Holding on to head posts at state institutes

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Holding on to head posts at state institutes

Koh Hyun-kohn
The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

A report released by the Korea Development Institute (KDI) last summer triggered a controversy. It pointed out that liberal opinion had been overly hyped during the heated debate about the suspension of the construction of Shin Gori unit 5 and 6 reactors in 2017. The scorn from a state think tank on the loss of balance in public policy for reasoning in the reactor scale-down may have embarrassed the Moon Jae-in administration. The report could have made headline news, given the concerns about its nuclear phase-out policy. KDI President Hong Jang-pyo found the report “inopportune without new details.” It was quietly posted on the website of KDI, but was not distributed through a press release.

Hong had been the architect behind the Moon administration’s failed income-led growth policy. His appointment as head of KDI in May last year was much disputed. Some said that critical and insightful research from the state think tank shrank while he headed it. Hong kept to his seat even after a new conservative administration was launched in May. Prime Minister Hank Duck-soo eventually said something, saying it did not make sense for a failed policymaker to be seated as head of the policy research institute. But Hong did not leave gracefully. Before he retired, he issued a long statement claiming that a state research institute must not serve as a cheerleader for the government. Hong suppressed research critical of Moon’s policy and yet suddenly turned into an “independence fighter” when he was pushed out. During one year in office, he had disgraced the institute.

State research institutes run on tax money. They study and advise on public policy. Although research should have independence, its direction must be in sync with the governing power. It is not desirable for someone like Hong with the opposite ideology to be in charge of a state think tank. If Hong critical of private-led growth still heads KDI, the country’s top think tank could clash with the Yoon Seok-yeol administration and waste tax money.
Hong Jang-pyo, architect of the progressive Moon Jae-in administration’s failed income-led growth, speaks during a meeting at Seoul Global Center in 2019. He resigned as president of the Korea Development Institute (KDI), a government think tank, after the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration started in May 2022. [YONHAP] 

When two loyalists of the Moon administration — Hong and Hwang Deok-soon of the Korea Labor Institute — resigned, heads of other state research institutes were expected to follow. But many aligned to the past government still keep to their seats. Jung Hae-gu — chairman of the National Research Council for Economics, Humanities, and Social Science — is a scholar overtly loyal to liberal presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in. He spearheaded the purge of past figures at the National Intelligence Service (NIS) at the beginning of Moon’s term. In a debate after the May 9 presidential election from which the liberal front lost the governing power, he said the dispute over income-led growth policy was led by political interests rather than on reasonable grounds. He suggested that the income-led growth policy was disregarded in order to discredit the liberal Moon administration.

Kang Hyun-soo, president of the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, was a key supporter of Kim Soo-hyun who designed the real estate policy of Moon. In September last year, the institute blamed the media for fanning prices of apartments in Gangnam. Instead of regretting Moon’s real estate policy that caused the disaster, the institute passed on the liability to the media. Hong Hyun-ik, chancellor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, caused controversy by saying there was no need for Korea-U.S. joint drills and that it was better not to find fault with North Korean missile launches for the sake of solving the North Korean nuclear issue. The institute under the auspice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in charge of studying foreign strategy. It is not normal for someone with a contrasting view on foreign and security policy to head the state institute.

Lim Choon-taek — president of the Korea Energy Economics Research Institute who used to be a staffer of Roh’s presidential office — is a critic of nuclear reactors. He stands opposite to President Yoon Suk-yeol who orders all-out efforts to restore the nearly defunct reactor ecosystem. In an interview in May, Lim advocated for the Moon administration for shuttering the Gori 1 and Wolseong 1 units, arguing that their retirement was almost determined in the past government. His claim came as the prosecution was investigating the Moon administration for meddling to influence the early retirement of the Wolseong 1 unit.

Park Jong-kyu, president of the Korea Institute of Finance (KIF), served as an aide to Moon on finance and planning at the presidential office for two and half years. In 2013, he drew up a report arguing for the income-led growth policy by claiming that Korea’s income growth rate underperformed the rises in the GDP. Although the KIF is not a state institute, it works closely with the government on financial policy.

Ju Hyeon, president of the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade, served under Hong Jang-pyo when he was the senior secretary for economic affairs to Moon. Lee Tae-soo, president of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, was among the advisers to Moon on state affairs planning. He was No. 18 on the list of candidates for proportional representation seats of the Democratic Party in the 2016 parliamentary elections. There are more who go out of sync with the incumbent government.

Former president Moon seated too many people from the presidential office and commissions as heads of state research institutes. Many of their terms last until 2024. The term at a state research institute is three years. They must not be discriminated against just for working under the former government. But if their vision and philosophy differ with the new government, they cannot help. Yoon cannot expect any help from state institutes for his first two years. The country is facing multiple challenges that may elevate into a crisis. Insights from state research institutions is critical.

The heads who had been loyal to the past progressive administration must resign to help themselves, their institutes and the country. They must continue with their research at private institutes which agree with their thoughts, or they could return to the academy or publish books. Staying in their seats to the last minute only raises the question whether it is their real aim to interfere with the conservative administration. Or they could be clinging to their title and face-saving pay and car. Whatever the case, it is not honorable.
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