The people problem

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The people problem

It is naive to criticize President Park Geun-hye for a lack of communication skills. What she really needs is better judgment of people. We all know about her disastrous track record on appointments. We need only cite two names - Yoon Chang-jung, who caused international embarrassment to the administration by sexually assaulting an intern during a presidential visit to Washington last year, and Yoon Jin-sook, the former minister of oceans and fisheries who enraged the public by saying that oil company GS Caltex, whose pipeline caused an oil spill at a port near Yeosu, South Jeolla, was the biggest victim of the accident.

We can’t imagine Yoon might have said if she had kept her job and stood at the port of Jindo County, South Jeolla, after the Sewol ferry sank in the nearby seas last April 16 last year at the cost of more than 300 lives. Would she have said the biggest loss in the accident was to the ferry’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Company or its owner Yoo Byung-eun?

Those two individuals were handpicked by the president herself. So were many of the protagonists in the extended soap opera around a confidential Blue House report on a shadowy inner circle led by Chung Yoon-hoi, a former aide of the president during her days as a lawmaker, and three of her incumbent secretaries, which were referred to in the document as the “three doorknobs” - meaning they controlled access to the president.

Among past presidents, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan are considered the most successful in choosing the right people for appointments. The generals who gained power through military coups tried to make up for their basic lack of legitimacy by surrounding themselves with the best possible people. Chun famously told his senior economic secretary Kim Jae-ik, who was Chun’s tutor on economic affairs, that “on the economy, you are the president.” Both Park and Chun learned the ways of good leadership in the military.

In combat, operations must be based on accurate information. Balance and cross-checking are rudimentary concepts in employing people. Both Park and Chun made appointments that kept a balance in regards to regional backgrounds and didn’t allow ministers and vice ministers in the same office to come from the same hometown or school.

President Kim Young-sam ignored this attempt at a balancing act. His deputy prime minister and senior secretary for economic affairs were all from the economic planning board. He remained unaware of the imminent external and internal financial dangers of the approaching Asian financial crisis because both assured him that the local economy was safe because of “strong fundamentals.” According to the prosecution report on the 1997 financial crisis, Yoon Jin-sik, secretary of tax and finance, who was from the Finance Ministry, with the help of Kim Kwang-il, then special political adviser, was able to report directly to the president on the situation.

It is a worrying sign that senior secretaries today are asked to leave their reports at the door and denied conferences with the president by the three “doorknobs.”

In vice ministerial appointments in the first half last year, deputy positions at three major powerful organizations - the prosecution, police and tax agencies - were filled with alumni from Cheonggu High School in Daegu, hometown of the president. The blatant favoritism even surprised politicians from Daegu area. In the current government, there is an office with a minister and vice minister from the same area.

The president has the authority to name people to senior posts. The Blue House complains of problems in finding suitable people because of tough parliamentary confirmation hearing. But that is an insult to Koreans, who take pride in their achivement of building a mighty economy with no other resources than human talent. Did the Blue House really try hard to find good people? Did it not use a yardstick of loyalty to select - or exclude - certain people?

Former president Lee Myung-bak made the same mistake. He intentionally snubbed people who had worked for or been favored by the past liberal governments under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. He recycled people who had been away from public service for more than 10 years. The fallout showed from an early stage. Secretaries reported on the sprawling protests against American meat imports but the president complained he learned faster by watching TV news. Having learned his lesson, Lee recruited vice-ministerial officials from past governments as his aides. Then the Blue House communicated better with bureaucrats.

For the president to say she will speak through her policies is a joke. No one can wait to see the end result of a policy. They need the president to explain what she wants to do. President Park’s New Year address was out of tune with reality. She made it clear that she won’t make any changes to her presidential staff. Why not?

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 13, Page 30

*The author is senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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