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Corruption in Personnel Management

Posted February. 17, 2010 06:48,   


The Chinese-derived term “bungyeong” means “a hurried search for and visiting those in power,” which is akin to a request for influence-peddling in personnel affairs. The term indicates corrupt officials scrambling to visit ranking officials and the power elite to seek good government positions. Influence-peddling in personnel management was so rampant in 14th-century Korea, Joseon Dynasty King Jeongjo enacted a law banning corruption in personnel affairs in 1399. The chief prosecutor at the time, however, was embroiled in influence-peddling and ostracized the following year. Under King Sejong the Great in 1447, a ranking official in charge of royal communication was implicated in attempted influence-peddling in personnel affairs for the official’s son. This led to the dismissal of not only the two communications officials, but also the vice minister and assistant minister of government affairs. King Sejong, however, failed to eradicate irregularities in personnel management.

A term similar to bungyeong is “yeopgwan,” which implies a competition among officials to win a public post. In the U.S., the political “spoils system” dating back to the 19th century allows the incumbent administration to appoint key Cabinet members to ranking posts. The expression “spoils system” is derived from the phrase “To the victor goes the spoils” coined by Senator William Marsh, suggesting it was considered natural for ranking posts to be named by the winner of an election. The system disappeared after the assassination of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau, whose demand for an ambassadorial post in 1881 was rejected. A merit-based system of personnel management in which civil servants are appointed based on capacity has replaced the spoils system.

In Korea, National Policy Agency Commissioner Cho Hyun-oh released a list of police superintendents who asked him for favors in personnel management through third parties. He also ordered a closer scrutiny in internal corruption at a meeting of aides Jan. 27. Cho said he responded to none of the requests, adding several of the superintendents were disciplined. His example should be a lesson for the government to consider releasing a list of those who attempt to peddle influence to eradicate corruption in personnel management. In the past, lawmakers were the traditional channel through which requests for favors in personnel management were made. Legislators wield massive influence in government interpellation sessions, annual budget reviews and confirmation hearings. Would the list also include such people?

The deep-rooted problem of corruption in personnel affairs cannot be easily eradicated in Korea, where a sense of kinship among relatives and alumni is strong. After his election in 2002, then President-elect Roh Moo-hyun announced, “Those caught requesting favors in personnel affairs will be forced into bankruptcy,” but he instead created an administration riddled with influence-peddling requests in personnel management. His own elder brother was implicated in one such case. Every new government preaches a transparent and merit-based system of personnel management. But has the incumbent administration done enough to earn strong public trust in personnel affairs management?

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)