Jang must go
*The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Jang Ha-sung, the president’s policy chief, is in hot water over suspicions of meddling in the appointment of the National Pension Service’s chief investment officer, who is in charge of overseeing the fund’s colossal assets of nearly $571 billion. The allegation raises serious questions about the liberal administration’s yardstick on righteousness, moral integrity and fairness.
The Blue House claimed Jang simply had a casual conversation with a candidate and did not outright recommend the position to him. But after the person disclosed details of their phone conversation, the Blue House admitted Jang had contacted him but still tried to downplay its significance by saying he did not get the job in the end.
From the circumstantial evidence, however, Jang could have broken several laws. What he has allegedly done falls under the description of “power abuse” and “interference of rights,” the same charges that prosecutors cited in their criminal investigation of government officials and former President Park Geun-hye. Park, government officials and National Pension Service executives were found guilty in lower courts for influencing the pension fund’s decision to back a controversial merger of Samsung Group units. Jang also could have broken a law on government confidentiality.
It is illegal for a presidential staff to get involved in the public recruitment of a state entity executive. The chief investment officer, responsible for safeguarding 635 trillion won ($571 billion) in pensions, should have the highest level of expertise, transparency and judgement. Applicants must go through a rigorous and strict screening process. They require an endorsement from the health and welfare minister before being named by the National Pension Service’s chief executive officer. A presidential aide should hardly think of meddling.
Jang reportedly called a specific person before the position was open to the public and told him that there were no qualified candidates from within the National Pension Service or in the industry, as if to assure him the job before he applied for it. Since the policy chief’s word can imply the will of the president, it can overrule the entire recruitment process. Other bidders would have faced unfair discrimination, and the selection process as well as results would naturally be unjust.
Jang also told the candidate that any use of the pension fund for state-sponsored projects is limited to 1 percent. Therefore, if the government wants to use the pension fund’s assets beyond that cap, it could ask the National Pension Service to invest in government bonds, Jang kindly told him. But the fund is different from tax revenue because the money legitimately belongs to individual contributors.
The thought of using individual savings for government projects raises serious questions about the administration’s philosophy and policy. Whether he intended to or not, Jang has given out the “correct” answer to one of the government’s trickiest questions.
Jang’s name has so far come up in every CEO search in the financial sector. The former activist who was once an outspoken critic of the country’s conglomerates now has assets of over 9 billion won, 4.7 billion of which are in stocks of big names like Samsung SDI, Kia Motors and LG Display. His wife owned 120 shares of Samsung Electronics, according to a disclosure from August 2017, when the stock was the most expensive among Korea’s listed companies. The fact that Jang owns that much wealth in chaebol stock would not be a problem if he had not been someone who urged young people to “rage and resist” against Korea’s conglomerates.
Jang is the architect of President Moon Jae-in’s minimum wage policy, which has aggravated inequality between the top and bottom tier of income earners. The income-led growth policy that he champions has brought opposite results. Jang has done enough harm on the economy with his policies. He should make way for more a practical person to advise the president.