Balancing interests

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Balancing interests


Lee Jong-wha
The author is an economics professor of Korea University.

Fiscal policies are often guided by politics. During the Reagan and Bush administrations in the United States, government debt ballooned. With the goal of a small government, tax cuts were made, but fiscal deficit grew as government spending did not decrease. Some believe conservative administrations intentionally increased debt to prevent succeeding liberal administrations from increasing spending.

Former bureaucrat Shin Jae-min claimed that the liberal Moon Jae-in administration attempted to cancel a national bond buyback in order to intentionally increase the debt ratio of the conservative Park Geun-hye administration in late 2017. You can hardly find fault with individual policies as the subjects of debt and the effects of a government bond buyback on the markets are professional areas. While there could be political intentions involved, such decisions are made in the course of coordinating macro policies for state economy and are based on fair administrative judgment.

However, if the Blue House makes policy unilaterally and forces these decisions on the Ministry of Economy and Finance, power concentrated in the Blue House could bring policy confusion and internal resistance. As it was revealed during the former Park administration, excessive power in the Blue House is likely to result in abuses of power and corruption. Using the controversy as a lesson, the Blue House-centered decision-making system needs to be reviewed. State administration should also change to make reasonable decisions on policies through the expertise of government agencies.

A young official quit his job and claimed that the Blue House might have been involved in the appointment of the KT&G head and the treasury bond issue. After that whistle-blowing, the ministry accused him of violating confidentiality. Some politicians questioned his credibility and criticized his claims. Fake news was abundant.

In Korean society, vertical organizational structures and the taking of sides often leads to problems. Society has a strong group mindset, and personal liberties and rights are sometimes ignored to protect the organization. It is not just in gangster films that members need to be loyal to their organizations and are punished for betrayal. School groups, local groups, companies, unions and government ministries brainwash their members, convincing them that the interests of their organization are the same as theirs. Sometimes they value the interests of the group over public interests. Those who do not follow the organization’s culture are often isolated or face disadvantages.


In Korean society, which has a strong Confucian mindset, emphasizes filial piety and loyalty, and emphasizes bonding within the group, whistle-blowing is not easy. Honest action based on personal beliefs can be criticized as ‘going rogue’ if it harms others. Some have the courage to report wrongdoing, but the outcomes often do not change — instead the reporter often suffers. The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act and Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistle-blowers have been legislated, but many whistle-blowers are embarrassed and fight for their innocence. The current administration is working to reinforce protection of whistle-blowers, but not much has changed.
The ministry should understand Shin’s belief and intention, and drop the charge. The Blue House should reduce ideology-based appointments and unilateral decision making, and increase internal communication with ministries. There has been criticism that young elites are selected though civil exams and become soulless bureaucrats to please their bosses.

Employees who raise questions even if they harm the organization should be protected. An Economic Ministry official said in an interview that he cannot understand why it is considered a personal issue. He says young bureaucrats feel dispirited.

Unlike the past, the young generation does not tolerate what does not seem fair. Without fundamental reform, more Shin Jae-mins may appear, even after Shin himself is punished.

Shin’s college friends say that he insists on addressing structural problems that members face in the bureaucratic system. The incident should be a chance to re-establish the relationship between political leaders and bureaucratic organizations, and respect the conscience and human rights of the individuals working within.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 10, Page 31
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