Questions about appointments

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Questions about appointments

Chang Se-jeong
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


As his approval ratings plummet, President Moon Jae-in has replaced top officials in his cabinet and the Blue House. It is not bad news for the public if Moon looks back on past failures of governance and tries to correct them. It is long overdue yet fortunate that Moon sacked his chief of staff Noh Young-min and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who have disturbed the public by their outrageous remarks and actions amid the Covid-19 crisis. But if Moon does not change the wrong direction of his policies, the shuffle will be another botched attempt at rearranging the deck chairs, and his approval ratings will plunge further.

We are already seeing unfortunate signs that this is so. Moon apparently replaced aides while keeping his failed policies. Although the Justice Party said Byeon Chang-heum is unfit to serve as land minister, Moon went ahead and appointed him. Byeon would not shift his predecessor Kim Hyun-mee’s policy, who audaciously drew up 24 sets of failed measures to cool off real estate prices. Rep. Park Beom-kye, the nominee to head the Justice Ministry, will likely push forward prosecutorial reforms left unfinished by his predecessor.

The bigger problem is that the officialdom was damaged after four years of appointment fiascoes by Moon. As top officials were appointed primarily based on factional ties, not abilities, cynicism has deepened in the bureaucracy.

The Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry are good examples. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, First Vice Minister Choi Jong-kun and Second Vice Minister Choi Jong-moon are all graduates of the political science and international studies department of Yonsei University. Kim Joon-hyung, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, graduated from the same department of the same school. A diplomatic source said such tight connections are unprecedented.

Of the 14 highest-ranking officials of the Foreign Ministry, including the minister and the vice ministers, none graduated from the department of political science and international relations at Seoul National University, which represented the mainstream in the past. It is also unprecedented that the ministry’s top tier is free from elite diplomats who graduated from that department.

“This is retaliation,” said a source who is well informed about ministry affairs. “The Blue House of the Moon administration particularly hates Ban Ki-moon, Song Min-soon and Yun Byung-se, who served as foreign ministers. The administration thinks they betrayed them after Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency although Roh appointed them to top posts.

“At that time, as diplomats in the North American Bureau of the Foreign Ministry protested the Blue House’s policy, citing national interests, the Blue House could not refute their arguments and could not do what it wanted,” he said. “So, they decided to exclude the elite line in the ministry.”

We have already witnessed a similar situation in prosecution appointments, when elite prosecutors who had investigated abuse of power and corruption allegations surrounding key members of the administration were demoted.

In the Defense Ministry and military, a similar trend is seen. Song Young-moo from the Navy and Jeong Kyeong-doo from the Air Force were named as defense minister. An ROTC general known to have a special relationship with the president was named Army chief of staff. Without any experience in the field, a North Korea expert was recruited as commander of the capital defense command for his contribution for the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement in 2018 in Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, elite members of the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not promoted. “This administration does not hire military officers from the Army and the Korea Military Academy for top posts by treating them as opponents,” said a military source. “How can the military be powerful, when generals were appointed to top posts out of luck, not for their courage, intelligence or virtue?”

I asked former Minister of Personnel Management Lee Geun-myeon, a veteran who worked as a human resources and organization expert at Samsung Group for 37 years, what should be changed.

Q. What is the core principle for personnel management?

A. Experts with abilities and experience must be hired. Otherwise, the government cannot devise good policy or leadership. After appointing them to key posts, the government must trust them. Distrusting talented people is a waste of human resources.

What is good personnel management?

You should hire the best. You must not hire the second or third best just because they are allies. Dramatic appointments backfire. What’s important is whether you appointed the best person or not. When you appoint a minister who is keeping their lawmaker seat and party affiliation, you can easily become a captive of party politics.

What do you think about controversial appointments by the president?

Appointments are not the spoils system. As opposed to a dynasty, the power to appoint in a democracy is delegated to a president by the people he serves. The president must make appointments based on public sentiment. When a majority of the people opposes a nominee, the president must withdraw them. I wonder if the appointments in this government were really done by true experts. The government lacks the insight to select talented people.

What is your advice for the president before his term ends?

Moon must consider the future, not the past. To make Korea a major country, he must appoint the right people for the sake of national advancement and the people’s happiness.

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