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[Editorial] Not bureaucrats’ fault

Problems caused by misguided policies; Officials play it safe not to hold the sack

A recent private conversation between presidential policy chief and floor leader of the ruling party was accidentally disclosed to media outlets.

They talked in a meeting of the party, government and presidential office, without knowing their microphones were switched on.

Their conversation revealed how Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party perceive bureaucrats.

“Government officials are not as obedient as before,” said Lee In-young, floor leader of the Democratic Party, “Let me handle this problem.”

“Please do. They act as if the Moon Jae-in administration has marked its fourth anniversary, not its second,” said Kim Soo-hyun, presidential chief of staff for policy.

“They (officials of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport) did many preposterous things for about a month before Minister Kim Hyun-mee went back to work,” Lee said.

Moon nominated Minister Kim’s successor on March 8, but withdrew the nomination on March 31, after which she returned to work. Lee meant that officials of the ministry did not work properly during this period.

“The current planned strike by bus drivers is one of the consequences of what they did then,” Kim said.

“They do uncalled-for things if given a little break,” Lee said.

Probably they conversed to criticize the complacency and apathy of bureaucrats.

But the bus strike -- which has been canceled -- was caused directly by the government’s reckless implementation of the new 52-hour workweek. Bus drivers have demanded higher wages, as the overtime pay they used to receive is doomed to vanish due to the mandatory shorter working hours.

The problem was brought about by misguided policy, rather than by the negligence of ministry officials.

The post of land, infrastructure and transport minister was not vacated by government officials. The distracted atmosphere was caused by a nonsensical nomination.

Moon nominated a figure who had three apartment houses in speculative cities -- Seoul, Bundang and Sejong -- to the post, even though his government had been fighting real estate speculation.

During the distracted period in question, bureaucrats of the ministry did not announce any policy that could be called preposterous.

Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party have pressed ahead with their policy agenda, effectively ignoring the autonomy of the Cabinet.

Under Cheong Wa Dae decisions, related ministries have pushed for a nuclear energy phase-out and pursued income-led growth despite these policies’ side effects.

It is not right to criticize government officials for the adverse effects of political decisions.

Many officials involved in major policies of past governments were prosecuted under Moon’s ferocious drive to “uproot evils.”

In this situation, most public officials must have felt they should play it safe.

Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party, not government officials, should reflect on themselves.

It is self-contradictory to point a finger at bureaucrats who follow directions from above.

Two years have passed since the Moon administration was inaugurated and started sweeping reforms. The administration is not just beginning.

Government policies should have begun to pay off at around this time, but they have not.

As Lee and Kim criticized them, the Korean bureaucracy may be already showing the lame duck phenomenon, which usually occurs toward the end of a presidency.

If they worried about the phenomenon, Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party would be wise to figure out why.

For the past two years, bureaucrats have watched some of their colleagues or old-timers locked up in prison as evils of the past regimes.

These days, public officials are said to record or note down instructions to avoid holding the sack in case the administration changes.

This is apparently because they learned a lesson from the Moon administration that they may be accused of collaborating with the regime in power.

Discipline cannot be established just by browbeating bureaucrats. If forced, they will pretend to follow orders and bureaucracy reforms will stop there.

Leadership with harmony and communication can foster an atmosphere in which officials are willing to work responsibly and actively.

Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party must reflect on themselves before blaming bureaucrats.