President Park Geun-hye’s national address on the Sewol ferry disaster included drastic measures and firm promises to make the nation a safer place to live. There may be pros and cons, but what’s important now is to turn them into action and choose the right people for the job.
Park’s address was highlighted by her apologies for the government’s failure to prevent the disaster and properly respond to it, and a set of planned measures to upgrade the nation’s safety system.
The measures were focused on the restructuring of related government agencies, centered on the disbandment of the Coast Guard and the establishment of a national safety agency, and reform of the officialdom, whose incompetence and collusive ties with the private sector have been blamed for the Sewol tragedy.
Park heralded a sweeping reform of the civil service regarding especially recruitment and “revolving door” appointments. “In order to end the harmful effects of bureaucratic mafia and fundamentally reform the bureaucracy, I will carry out renovations from the point of appointment of government officials and to the point of their retirement to make the bureaucracy more open and equipped with expertise,” she said.
The things Park mentioned in the national address to reform officialdom may not be sufficient, but are necessary to improve the Korean government’s capabilities, efficiency and ethical standards, which the Sewol disaster demonstrated were unable to protect the public.
Now that Park has painstakingly come up with proposals to help the nation recover from the shock of the ferry disaster, she is tasked with a still more important job ― reshuffling the Cabinet and appointing the right people to the posts to be created by the planned realignment of safety-related agencies.
We say it is important because Park has a poor performance record as far as her personnel policy is concerned.
Park vowed in the national address that the government would not send civil servants as heads or auditors of public agencies that are related to safety or vulnerable to corruption.
Since taking office, however, the Park administration has followed the tradition of appointing officials, politicians and her former campaigners to numerous posts at government offices, public enterprises and organizations.
Ending this tradition is the first step Park has to take to ensure there is no repeat of the Sewol disaster.
It is well known that the president prefers bureaucrats, legal professionals and military generals for senior government posts. Some say it is part of legacy from her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who made bureaucracy a core part of his rule when he pushed ahead with his government-driven economic development.
It would not be a coincidence that 12 of the 18 members of Park’s Cabinet are bureaucrats. She installed former judges as the heads of the top auditing agency, rights panel and even to head the regulator of broadcasting and communications. Her chief of staff at Cheong Wa Dae is a former prosecutor.
This heavy reliance on certain select groups has kept her confined within her inner circles. Park needs to pay heed to suggestions that she should appoint people even from the opposition when she shakes up the Cabinet and Cheong Wa Dae.