During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, President Park Geun-hye expressed deep regret over the failure to prevent the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol by correcting what she called evils long accumulated in many corners of the country. She conceded that greater efforts should have been exerted to right the wrong and abnormal practices in the early phase of her administration.
But Park may have to admit that she was responsible in the first place. Since taking office in February last year, she has brought forward buzzwords such as “safety,” “accountability” and “principles,” all of which seemed conspicuously lacking in the response to the ferry disaster, which left more than 300 passengers, mostly high school students, dead or missing.
When Park visited a mourning altar in Ansan, where the teenage victims’ school is located, earlier Tuesday, a parent knelt before her, pleading for her to ensure that accidents like the ferry sinking will not happen again. She promised to do so, and she must keep the promise.
Park was right to see the fundamental cause of the disaster as a combination of long-running irregularities and corruption deeply rooted in many corners of Korean society, such as disregarding and overlooking safety rules for the sake of profits and collusive ties between regulators and businesses.
During the Cabinet meeting, she pledged to do her best to redress all such problems, ordering a complete overhaul of the country’s safety system and the creation of a government agency in charge of handling large-scale accidents.
Notably, she harshly rebuked the officialdom, vowing a drastic reform of the bureaucracy, which she said was steeped in inertia, negligence and self-interest, and quick to avoid responsibility. Such criticism contrasted with her initial treatment of bureaucrats as the main drivers of her key policy agenda.
Korea’s government system was certainly instrumental in having directed the postwar economic ascension that enabled the country to reach the ranks of the developed world. But it has not kept up with the advancement and innovation in other sectors of the nation.
All its problems and weaknesses were epitomized in the poor handling of the ship sinking. The lack of expertise and coordination between different agencies was sorely conspicuous.
It is time for Korea to overhaul its government system to bring it into line with its economic success.
As Park noted, the closed personnel management scheme should be redressed drastically to change the perceptions and attitudes of Korea’s officialdom. To breathe new energy, creativity and a sense of public service into the bureaucracy, more opportunities should be offered for private sector experts to become civil servants.
The government has opened a limited number of posts to outsiders, but most of them remain occupied by career bureaucrats. The practice of making senior appointments based on the time served, not ability, must be reconsidered.
Park’s predecessors also attempted to reform the bureaucracy, but their will weakened as their reliance on bureaucrats grew in the latter part of their five-year term. She must prove different from them and the public anger over the ferry tragedy should serve her well in this regard.