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[Editorial] Public Sector Needs Major Overhaul

Posted October. 12, 2009 07:55,   


President Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating is hovering around 50 percent for the first time since August last year. This is partly due to his diplomatic achievements, including Korea’s hosting of next year’s Group of 20 summit. Korea is also emerging from the global economic crisis faster than any other country. Officials at the Cabinet and the presidential office have good reason to be in an upbeat mood. As President Lee put it, the Republic of Korea might be embracing an opportunity for prosperity and taking center stage in the international community.

Turning to the situation in Korea, however, the government suffers from lack of capacity to tackle and manage the crisis, as well as corruption, misdemeanors and wrongdoings in officialdom. If such a malfunctioning public sector remains intact and blind calls for a bigger “Republic of Korea” and “first-rate nation in the world” continue, they will be mere sound bites. Chances are also high that disasters common in an underdeveloped country will erupt.

According to data prepared for the annual parliamentary inspection of the National Police Agency, two radar systems and two aircraft guiding systems on the Dokdo islets installed to monitor North Korea’s naval aggression were out of order when Pyongyang fired intercontinental ballistic missiles in early April. South Korean military and police scrambled to cope by raising their alert levels, but the South had security lapses in the East Sea, a potential battleground. The military failed to cope effectively with flooding in the Imjin River, which killed South Korean civilians due to the North’s sudden discharge of water. The military also failed to recognize 11 North Korean defectors aboard a small boat until the vessel was just seven kilometers off the coast after entering South Korean waters from international waters. Nonetheless, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young blamed the limited capacity of radar, saying “No naval force can spot a three-ton boat from a distance of 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometers).” How can the public trust such a negligent and incompetent military and police and focus on their livelihoods?

Criminal investigations and internal inspections by government ministries have shown the public sector to be a “hotbed of corruption.” Certain civil servants embezzled millions of dollars from the social welfare budget, while others lent money to civilians like loan sharks. Others colluded to pocket overtime pay or sold rice intended for military soldiers for personal profit. A presidential aide even yelled and used abusive language at the presidential office due to discontent over work. The aide acted arrogantly apparently believing himself to be one of the power elite in the president’s inner circle. The presidential office tried to restore order at its secretariat following a sex scandal involving a presidential aide. This is not a simple isolated case. The real problem is the sloppy environment that allows such misconduct to erupt.

The government must be all the more careful at a time when the president is enjoying high popularity and things are apparently going well. If merit goes unrewarded and civil servants who commit crimes go unpunished, this country will never become an advanced nation and the incumbent government will not succeed.