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Change starts with education

The eradication of structural evils should be more fundamental than clearing corruption.
May 25,2017
To eradicate corruption, we need to focus on the “golden triangle of power.” The golden triangle refers to the opium-producing regions where the 4000-kilometer (2,485-mile) Mekong River originating from Tibet and flowing down to the South China Sea meets Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The golden triangle of power, then, is where corrupt groups with shared interests abandon social justice and set up a power cage to live off each other and protect vested interests.

President Roh Moo-hyun tried to reform the five elite groups — Samsung, the media, the judiciary, Seoul National University and Gangnam. Theoretically, it is the case that equality and justice would be restored when the establishment falls. But in reality, it just leads to a vicious cycle of reforms. After 10 years have passed, the five power groups are still solid. Why have the vested interests remained so strong?

British writer Owen Jones called the political elites, government officials, bankers and religious leaders the establishment that exploits society, and these groups have tenacious power.

The eradication of structural evils should be more fundamental than clearing corruption. The corruption index of Korea has been around 50 points over the past 10 years, ranked 45th in the world, similar to Rwanda. The quantitative data may not be enough to understand the structure. Instead of treating an illness with surgery, we much change our physical constitution completely.

Establishing an agency that investigates the corruption of high-level officials is desirable for shared authority and checks and balances, but it cannot fundamentally prevent room for another power group.

The golden triangle of power can be found in the dynamics of various groups linked to the government, such as affiliated organizations and partner agencies. For example, the Ministry of Education, school foundations and universities create a power triangle. The ministry pressures school foundations, and the foundations use the universities like tools. The ministry inspects the foundations regularly or when complaints arise. The government can restrain universities with baits like student and faculty quota sand various forms of assistance. The vicious cycle is solid and adhesive and cannot be broken easily.

In such a structure, universities offer positions to former ministry officials and use them as lobbyists for survival. They won’t stop at getting budgets and asking for favors to condone illegalities. The Ministry of Education avoids problems by having the National Tax Service deal with a school foundation that has 100 billion won ($88.7 million) of taxes in arrears.

School foundations cleverly abuse college funding. They would have universities pay for a portion of board expenses. They also create a sort of “French connection” by using board of directors’ fiscal management rights of universities, and even accountants have a hard time figuring out where educational expenditures went.

When a lawsuit is raised, related professors are abetted to make false statements. The triangular relationship is not at all different from drug production and trafficking that harms the physical and mental health of the people and destroy social order.

Until recently, presidential candidates agreed that the Ministry of Education should be abolished. But the experience of the past 20 years has taught us that conventional reform measures of changing the name, merging, getting rid of or creating ministries won’t fix anything. Government reform has become a routine practice since the Roh Tae-woo administration, but the ills of bureaucracy have not been cleared, and people are left to suffer in the shadow of public authority.

As the new administration is sailing off with fresh forces, it should be different from its predecessors. It should be distinguished not just in style, and the first step is to eradicate the golden triangle of power. It should not stop at preventing corruption and waste of national resources. The new administration needs to drastically tackle structural and fundamental evils. Then each agency must carry out purification work on its own.

The government should have each agency transfer one or two functions to the private sector. If the Ministry of Education closes the university policy department and private universities no longer employ former government officials, foundations and universities will operate normally. Readjusting the relationship between foundations and universities is another piece of homework.

The late king of Thailand, Phumiphon Adunyadet, who passed away last year, eradicated the root of evil by growing coffee in the golden triangle and improving the environment in Chiang Mai to fix political and economic ills. When the new president takes initiative, the root of structural evils can be eradicated. Let’s hope the new administration can open a new chapter in the country’s history by remembering Kant’s saying that members like families, companies and government make a nation stand together by sharing public values.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 24, Page 29

*The author is an emeritus professor at Seoul National University.

Kim Kwang-woong