A question of appointments

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A question of appointments


The normally soft-spoken President Park Geun-hye loses her temper on certain issues. She turns especially impatient with the stubbornly rigid regulatory system. She denounced layers of excessive regulations as an enemy of the state and “a cancerous tumor.” She said she wanted to send the outdated layers of red tape to the “guillotine.” The vehement words were aimed at bureaucrats who are behind this fortress of regulations.

The president hit the nail on the head when she blamed Korea’s thicket of regulations for inhibiting investment and curtailing the creation of new jobs. Regulations must be lifted to promote investment and start-ups and improve economic fundamentals. Countries around the world are battling to do away with regulations.

But there’s something strange. The president is the chief executive of the administration. She is the commander of our army of bureaucrats. She has been in a position of command for two years. And yet nothing has happened. There must be something wrong in her approach.

Let’s take as a kind of example a student with poor grades. His mom nags him daily to study harder and do better. She compares him with the neighbor’s boy who always gets good grades. She isn’t satisfied when his performance improves a bit. It has to improve a lot! The kid naturally loses confidence and even becomes resentful toward his mom. He gradually loses interest and finds solace in computer games. His mom gets angrier and threatens to stop giving him allowances. He says nothing. Inside, he doesn’t care.

I don’t want to take the side of bureaucrats who jealousy guard their regulations as if were national treasures. But they can’t be guillotined or even caned. For any kind of reform, the president needs them. Bureaucrats are sometime called people without souls. They admit they are gutless and moldable because public service requires them to be so. But the country’s growth owes much to their efforts.

Somehow, the current president’s words do not register with bureaucrats. I asked some public officials I know well the reason why. The biggest reason was appointments. They said appointments are rarely made on time. Recommendations for appointments approved by ministers sit on the president’s desk for months. A public office cannot run well without bosses. When the new person finally arrives, he or she is usually a disappointment, they said.

The appointment problems in government umbrella organizations and public institutions are even worse. Replacements are put off and when they are finally made, they come from the president’s former election campaign staff. Political appointees dominate not only the chief executive and auditor’s posts but also outside board seats at government umbrella organization and state-invested enterprises. Bureaucrats’ golden parachutes were replaced with political parachutes. The president would not necessarily choose such appointments. The people around her make appointments for her. But she can hardly escape blame.

Park must set appointments straight not just to get the country’s bureaucratic house in order, but also to help save the economy. The president repeatedly complains of slow progress in deregulation and initiative toward building a creative economy. But the people are more frustrated with the progress than she is. External trade conditions are worsening and Korea Inc. has hit a severe bottleneck in growth. Everyone needs to do their part to push the economy. And yet they are all busy protecting their own interests. Nobody seems to really care about fighting the crisis. The collective eagerness and will that was behind the gold donation drive during the 1990s Asian financial crisis is nowhere to be seen. The people around the president should feel responsibility. From their behavior so far, they have their eyes on selfish interests rather than the interests of the government and country. It’s been that way since they came to power.

The president must fix appointment practices before it is too late. The prime minister and senior secretaries in the Blue House should be replaced with people the public respects. There must be no limits to where they come from. She should also be open-minded to people who once stood against her. Her appointments must wipe away suspicion that the same old gang is running the game. Once the leadership is realigned with respectable figures, the president’s leadership will be restored and people will place faith in her again. If the people are supporting her, the legislature cannot but cooperate with her government. And then the reform bills she talks about with such anguish will pass without any trouble.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 27, Page 34

The author is the head of the Economist, a weekly business news magazine published by the JoongAng Ilbo, and the Korean edition of Forbes.

by Kim Kwang-ki


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