Backs against the wall
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea was elected to the chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Steering Committee last week. The OGP is a multilateral initiative by 79 states committed to opening up government, empowering citizens, fighting corruption and promoting new technologies to strengthen governance. The Moon Jae-in administration touted the achievement as international recognition of Seoul’s successes in transparent governance and civic rights. But that pat on its own back may be scoffed at by many Koreans.
Koreans’ confidence in their government is at the bottom of the scoreboard of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Among the youth population, it ranks the lowest. It does not matter who governs. A study on articles in major newspapers over the span of 30 years by Seoul National University (SNU) showed that the government is the cause of most public rage. Under free elections over the last 30 years, the ruling power has changed several times. Yet it is detested every time. The Moon Jae-in administration started off as one of the most popular ruling powers. That seems like a long time ago now. It is now well down the unfortunate path taken by all its predecessors.
Self-righteousness and over-protectiveness of its own team have brought it down. The obsession over justice minister nominee Cho Kuk is a perfect example. The administration now attacks its own hand-picked prosecutor general — hailed as a “hero” in the clampdown on so-called past evils — as if he is their enemy for investigating allegations against Cho. It arranged a news conference for Cho to explain himself. This is the same lot that criticized the past government for aloofness and arrogance.
Instead, it blames everyone else. President Moon ordered the government to revise the college entry exam amid controversy over special treatment that allowed Cho’s daughter to get into an elite university. That move suggests it blames the education system established by past conservative governments. If something needs fixing, it should be fixed, of course. But this motive is pure hypocrisy. Moon in his campaign promised to broaden opportunities for admission beyond the standard state college entry exam.
Moon pressed ahead with the appointments of 10 ministerial candidates without legislative endorsement on the stated belief that “ministers who were contested did their jobs better.” As a result, the cabinet is dysfunctional and the country is a wreck. Chang Ha-sung, former chief of staff, and Cho Kuk, former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs who spearheaded the government’s two key initiatives — income-led growth for Chang and the campaign against past “evils” for Cho — now top a list of “most shameful alumni of Korea University and Seoul National University.” They claimed to champion justice and fairness. But their personal behaviors would suggest different priorities.
There has been no real communication or explanations from the administration. There is only self-congratulating propaganda. An open government should not act this way. Moon convened an emergency meeting at dawn when a ferry with Koreans onboard capsized overseas. He did not hold a National Security Council (NSC) meeting when North Korea fired missiles multiple times and lashed out against the administration with insulting terms. The NSC was not called when Russian jets invaded South Korean skies.
When the president vowed to create a society that has never been experienced before, many envisioned a genuinely open and communicative government. It cannot be fair if guidelines differ depending on which side one is on.
Koreans are mature enough to differentiate between arrogance and genuineness. Moon pledged to be a neighborly leader who can mingle with merchants and salaried workers and have a drink after work. Is he that kind of leader today? Is the government really communicative? Is it really qualified to chair anything that promotes an open government?