In Blue House, buck stops at commissions

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In Blue House, buck stops at commissions


Left: The Presidential Commission for Fiscal Reform holds a general session at its headquarters near Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul last July. Right: The commission that decided on the fate of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear reactors holds a meeting at the Korea Press Center building in central Seoul last August. [YONHAP]

Presidential commissions in the Moon Jae-in administration hold powerful sway over decision-making processes in the government, but critics say this very influence weakens established bureaucratic institutions and leads to one-sided policies.

At the center of the decision-making process at the Moon Blue House lies the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning, an advisory body with just under 100 people and responsible for formulating the 100 primary aims of the administration.

“The Commission on Policy Planning will oversee all national policy agendas and plan policies,” President Moon said at a ceremony last October in which he appointed Chung Hae-gu, a political science professor at Sungkonghoe University, as the commission’s chairman. “On some level, it should act as a kind of think tank for the Moon Jae-in administration.”

In March, the commission drafted the Blue House’s constitutional reform proposal, and on June 3 the Presidential Commission for Fiscal Reform, which is under the Commission on Policy Planning, announced a draft of a comprehensive tax reform plan that raised taxes on owners of multiple homes and the superrich.

But as much as it is vested with powerful responsibilities, the Commission on Policy Planning has generated its equal share of controversies. A day after the tax reform proposal was announced, Kim Dong-yeon, the finance minister, challenged the commission’s proposal to lower the threshold for the aggregate financial income tax on dividend payouts and deposit interest from 20 million won ($17,982) to 10 million while commenting that these ideas needed “further review.”

Chae Yi-bai, a lawmaker in the opposition Bareunmirae Party, criticized the commission for making the announcement without sufficient consultation with relevant agencies.

The Commission on Policy Planning’s constitutional reform proposal also received heavy censure from the opposition and critics before it went to the National Assembly in March. Heo Young, a constitutional law professor at Kyunghee University, even called it “partly unconstitutional” because it was not amply reviewed through a cabinet meeting. In the end, the proposal was scuttled in the legislature after a boycott from the opposition.

Such conflict has been a common occurrence in the Moon administration. The role of commissions, which are not permanent government bodies but only temporary institutions, has expanded, but in many cases they yield further conflict rather than resolution.

The process by which a state commission deliberated on the fate of two new nuclear reactors, the Shin Kori 5 and 6, between July and October last year received generally positive responses for applying the concept of deliberative democracy to a real-life decision-making process.

Nonetheless, critics say the costs spent by the commission - about 4.6 billion won over the 89 days it was active as well as an additional 100 billion won needed to compensate the construction company that was building the reactors - were too high given its meager achievements.

The Commission on Reform of the National Intelligence Service, which was active from June to December last year, was able to uncover the existence of a civilian-manned cyber operations team that was involved in rigging social media comments for partisan purposes.

It also discovered evidence of the National Intelligence Service’s active meddling in politics in the form of documents detailing the spy agency’s covert schemes targeting Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, then a human rights lawyer running for mayor.

However, the commission faced accusations of mishandling classified information when allegations surfaced that an employee of the commission who lacked security clearance to access intelligence files looked into the National Intelligence Service’s main servers over the course of the investigation.

Similar criticism was raised against a Ministry of Foreign Affairs task force that undertook a months-long review of the negotiations that led to a controversial accord with Japan in 2015 on the so-called comfort women issue.

Last December, the task force, which was in effect a presidential commission, arrived at the conclusion that the agreement with Japan failed to adequately address the repercussions from Japan’s recruitment of sex slaves during World War II. Several observers panned the task force for exposing a diplomatic document, which is regularly kept classified for 30 years, and led to concerns that other counties might have doubts about engaging in classified negotiations with Korea in the future.

Later, the Moon administration appointed the task force’s head, Oh Tae-gyu, a former opinion desk chief at Hankyoreh, a liberal newspaper, to the position of consul-general in Osaka, Japan. Critics called it a “parachute appointment.”

Commissions wield significant influence because of their role in drawing policy blueprints. However, even if something goes awry, they rarely have to assume responsibility because they do not have a permanent place in the bureaucracy. In most cases, they can move on as if nothing ever happened.

The friction that ensued after the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rebuffed the tax reform proposal from the Presidential Commission for Fiscal Reform stands as one such case. Following the incident, Kim Eui-kyeom, the Blue House spokesman, told reporters that “the commission is only an advisory body” and “creates proposals independently at its own discretion.”

“No one has granted it authority to levy taxes,” he said. “The right of taxation is wholly exercised by the government and can only be resolved through legislation.”

Political analysts have attributed the Moon administration’s active use of commissions to the Blue House’s lack of trust in the bureaucracy. The Presidential Commission on Ageing Society and Population Policy, led by Moon himself with former lawmaker Kim Sang-hee as deputy, is leading the government charge in addressing Korea’s falling birthrate and childcare issues.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family are formally responsible for allocating the budget and drafting legislation related to birthrate issues, but the commission has taken charge of planning the policy. The government has allocated 900 billion won to enact the commission’s proposals next year.

In addition to the presidential commissions already in operation such as the job creation commission and so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission, many more are lined up for the future. According to the “Five Year Plan for National Governance” announced by the Commission on Policy Planning last July, there will be commissions on anticorruption, human rights, economic coexistence and disaster relief and prevention, bringing the total to 20. The opposition has slammed such plans as attempts to “build a roof over a roof.”

The political leanings of these commissions have also been subject to public scrutiny since they are largely staffed by left-leaning academics, civic group leaders and pro-Democratic lawyers.

Chung, who leads the Commission on Policy Planning, and Kang Byeong-gu, who heads the economic council, are both members of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nongovernmental organization with strong ties to leftist politicians.

“Commissions are usually created when diverse opinions need to be heard in the face of difficult decisions, but the current administration’s commissions are largely composed of staff who hold partisan values,” said Hong Sung-gul, a civil administration professor at Kookmin University. “If policies are unilaterally devised with a certain ideological bent, there is bound to be further chaos rather than conflict resolution.”

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