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[Op-Ed] Minister Interested in Public, Interest Groups

Posted April. 13, 2009 08:47,   


Canada has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Korea’s refusal to lift a ban on Canadian beef imports. Ottawa said its beef is scientifically safe because the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) officially categorized Canada as a “controlled BSE risk” country. Though Seoul also recognizes the safety of Canadian beef to a degree, it has delayed the resumption of Canadian beef imports in the judgment that the time is not ripe. This has prompted Canada to turn to the WTO. Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Chang Tae-pyong said, “The prevailing opinion requires a prudent reaction because we have a tough task of persuading the people and consumers.” He apparently meant that public consensus on the reopening of the Korean beef market has yet to be formulated.

Given last year`s candlelight vigil protests over the resumption of U.S. beef imports, Chang’s cautious approach is understandable. Undesirable, however, is the frequent delays of policy decisions based on distorted arguments like the one on U.S. beef by the MBC investigative news program “PD Notebook” or vocal special interest groups. If Korea continues to bar Canadian beef imports though they have the same status as U.S. beef, the WTO will rule against Korea. Minister Chang should scientifically review the safety of Canadian beef, and if he is confident of the safety, he must correct the Korean people’s wrong perception by actively persuading them.

Government ministries and agencies seem to care more about public opinion and responses from special interest groups than whether their policies are right and wrong. They intentionally show their policy directions to the media to sound out the public’s view. If the public reacts favorably, they proceed with the policies and if not, the policies are scrapped. The candlelight vigils seem to have hurt the conviction of public officials. The allowance of for-profit hospitals, which aims to allow convenience stores to sell over-the-counter medicine and attract medical tourists, has seen no progress due to opposition from special interest groups. If public officials surrender to the egoism of such groups, the people will suffer.

One of the most important standards in making policy decisions is a public consensus, because public support guarantees policy success. No less important, however, is the government’s role in leading public opinion. Construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway and Inchon International Airport were pushed forward amid strong public opposition. Neither the real-name financial transaction system nor the restoration of Cheonggye Stream would have been possible if the government only listened to special interest groups. If government policies are decided by public opinion polls, Cabinet ministers are unnecessary. A minister constantly studying the pleasures of such groups to keep his or her position runs counter to the basic principles of the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Editorial Writer Park Yeong-kyun (parkyk@donga.com)