Hiding in their bunkers
The author is head of the sports news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The minister is working in the bunker now. So is the deputy minister. Why the bunker when it is not in the state of emergency?
The minister uses the bunker in downtown Seoul instead of his office in the Sejong City. This office is called a “bunker” for a simple reason: it is a secret place not to be exposed to outside. So the government organization chart does not include the bunker address.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of SMEs and Startups and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy all have similar setups. Each minister has two offices, just like a single household having two houses. Some ministries closed their minister’s office in Seoul, but many high-level officials work in Seoul, not Sejong.
The bunker of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is located in the Baek Seonghui & Jang MinHo Theater in Cheongpa-ro, Yongsan. The minister and vice minister work here almost every day. They go to the government complex in Sejong less than once a week. They have reasons to report to the Seoul office instead of Sejong: They need to go to Yeouido, where National Assembly sessions are held, and to attend cabinet meetings in the Blue House.
Many section and department heads stay in Seoul for similar reasons. Each ministry has a number of mid-level officials travelling between Sejong and Seoul to report to their ministers and vice ministers. There is an analysis that more than 5,000 public servants travel to Seoul for business each month. They are called “officials on the road.”
The problem with officials spending so much time on the road is nothing new. Since the government complex moved to Sejong in 2012, the issue has been constantly raised. In order to minimize waste, a branch of the National Assembly in Sejong was suggested, but the idea was never materialized. Recently, the Office for Government Policy Coordination ordered the closure of the Seoul offices of government ministries based in Sejong, but I am not sure if the bunkers will also close. As long as the National Assembly is located in Yeouido, it is nearly impossible to eliminate the Seoul offices completely.
As the ministers and vice ministers spend more time in Seoul, the Sejong complex is left half empty. Field officials naturally become slack. I don’t mean to denounce them. They are diligent and loyal. But competency and devotion are separate from efficiency. When pending tasks are overwhelming, they are wasting time on the road between Sejong and Seoul.
As the Covid-19 outbreak prolongs, private companies are seeking efficient working methods by working from home, but it is comical how many public servants still travel between Seoul and Sejong. Moreover, when the minister, vice minister, section and department heads are not in the office, will team leaders and officers do their job properly?
Let’s look at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Overseeing diverse fields, the ministry has many challenges due to the Covid-19. Cultural events are suspended, sports activities are halted and the number of tourists is basically zero. Moreover, the chronic violence in sports has resurfaced recently.
It is abnormal in all aspects that low-level civil servants work in Sejong and high-level officials stay in Seoul. It is extremely inefficient. It is also far from the smart work system in a contactless era. I am not arguing that the administrative capital should move to Sejong. Relocating the capital should be approached carefully — and with a long-term plan for the future.
Instead of moving the capital right away, the ruling and opposition parties — and the government — must work together to resolve the issue of public workers spending too much time on the road. Instead of forcing government officials to attend meetings, video conferences could be an option. Until when will the ministers and vice ministers hide in their shabby bunkers?