As the Choi Soon-sil fiasco has left the Park Geun-hye presidency in tatters, a sense of impotence prevails across the officialdom, fueling concerns over a possible government vacuum.
A spate of key initiatives are suddenly seen at a halt, including ambitious labor reform, industrial restructuring and economic revitalization, as well as the appointment of the heads of several state-run organizations.
Most are showpiece programs the president had been pushing for even in the face of robust protests from labor lobbies, unions and other critics before the peddling of influence scandal involving Park’s longtime friend broke out in earnest late last month.
Among the hardest hit was the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which was found to have provided financial and administrative support for two culture and sports foundations virtually set up as Choi’s slush funds. Embroiled in the scandal, Vice Minister Kim Chong stepped down last Sunday, while numerous ministry officials are now being probed.
The ministry is now striving to root out traces of Choi and her associate, TV commercial director Cha Eun-taek, as they are suspected of having orchestrated not only major cultural projects but also personnel management.
During a meeting with senior agency officials Monday, Minister Cho Yoon-sun pledged to thoroughly overhaul the programs in question and take “all legal and administrative steps,” including their dismantling, while improving rules on incentives, contracts and human resources.
“The atmosphere in general is indeed subdued, but many think with this is the incident we needed to revamp various parts of our work and organization,” a ministry official told The Korea Herald on customary condition of anonymity. “Overall, there is a lot of soul-searching going on around here, and an internal review has already started.”
With the opposition dominating the National Assembly, a flurry of pending economy-related bills designed to ease regulations, boost the sharing economy and nurture new industries face a grim outlook.
Five ambitious labor reform bills and one for bolstering the service sector will almost certainly be killed, given staunch resistance from opposition parties and labor unions that see that the texts, if passed, would make it easy for large conglomerates to sack non-regular workers and accelerate health care privatization.
“Though we’re not directly related (to the scandal), there are widespread feelings of a letdown to some extent, as we watch the development,” a Labor Ministry official said.
On the personnel front, many core posts remain vacant, as the selection process and background checks have been frozen since the resignation of top presidential secretaries in charge amid the scandal.
The positions include the vice foreign minister and chief executives of state-funded institutions such as the Korea Petroleum Quality & Distribution Authority and Korea Securities Depository. Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul has been carrying on with the current job nearly a month after being appointed ambassador to the UN.
The helpless mood appears to be intensifying, as fresh allegations surface on a daily basis, deepening uncertainties over not only domestic policy, but also foreign policy initiatives.
At stake is a trilateral summit with China and Japan, initially scheduled for late this year, though the sides have not yet hammered out a date, agenda or other details.
Some observers have also raised concerns over a possible setback on plans to deploy a US missile shield here by next year and to ink an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.
In another worrisome sign, the government has delayed next week’s meeting between Park and some 100 officials from defense contractors intended to discuss ways to promote the industry, tackle corruption and ensure transparency.
Many officials at the foreign and unification ministries have displayed shock and disbelief at the allegation Choi may have edited or taken a look at Park’s landmark speeches, which should have been kept confidential until their delivery, including an address in Dresden, Germany in March 2014.
“A presidential speech is crafted after compiling materials from all relevant agencies at the highest level, so who writes or changes which part is like a black box,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “I’m quite sure that Choi’s role in foreign policymaking has been minimal, if any, and yet thinking someone like her has been covertly meddling in the process is inconceivable.”
As ambiguities rise, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn on Monday launched a meeting with vice premiers on the economy and social affairs, as well as the foreign, defense and interior ministers.
During the session, Hwang stressed solid security posture as “the top priority for now,” calling for close monitoring of the North Korean military and the implementation of diplomatic and defense programs “without a hitch.”
“We need to inform through overseas diplomatic missions that the government’s major policies are in normal operation so as to prevent any trouble in external cooperation and exchanges and investment,” he said.
“The Culture Ministry, for its part, should carry out a comprehensive, outright inspection of potentially problematic policies and initiatives and take stern measures, as culture and arts are high-value-added sectors linked with our future butter and bread.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff reporters Ock Hyun-ju and Rumy Doo contributed to the report. --Ed.