more stable manner compared to younger people, and they may sincerely and loyally assist the president without following others’ commands blindly,” he said.

Lee Won-jong, 72, chairman of the Presidential Committee on Regional Development, and Han Gwang-ok, 72, chairman of the Presidential Committee on People’s Grand Unity - both appointed in June 2013 - are touted as good examples by insiders. As former politicians and local governors they have been sharing their wisdom and knowledge from the past.

Some of the senior presidential secretaries who are in their 70s tell reporters they are grateful for being granted an opportunity to devote the remaining portion of their lives to public service. They are sacrificing time with their families.

But Choi of the Institute of Presidential Leadership thinks the downside of appointing old boys for top public posts overwhelms the upside. He doubts whether very old officials are up to speed with the rapidly changing era of the 21st century.

“There should be limitations when they execute reform drives because they are inevitably stuck in old mindsets and are accustomed to vertical hierarchies,” he said.

The string of mishaps surrounding top government staff - particularly failed nominations for key positions because the vetting process was inadequate - stems from the president’s old personnel affairs management style and her aides’ disinclination to be forthright with her, he says.

Chief of Staff Kim has been bombarded with criticism over the past year for being excessively loyal to the president and refraining from giving her tough advice. As a senior prosecutor, Kim established the so-called Yusin Constitution that allowed Park Chung Hee dictatorial power in 1972 in the name of ensuring political stability and creating a stronger economy.

Hwang Tae-soon, another political commentator who worked as an aide to famous politicians before, points to a different aspect of Park’s preference for figures who are up to 16 years older than her.

He says the 62-year-old president selects her aides from a narrow human resources pool she has kept ever since she played the role of de facto first lady from age 23 after her mother was assassinated in 1974. Even though Park entered politics years later, she formed the habit of taking advice from people dozens of years her senior during her years in the Blue House in the 1970s.

“Who would blame the president if she hires someone whom everyone can nod his head to, no matter how old that person is?” Hwang said. “She depends on her own personal network rather than recruiting from an outside pool that needs to be vetted. Almost all of the people picked by her have a personal history or ties with her past, which contrasts hugely with the style of the preceding presidents.”

Choi says it isn’t too late for Park to change her style with more than three years left in her term. “Managing the 21st century with a 20th century mind-set is extremely dangerous,” he said. “It may be a tough call but she needs to make up her mind to bring in people who can encourage her to tear down her old framework and move on.”

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