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A private conversation between Rep. Lee In-young, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and Kim Soo-hyun, the president’s policy chief, underscored the conservative bureaucracy’s innate distrust of the liberal government. “Bureaucrats don’t listen … It feels like we have passed four years not two years in office,” they said without being aware that their microphones were on ahead of the party-government-presidential office meeting. They were expressing complaints about the Land and Transport Ministry’s response to the threat of a bus strike.

The policy chief was more or less dumping the blame on bureaucrats who were merely following orders. Over the last two years, the government has pushed ahead with controversial policies — nuclear reactor phase-out, income-led growth and the rise in the minimum wage. Are working government officials responsible for all the confusion and side effects of half-baked policies?

If the policy chief considers he is dealing with a government in the lame-duck period of a presidential term, something must be seriously wrong. But complacency of bureaucrats may not be surprising. Liberals have been picky about past policy execution under the campaign of correcting “past ills.” Government officials were punished for following orders under the past government. They keep a low profile to avoid similar persecution under the next government. They joke that if they work hard, they could be accused of abuse of power and if they don’t, they face punishment for neglecting duty.

Policy doubts are also a reason for the lack of eagerness. The income-led growth policy draws mixed opinions from economists. If the officials at the Finance and Economy Ministry are skeptical, the drive in executing the policies could lose steam. The bureaucratic society cannot be expected to work with passion and inventiveness under the Blue House’s top-down command over economic policymaking. Lack of continuity and consistency in policies also pose a problem.

Moreover, the Blue House cannot earn the loyalty of the bureaucracy because of its appointments. Instead of looking for talent internally or broadly, the liberal government has been recruiting senior officials entirely on ideological grounds.

Cooperation from bureaucrats is essential as removal of regulations is the key to paving the way for the fourth industrial revolution. A report showed that it takes an average three years for a policy to see daylight through legislation. If government officials refuse to yield their hold on regulations, the country’s competitiveness could suffer. Government officials must be free to work earnestly. Their positions must be guaranteed regardless of who becomes the president. Political neutrality must not be rhetorical.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 14, Page 30
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