Why are they holding on?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
During a meeting with reporters on June 29, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo made some piquant remarks. “It makes no sense that the architect of the income-led growth policy [during the Moon Jae-in administration] is still serving as head of the Korea Development Institute,” said Han. He was criticizing Hong Jang-pyo, former senior economic secretary in the Moon Blue House.
Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the People Power Party (PPP), attacked not only Hong but also Jung Hae-gu, current chairman of the National Research Council for Economics, Humanities and Social Sciences. “When Jung was heading the National Intelligence Service reform committee, he called us the accumulated evils. Now we are in power, but Jung refused to surrender his post,” Kweon said Saturday. The research council, a public institution under the prime minister’s office, is a powerful organ that oversees state-run research institutes, including the Korea Development Institute (KDI).
We are facing an unprecedented controversy as minister-level civil servants and heads of state-run institutes, appointed during Moon’s presidency, refuse to vacate their seats. Many say they must resign to fulfill the duty of public servants since their political lines and policy directions are far too different from the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration. Others, however, argue that their guaranteed tenures should be respected.
It has been two months since the conservative president took office, but the controversy continues. The Moon administration is largely responsible for the situation. Moon’s first Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung had pressured some heads of public institutions appointed by former president Park Geun-hye to resign, and Kim was later detained and convicted by the Supreme Court. Investigations are still ongoing in other ministries, including the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy after the suspicion arose that the Moon administration had drawn up a blacklist of civil servants to oppress those who had different political views.
The Moon administration made appointments en masse with less than six months left in its term. As top-ranking officials refused to step down, the embarrassing confrontation continues.
According to data from the PPP, Moon made 59 appointments at the end of his presidency, including 13 heads of public institutes. “Former President Moon is ultimately responsible for this situation,” said Kweon, the PPP floor leader.
It was rare exceptions that Kim Yong-jin, head of the National Pension Service, and Korea Development Bank Chairman Lee Dong-gull, both known as Moon loyalists, stepped down from their posts with one year left in their terms shortly after the March 9 presidential election.
Other heads of public offices who are keeping their seats assume various attitudes in order to stay.
The Peaceful Unification Advisory Council, chaired by the president, is an advisory body to the president, established according to Article 92 of the Constitution. Lee Seok-hyun, a former five-term lawmaker from the Democratic Party (DP), is the executive vice chairman of the council, and he shows no signs of vacating the post. As pressures mount, Lee suddenly changed his attitude on July 1 and praised Yoon and his wife for “making a successful diplomatic debut by attending the NATO summit [in Madrid].”
As the officials appointed by Moon insist on staying in their posts, other appointment plans were disrupted. Moon appointed Kim Sa-yeol chairman of the Presidential Committee for Balanced National Development and Kim insists on completing his term. As a result, Yoon cannot replace him with Kim Byong-joon, a professor from Kookmin University. As Kim Sa-yeol is still heading the committee, he is oddly hosting meetings with 11 ministers appointed by President Yoon.
When public institution heads insist on keeping their jobs despite their disagreements with the philosophy of the new administration, it is a national waste. Members of those institutions are confused about the course of their organizations. In contrast, the Financial Services Commission is performing its job properly, as its head stepped down voluntarily. However, Korea Communications Commission Chairman Han Sang-hyeok and Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Jeon Hyun-hee refused to resign from their posts. So, Yoon told them that they do not have to attend the weekly cabinet meeting since they are not formal members. After Yoon’s remarks, employees of the two commissions were shaken.
“Because Han’s fate is uncertain, I cannot concentrate on my work,” said an official at the broadcasting commission. After Jeon refused to step down, the PPP said the anti-corruption body is not performing its job properly because its head does not follow the new government’s philosophy.
To put an end to this debate, we should reform the system. In the United States, almost all politically appointed public servants tender their resignations when a new president takes office. Korea must follow that system. Except for the few posts that require absolute political neutrality, we must allow the new president to work with new heads of public institutions. The Foreign Ministry has a tradition that all heads of diplomatic missions tender their resignations when a new president is elected, and the president makes new selections. That practice can be used as a reference.
More important than the system is the right public service perspective. We must change the shameless, shallow view that public offices are treated as a means of career success, a money-making tool and even considered political spoils. Public servants must ask themselves why they are obstinately holding onto their posts.