[Editorial] Back-scratching ties

By Korea Herald

Vessel safety inspection framework needs reform

  • Published : May 21, 2014 - 20:12
  • Updated : May 21, 2014 - 20:12
In her Monday statement, President Park Geun-hye reaffirmed her resolve to break the chain of corrupt ties between bureaucrats and businesses, as it is regarded as one of the main causes of the tragic Sewol ferry disaster.

Park noted that the ferry fiasco illustrated how a big manmade catastrophe could be brought about by “the abnormal practice of collusion between bureaucrats and industry people” and “the cliquish culture that permeates the civil service.”

She pointed out that the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries had delegated its authority to carry out vessel safety checks to the Korea Shipping Association, a lobby group for shipping companies that has customarily been run by retired ministry officials.

Given such a symbiotic relationship between the ministry and shipping companies, she said, it was hardly surprising that strict safety checks were not conducted on vessels.

Then she prescribed detailed remedies. Park said she would not appoint government officials as heads or auditors of the organizations and agencies that are charged with overseeing safety regulations, issuing permissions and procuring goods and services.

She also said restrictions on employment of retired public officials would be toughened. Currently, public officials cannot land a job for two years after retirement with private enterprises or organizations closely connected with the business of the departments to which they belonged for five years before retirement.

Park said the scope of private companies and organizations subject to the regulation would be increased more than three times the current level to include such private industry bodies as the Korea Shipping Association and the Korean Register of Shipping.

The employment restriction period will also be lengthened from the current two years after retirement to three years. More importantly, the revised regulation will restrict retired officials’ employment at private firms and organizations closely related with the business of the ministries ― not the departments ― to which they belonged.

To break the links between retired public officials and those in active service, Park called on lawmakers to promptly pass the so-called Kim Young-ran bill, an anticorruption legislation proposed by the former head of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission.

These prescriptions, if implemented as proposed, will contribute to breaking off the back-scratching relationship between corrupt bureaucrats and businesses. But they do not address one fundamental problem.

As Park noted, one main cause of the Sewol ferry disaster was the failure of officials of the Korea Shipping Association to inspect the vessel’s compliance with its navigation manual.

KSA officials, however, cannot be expected to undertake rigorous safety checks on vessels in the first place, as they belong to an organization that is funded by shippers and exists to represent their interests.

This won’t change whether or not the head of the KSA is a retired government official. As long as the association remains an industry lobby group, its inspectors are likely to turn a blind eye to shipping firms’ safety breaches.

This means the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries made a great error of judgment when it decided to delegate its inspection authority to the KSA. The ministry is suspected of having made the ill-conceived decision to secure comfortable jobs for its retiring officials.

To ensure that rigorous safety checks are made on ferries, the ministry needs to consider reclaiming the authority delegated to the KSA. If it intends to have vessel inspections carried out by a private third party, it should rely on an independent organization.