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Korea’s Embattled Public Servants

Posted November. 18, 2006 04:17,   


It is hard to find pride these days among public servants. As “policy engineers,” they are whipped with scornful words for choosing a public service life and supporting the “policy of codes” of amateurs in the regime who have actual power.

With the radical fall in approval ratings for the regime and the expected “breakup” of the Uri Party, the waves of the lame duck phenomenon (a phenomenon of power leakage at the end of the term of a regime) are overflowing into the public sector.

The “386 generation group” that has dominated Cheong Wa Dae and the political domain pushed the public servants to reform. Various reform systems introduced in this way shook up the existing systems but remained uncomfortable; like clothes that do not fit. Public servants feel the pressure of the “never-fired” criticism and worry about their post-retirement years.

A team of journalists of this newspaper met with 40 public servants of various ministries to uncover the facts about Korea’s shaken public servants.

What the reporters confirmed through the interviews was the three-pronged crisis that was hovering over the civil servants society of South Korea in 2006: the dissatisfaction that they are not being respected as subjects of policy enforcement, the immobility that they are unable to passionately put work forward, and the nervousness about their futures. The following is an imaginary conversation among a director in his or her 50s, a division head in his or her 40s, and a junior official in his or her 30s who all have higher civil service examination backgrounds; a conversation reconstructed based on the stories they actually told during the interviews.

Director: I’ve spent 25 years in public service but have never seen the public servants so shaken as now. (Smiling bitterly) If it was the intention of the current government to attempt a “creative destruction” by reforming the public servants, well then, they were successful at least in the “destruction” aspect.

Division Head: What about the real estate policies? The staff team in charge that had made the policies to suit the “codes” of Cheong Wa Dae are not exempted from responsibilities. My seniors used to tell me that “staying resolute is the only way to survive,” half jokingly, but never before have those words appealed to me so strongly as now.

Junior Official: These days, most junior officials are busying themselves preparing to study abroad. They dream of becoming foreign lawyers and being employed in domestic law firms. This is a shameful story, but they no longer think of building up experience and the philosophy as bureaucrats to make and execute great policies.”

Director: Have you heard of this story? The “master golfer” is the one who makes a tee shot so that the ball would hit a hook, fly leftward, but end up in the middle of the fairway. With this “color” of the regime, one would have to appear to be “heading left” in front of them, but in the end, drop the ball in the middle if one is to benefit the nation.

Division Head: My view is that a lame duck situation of this regime has come with the end of the Assembly audit this year. Public servants will increasingly hope that the policies made by the current government will be put off. Who can tell for sure if the current key notes of policies will be followed up on in the next government? It wouldn’t help to have the image that one is thriving right now.

Junior Official: I believe the biggest problem with this administration is its attitude that ignores the market. The aftereffects should be considered when making policies, but they just push and push. This is quite a worrisome situation, but do we feel free to raise opinions straightforwardly?

Director: I also think that public servants have accumulated fatigue because of the strong “drives” under the cover of “reforms.” For example, the open recruitment system for high-rank officials; how these are shaking the public sector! The current government, in too many cases, has pressed forward after having a number of ministerial talks without asking the opinions of the staff in charge.

Junior Official: It is also true that loyalty towards the organization has greatly weakened. Many go on their ways worrying, “My boss would not look after me.” I used to hear that in the old times, being loyal to seniors and working diligently guaranteed promotion and the chance to study abroad…

Director: This is shameful to say, but the “image of a respectable public servant” has disappeared. The public servitude only remains as an incapable tax-wasting body or the target of reform. I can’t say there was no corrupt bureaucrat. But what other organization cares more about the nation and has experience in policies than the public servants? It lightens my mind a bit to speak out frankly. Well, let’s now return to work.