The successive fall of two nominees for prime minister and the ongoing controversy over some of President Park Geun-hye’s other Cabinet nominees demonstrate that Korea’s public service now requires very high ethical standards.
Candidates for senior government posts who are subject to parliamentary screening first go through tough public and media scrutiny over their personal and professional qualifications.
The scrutiny is so stringent that even the candidates’ private lives are all but laid bare. As in the most recent case of Moon Chang-keuk, the checklist that once focused on personal matters like wealth and military service has grown to include a candidate’s historical views.
Saying she could not find “a man who does not have any dirt,” President Park has given up her search for a new nominee for prime minister and retained Chung Hong-won, who had tendered his resignation to take responsibility for the Sewol ferry disaster. Park complained about the high screening bar and the harsh court of public opinion.
Indeed, some say that very few people ― members of the clergy for instance ― could survive the tough screening conducted by the opposition and the media these days. The ruling Saenuri Party and the president find fault with what they call harsh, microscopic screening, such as the problem of encroachment on the candidates and their families’ right to privacy. But the fact that this society requires high ethical and moral standards in its public servants is something to be proud of, not something to feel uncomfortable about.
Yet, some ill-advised people suggest changes to what they see as an excessive vetting process for candidates for public service. The Saenuri Party is leading the call, specifically targeting the parliamentary confirmation hearing. Instead of self-reflection and soul-searching over her failure to find a qualified candidate for prime minister, Park is supporting the ruling party’s move. Park and Saenuri officials may well remember that they pushed for the introduction of the hearing in 2000 when they were in the opposition.
Saenuri leaders say that the confirmation hearing, which all cabinet ministers from the prime minister downward have to go through, should be more protective of the candidates’ right to privacy. The party’s suggestion is to have a two-track hearing ― a closed-door session on candidates’ ethical and moral standards and a separate public session on their professional competence.
Given that excessively harsh scrutiny frequently results in severe infringement of privacy, there is some ground for such a suggestion. But the fact is that a parliamentary confirmation hearing is not the only thing that threatens candidates’ right to privacy. The public and media scrutiny starts as soon as the president announces their names.
As such, Moon, the latest prime minister nominee, and before him, Ahn Dae-hee, bowed out even before the president’s office submitted their names to the National Assembly.
They had to withdraw voluntarily in the face of public uproar over their questionable pasts, which was covered extensively by the media. Usually, these media reports tend to be relentless, indiscriminate and sometimes acrimonious ― to the degree that critics call them witch hunts.
Media reports are often affected by the political and ideological polarization that divides the Korean news media. The progressive media, for instance, usually goes all-out to derail a person like Moon, whom they deem ultra-conservative.
Adding to this furor are some users of the Internet and social network services, which now have become influential political media in the country. SNS has specifically become a channel for spreading rumors and politically and ideologically-motivated messages.
It is ironic, but while the disproportionate media investigations and the political abuse of the Internet and SNS are not all desirable from the perspective of a sound, healthy society, they help raise the ethical bar for senior public servants. Nevertheless, we must admit that the way rumors, slander, defamation and other offenses are generated and spread through digital devices should be a big cause for concern.
On the Saenuri Party’s proposal to hold a separate closed-door hearing to screen candidates’ private lives, one might be tempted to ask this question: Do they believe that what lawmakers discussed in such a hearing will be kept secret forever? Then please be reminded of this time-old joke: Politicians love to find any stories on themselves in newspapers, good and bad, as long as they are not their own obituaries.
In all regards, what should disturb us now, having witnessed the recent successive “nomination scandals,” is not the system of vetting our public servants face, but the sad reality that the elite in this society have such low ethical standards that even the president cannot find a nominee for prime minister who can pass public scrutiny and parliamentary screening.
This reality further convinces us of the need to maintain high ethical standards for public servants. That would make anyone who wants to or thinks they could get a public post no longer take for granted the wrongdoings for which numerous candidates have withdrawn in disgrace.
For now, it would be better if Park, instead of complaining about the tough public personnel screening, abandons her notorious “top-down” handpicking of candidates based on her narrow talent pool and make sure her aides at Cheong Wa Dae complete thorough background checks of candidates for senior posts. Remember that 10 of 16 candidates for prime minister have been approved since the parliamentary confirmation hearings were adopted in 2000.
By Chon Shi-yong
Chon Shi-yong is an editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.