President-elect Park Geun-hye’s government overhaul plans prioritize decentralizing presidential power to craft a more accountable, transparent and efficient government.
The reform steps being discussed include granting more power to the prime minister and the head of each government ministry, strengthening the role of Cabinet meetings, and reinstating the post of vice prime minister.
During the early phase of the presidential campaign, Ahn Dae-hee, Park’s chief political reform strategist and former Supreme Court judge, had announced that the prime minister and ministers should be granted greater appointment powers and autonomy to enact policies.
|President-elect Park Geun-hye|
“The plans (announced by Ahn) are congruous with the political reforms that I had been thinking about,” Park had said in a statement released by her spokeswoman, Cho Yoon-sun.
But questions remained as to whether Park, or anyone else who wins the presidency, can realistically share what has been called the emperor-like power and status of Cheong Wa Dae.
“I don’t think it is really feasible,” said Cho Jung-kwan, a political science professor at Chonnam National University who researched Korean politics at Yale University, in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Cho said that a lack of historical precedent for strong, local governance in Korean history would make distribution of power difficult. “Everything has been historically concentrated at the center, in Seoul,” said Cho.
Such historical concentration of power also explains why South Korea’s government ministers rarely serve longer than a year and are easily removed for mishaps often attributed to the president.
“Because power is so concentrated at the center, all the blame is directed toward the center as well. But the president can’t give up his job every time he makes a mistake,” said Cho. “There needs to be a sacrificial lamb. So the ministers must be fired.”
Analysts estimate that the president can personally appoint over 10,000 posts in government and government-run businesses without approval from the National Assembly. That has led to the phenomenon of “parachute appointments,” where people lacking merit have been appointed to key government posts on the basis of regional and educational ties.
Park has recently criticized such appointments made under President Lee Myung-bak’s government, and has vowed to put an end to nepotism.
“Recently, there has been a lot of talk about people lacking appropriate skills and expertise being sent to (key posts at) government-owned companies and public institutes via parachute,” Park told reporters on Dec. 25, which many took as a warning to the incumbent president. “(Such action) poses great risks to the people, and the next administration.”
Making government ministers more autonomous could be interpreted as Park’s attempt to weed out nepotism and the corruption that inevitably comes with the monopoly of power.
“In order to make ministers more autonomous, there needs to be a realistic transfer of many of the rights that Cheong Wa Dae previously exercised to the ministers,” a Saenuri Party official was quoted as saying Wednesday.
“The intent (of Park’s reform plans) is essentially telling ministers to not be too watchful of the president or Cheong Wa Dae when devising the ministry’s budget or personnel appointment,” the official said.
If Park follows through on the pledges she made as candidate, then ministers would likely be granted more leeway in personnel appointments within the ministry as well as government-affiliated institutes and public companies. There are currently 288 public institutions employing over 240,000 personnel.
Sources also say Park plans to elevate the role of Cabinet meetings, which have previously been criticized as merely parroting the orders of the president.
“The Cabinet meetings will be able to fulfill its original role if important governing issues are sent up to the Cabinet meeting and are decided with varied opinions of multiple ministers,” said Ok Dong-seok, a professor at Inha University who supervised the President-elect’s government reform plan.
For the first former daughter, the decentralization of power currently enjoyed by Cheong Wa Dae may offer a chance to step out from the shadow of her strongman father.
By Samuel Songhoon Lee (email@example.com