‘We followed our orders,’ say Park officials

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‘We followed our orders,’ say Park officials

The corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil is shedding light on the top-down bureaucratic nature of South Korean politics, and the power vacuum in the Blue House and political deadlock is leaving many officials wringing their hands.

“All public officials shall be servants of the entire people and shall be responsible to the people,” says Clause 1, Article 7, of the Constitution. Yet according to government officials, this is not the principle that has been governing their actions.

“I followed the orders of my boss without knowing the ins and outs of what I was told to do,” said Choi Sang-mok, first vice minister of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, during his summons as a witness in the case concerning the Choi-gate.

Choi Sang-mok was a presidential secretary for economic and financial affairs in October of last year, when he requested the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to approve the establishment of the Mi-R Foundation as a ministry-endowed foundation. The foundation is one of the two run by Choi Soon-sil and suspected of being a slush fund. Prosecutors found that Choi Sang-mok acted under the orders of An Chong-bum, former senior presidential secretary for policy coordination. An and Choi Soon-sil, indicted on Sunday, are accused of forcing conglomerates to fund Mi-R and another foundation.

Critics point out that while President Park, Choi and her associates were masterminded the extortion scheme, what made the scandal possible was the top-down bureaucratic process, whereby subordinates are expected to blindly obey directives from above.

“Given that bureaucrats are the bastions of the country, it is sad that such a scandal took place,” said Yoon Jeung-hyun, former minister of strategy and finance. “At such a time as this, officials must be servants of the people if they are to regain their trust.”

But some officials say it is not that simple.

“Remember the senior-level officials who got thrown out just because the president labeled them as ‘bad people,’” a high-level official in the ministry said on the condition of anonymity. “Anyone in their shoes would have followed orders from above without asking questions.”

The Sports Ministry’s former Director General of Sports Affairs Noh Tae-gang, and former Director of the Sports Policy Division Jin Jae-su, were reportedly forced to resign from their posts after they allegedly went against the schemes of Choi and her associates. Park had reportedly called them “bad people” in a meeting with then Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yoo Jin-ryoung in August 2013. The next month, they both resigned.

Park’s excessive use of power in bureaucrat appointments has been reported in the past few years.

It is largely understood that the Blue House’s power grew after the end of the Lee Myung-bak administration. The Lee administration had granted the ministers more power in appointing high-level officials, whereas that policy ebbed with the Park administration.

Given that the president by law appoints the prime minister, who then nominates ministers for the president to appoint, much of the power over personnel appointments lies with the president and the Blue House.

With the sudden power vacuum in the central government, political movements have been put on hold. The Cabinet meeting on Tuesday was headed by Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho as Park decided not to attend for the sixth week. The JoongAng Ilbo report on Tuesday called this power vacuum a “risk not only concerning some 1,000 officials at the Blue House but the one million officials throughout the country.”

“Replacing officials will not do the job,” said Goh Kun, former prime minister. “The country will be able to get back on its feet only after a complete revamp of the public service system.”

BY CHO MIN-GEUN, YOO SEONG-WOON AND ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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