Following the Sewol ferry tragedy, uprooting the so-called “bureaucratic mafia” has emerged as an urgent national task. Last month, President Park Geun-hye unveiled plans to prevent retired public officials from pursuing rent-seeking in cahoots with officials on active duty.
While all government agencies are supposed to join this drive, the ethics committee of the executive branch has recently made a decision that runs counter to it. Late last month, it approved the employment of a former director-general of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy at POSCO. He had been retired for less than two months.
Under the Public Service Ethics Act, high-ranking public officials cannot land a job for two years after retirement with private companies closely connected with the business of the departments to which they belonged for five years before retirement.
The Ministry of Security and Public Administration said that the ethics committee had approved the official’s employment application based on its judgment that his job at the ministry had not been closely related with the steelmaking company.
The committee has probably made a correct judgment about the relatedness between the official’s job at the ministry and POSCO. Nevertheless, its approval of his application was not prudent.
The committee should have taken into consideration Park’s announced plan to expand the scope of private companies that public officials will soon be restricted from working for after retirement.
She proposed revising the ethics act to restrict high-ranking officials from taking jobs at companies that are closely related with the business of the ministries ― not the departments ― to which they belonged before retirement.
Had Park’s proposed regulatory change been applied, the former MOTIE official’s employment application would not have been approved.
The ethics committee’s decision illustrates the magnitude of the challenge that Park will face in reining in public officials who are engaged in mafia-like rent-seeking activities, taking advantage of their positions and connections.
As the corrupt symbiosis between incumbent and retired public officials is so pervasive and deeply entrenched, combating it requires a highly determined, coordinated and sustained push.
As a first step, the government not only needs to make more companies subject to restrictions in hiring public officials but should, more importantly, toughen the penalties for those who breach it.
Currently, retired officials who find jobs at companies in violation of the law are subject to imprisonment for up to a year or a maximum penalty of 10 million won. But the severest punishment meted out so far was a penalty of 4 million won. This is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for officials who make several hundreds of millions of won per year.