[Yu Kun-ha] Korea needs thorough reform to shake off gloom

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 18, 2014 - 20:37
  • Updated : May 18, 2014 - 20:37
More than one month has passed since the Sewol ferry capsized off the southwestern island of Jindo. At the site of the tragedy, divers are still struggling against strong underwater currents and low visibility to retrieve the bodies of the deceased.

Among an estimated 476 passengers on board, only 172 have been rescued, with 286 confirmed dead and 18 still missing. It is difficult to tell when the search and rescue operations will be completed as the Coast Guard intends to keep working until the last body is found. 

The nation is slowly getting back to normal after a long period of mourning. Retailers say that sales have started to recover, an indication that consumers have begun to spend as usual after keeping their purses closed for a couple of weeks.

Now the government needs to start addressing the problems exposed by the heartbreaking manmade disaster. Late last month, President Park Geun-hye pledged to tackle them in a spirit of “rebuilding the nation from the ground up.”

She is ready to start translating her resolve into concrete action. She is to issue a long-awaited statement to the nation today to unveil a set of reform measures and apologize again for the government’s abysmal response to the disaster.

Park faces a daunting reform agenda. More than anything else, she needs to restore morality in Korean society. The ferry fiasco shook the nation to its foundation because it illustrated how morally bankrupt Korean society has become. Those responsible for the fiasco all behaved in a grossly self-centered way, exhibiting serious moral failings.

The ferry’s captain and other key crew members abandoned ship first, leaving many passengers in danger; the Coast Guard rescue team did not bother to enter the cabins to save the trapped passengers; the shipping company that operated the ferry completely ignored safety regulations to earn more profits; and officials in charge of inspecting ferry operations turned a blind eye to the ill-fated vessel’s safety breaches.

Moral integrity is one of the key foundations of society. A society cannot even exist, much less move forward, when many of its members simply ignore their duties and pursue personal interest in blatant disregard for others.

In restoring morality, a good place to start is reform of officialdom. Park needs to make public officials behave more responsibly and honorably and use them as an example for the private sector.

In the 1970s and 1980s, government officials worked hard with a clear sense of purpose: spearheading the nation’s modernization efforts and driving forward economic growth.

The era of government-led development, however, has passed. Consequently, the role of government officials has changed. Now their primary mandate is to serve the people. But the ferry fiasco has shown that there are many officials who have failed to recognize this change.

Last month, Park pledged to weed out incompetent and irresponsible officials. On top of that, she needs to put in place a new incentive system to make civil servants behave in a more proactive and accountable manner.

The ferry tragedy has once again brought into focus the problem of retired government officials finding jobs at industry organizations and using their ties with incumbent officials to protect the interests of private companies.

One way to address this problem is toughening punishments for graft and corruption among public officials. For this, lawmakers should pass the original version of the so-called Kim Young-ran bill.

The anticorruption bill is the brainchild of Kim Young-ran, former head of the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission. It proposes that civil servants who have received 1 million won ($980) or more be put in jail for up to three years ― whether or not the money was related to their job and whether or not they offered favors in return.

The bill’s scope of application needs to be expanded to include former public officials at organizations that exercise regulatory authority on behalf of the government.

Park also needs to retool the nation’s disorganized disaster response system. She has already referred to the establishment of a new agency in charge of managing disasters.

Yet she needs to go further than simply creating a new agency. She should ensure that it is staffed with competent experts. Currently, the disaster response division of the Ministry of Security and Public Administration has few officials with expertise in this field. This is the result of a tendency to make light of safety management.

While implementing these reform measures, Park needs to carry out a major Cabinet reshuffle. On the campaign trail, she promised to appoint competent people to important posts regardless of their age, sex and background. But she has failed to keep her promise.

Park is also under pressure to reorganize the presidential office, as the current secretariat, especially the chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, is criticized for exercising too much power.

To demonstrate her commitment to reform, Park needs to change her governing style. This is even more important than reorganizing the Cabinet and the presidential office.

Park has tended to micromanage state affairs. A Cabinet meeting held shortly after the ferry fiasco offered a typical example of her leadership style. She prepared an 18-point to-do list to dictate tasks for each of the related ministries. At most Cabinet meetings, ministers are busy jotting down her instructions and comments.

It may not be easy for Park to change her leadership style, but she needs to avoid micromanaging ministerial affairs. Leadership is, after all, the art of getting someone else to do things that you want done.

Park is facing a make-or-break moment. The ferry disaster has put her to the biggest leadership test since her inauguration last year. It has already taken a heavy toll on her approval ratings. Gallup Korea put her ratings at 46 percent on May 15, down 15 percentage points from 61 percent in early April.

The ferry fiasco is also expected to tip the balance in the coming June 4 elections in favor of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, undermining Park’s ability to govern the nation.

How Park addresses the glaring problems exposed by the catastrophe will determine the success or failure of her presidency in the remainder of her five-year term.

More importantly, it will also affect the future of the nation. She needs to tackle the problems head on to dispel the gloom pervading the nation. She can put Korean society on firmer foundations by restoring the people’s confidence in the nation’s future.

By Yu Kun-ha 

Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at khyu@heraldcorp.com. ― Ed.