Dispute grows over Park’s government reform plan

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Feb 6, 2013 - 20:43
  • Updated : Feb 6, 2013 - 20:43
President-elect Park Geun-hye’s plan to reorganize the government structure faces intensifying resistance from state agencies as politicians, even from her own party, criticize her dogmatic style.

The ambitious measures sparked protests across ministries and offices handling foreign policy and trade, education and science, broadcasting and communication, and nuclear energy.

They voiced concerns that administrative efficiency, industrial competitiveness and regulatory independence would hurt.

But Park has responded to the barrage of questions with only one answer: no problem. She lashed back by branding their complaints “ministry egotism.”

Some officials, scholars and opposition lawmakers took issue with the lack of public hearings and prior bipartisan consultation brokered by previous governments.

The presidential transition committee’s airtight decision-making process and failure to embrace opposing views epitomize the incoming leader’s no-communication, out-of-touch image, they say.

“It’s a matter of operation rather than one of institution. There may not be a problem splitting agencies if you have a vision and good judgment on how to operate a government,” said Choi Young-jin, a political science professor at Chung-Ang University.

“Potential flaws can be predicted and prevented through discussion with many people. It’s important whether the alternative is right or wrong, but it is also extremely important to canvass public opinion and listen to experts.”

Government reform has become a quintessential event in Korea that tags along with a new administration.

This time the same old story is turning into a major sticking point for Park, who is already wrestling with the botched nomination of her first prime minister, an increasingly difficult selection of other Cabinet members and North Korea’s looming nuclear test among other issues.

The ruling Saenuri Party and main opposition Democratic United Party have belatedly formed a six-member negotiating group. But it failed to close the gap Wednesday in their positions chiefly on the envisioned transfer of the Foreign Ministry’s trade division to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which will be expanded and renamed the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Energy.

“Industry and trade have the best chemistry. Producers are the best sellers,” said Rep. Kim Ki-hyun, Saenuri deputy floor leader and a team member, during an interview with MBC Radio.

However, many diplomats and experts have said the plan goes against global trends and will undercut synergy between political and economic diplomacy. Some called for a separate trade-focused bureau under Cheong Wa Dae or the Prime Minister’s Office, similar to the U.S. Trade Representative.

Vocal critics include not only DUP lawmakers but also some Saenuri members such as former Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, former culture, sports and tourism minister Choung Byoung-gug and Chung Ui-hwa.

“Even within free trade agreements, nonindustrial trade issues have become very important such as intellectual property, nontariff barriers and investor-state dispute,” Rep. Woo Won-shik, Kim’s DUP counterpart, told the same program.

A war of words kicked into high gear after Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan faced off with the transition team on Monday, calling the proposed relevant legislative amendment “shaking the framework of the Constitution.”

Trade functions aside, he argued, the foreign ministry must at least keep the authority to pick government representatives to maintain consistency and head off confusion in handling foreign relations.

A furious Park immediately sent to the podium Rep. Chin Young, the transition team’s deputy chair and the Saenuri Party’s chief policy architect. He dismissed Kim’s remarks as “sophistry and ministry egotism,” saying that the foreign minister’s right to appointment is entrusted by president.

She reaffirmed her stance on Tuesday, saying “trade issues cannot be managed by a non-specialist ministry.”

“Such a view completely discounts the changing diplomatic landscape in which trade and other economic cooperation increasingly top the agenda,” a government official said, asking for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“But the real problem is that they seem to not even bother to heed and convince other people, which is not a good sign from an incoming leadership.”

Despite logical loopholes, the top diplomat’s unusual stringent resistance may embolden other agencies to stand up against the reorganization scheme.

The Korea Communications Commission is among the most likely objectors given the intended relocation of key broadcasting and telecommunications affairs to a new mega ministry also in charge of science, technology and nuclear power.

While the Ministry of Education and Science Technology demands it continue to oversee industry-university cooperation, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission is urging sustained separation of industry promotion and regulation in line with IAEA recommendations.

“I believe president is entitled to determine each ministry’s role when her government sets sail and it’s reasonable for us to observe development for the time being,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University in Gyeonggi Province.

“The abridged process of prior open discussion resulted in the recent debacle involving her first prime minister nominee. The perceived parliamentary hurdles and operational inefficiency are highly likely to backfire in the early phase of her term.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (