The lost culture of remembering

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The lost culture of remembering

One can only be awed by the exacting and meticulous record-making practices and arts of ancient Koreans from the court texts like the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and Diaries of the Royal Secretariat. It may not have been entirely coincidental that the Joseon Dynasty lasted the longest among Asian monarchies, surviving for more than 500 years. Ancient Koreans kept records not only of state and public affairs but were scrupulous in preserving family histories and legacies in writing. The Japanese were equally rigorous in the habit of keeping records. The records kept by the Japanese administration, Governor General of Korea, during colonial days remain as valuable material for socio-economic development during the early 1990s.

It is a pity we have lost the habit and tradition of keeping everything on record. I usually have to dig up information and data available from the U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, the libraries of U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson or from international lenders like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when I need reference material on the Republic of Korea’s early economic development. It is a pity we have to rely on overseas material for research on our own modern history. Keeping good records is not just important for reference to future generations, but to hone advances in knowledge and quality in administration and policy.

While I was working at the IMF, I benefited most from the file room. The planning policy bureau I worked at was in charge of setting loan policies for the international lender to deliver fair and consistent lending guidelines for companies in need of IMF funds. Financial crises can arrive unexpectedly and the IMF sometimes has to hastily fly into an unfamiliar nation and discuss terms for financial assistance. The file room has all the records on the country, including the documents exchanged between the country and the IMF, reports on the economy, and minutes of meetings with policy makers in the country throughout the course of the aid program, internal observations of the country’s key agenda items and issues, the outcome of previous IMF programs and memoranda for files recorded by investigators in the past. One can be fairly knowledgeable about the country’s situation after poring over the country file for a week or two. It may be the first time you have met a person across the negotiating table, but once you have studied past conversation records about him or her you could go through the discussions and accomplish the work without much trouble. It is every IMF employees’ duty to keep all the procedures and works on record and in the files.

That rule does not apply in Korea. When I returned home in 1993 and worked at the Korea Institute of Public Finance, I was given the role of spearheading the work of drawing up an overall framework to back a new tax code for financial income under the institutionalization of real-name practices in financial transactions as a part of the reform campaign of President Kim Young-sam. I was not an expert on the Korean tax system, but I agreed to do the job because I believed there would be sufficient records at the finance ministry. I expected I could get an idea of what was lacking in the Korean tax system and what was needed for improvement once I went through files from the past. But surprisingly, there were no such records at the finance ministry’s tax bureau. I had to seek out people who had been in charge of revising the tax code at different times because the only records that remained were their memories. It was an oral history, not a file room.

It was no different at other offices where I worked - the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, the presidential office and overseas missions. When people are appointed to new positions, they pack up and get out with all their files. Those who succeed to their position must go through all the trials of their predecessors and when it is time for them to leave, they also clean out their desk and take all the files with them. Korean bureaucrats work hard, but they do not leave or share their knowledge and know-how as public assets. Because knowledge and know-how are not amassed, public policy does not build or improve. It remains the same as ever even though times move on.

Keeping records and files can be a tedious job. One can also get oneself into trouble later. But when records are built and shared, they can help to upgrade policies and social development. If keeping records scrupulously becomes a norm, policy makers will become more responsible about their work. They will consider how their work might be evaluated later. If record-keeping becomes a tradition in political parties, as well as public entities, policy functions could develop faster and more effectively. The comments and input by politicians on pensions and other policies will not be as rudimentary and reckless as today. It is a pity that we failed to uphold our ancestors’ great legacy of keeping records. The public sector must enforce and institutionalize production and management of records and files for the sake of the present and the future.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, May 23, Page 31

*The author is an economics professor at Sogang University.

by Cho Yoon-jae

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