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Clash of the bureaucrats

Sept 21,2017
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During a presentation by government officials in the administrative city of Sejong, the Fair Trade Commission’s chairman, Kim Sang-jo, stood out from the get-go.

“Mr. President, please look at my face,” he said, “not the documents.” Unlike other ministers who thoroughly read prepared statements as to not make any mistakes in front of the president, Kim spoke with confidence and asked the president to focus on him. He made his presentation without a script.

Kim’s unique reporting style has local bureaucrats buzzing. Those impressed by his presentation said, “He is an expert indeed and comprehended the job at once.” Some thought he was showing off, while others were of the opinion that Kim’s briefing was spectacular. But reports from other Fair Trade Commission officials were less generous. In short, it was a one-man show not supported by teamwork.

Kim likes to call himself an “accidental civil servant,” a high-level official who held other careers before joining the government. His counterparts are career bureaucrats, the “always civil servants.” Kim must be wary of this dichotomous aspect of bureaucracy by objectively looking at himself.

The “accidental civil servants” and “always civil servants” differ in business style and motivation. The accidental civil servants are goal-oriented, while always civil servants value process. The accidental civil servants think the always civil servants are snobby. The always civil servants think the accidental civil servants are idealistic.

One example of this contrast came during the retirement ceremony of Fair Trade Commission Chairman Kang Chul-kyu, who came to the position through academia. Employees selected the 10 best projects during his term, and Kang hoped his signature “Three-Year Market Reform Plan” would top the list.

Instead, employees chose moving the Korea Consumer Agency from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance to the Fair Trade Commission as his best accomplishment. Kang then realized that “bureaucrats valued this kind of thing.”

The latest controversy about “bypassing Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon” is largely about a contest between two groups. It is nothing new. At the beginning of an administration, the accidental civil servants advocate reform and change policies. But as time goes by, the always civil servants expand their influence with the justification of stable state administration.

However, their rivalry is more than simple disharmony for citizens. In the beginning, policies are likely to go through trial and error, and later, administrative goals could float adrift. It is the duty of the manager to urge the two groups to be healthy stimuli for each other and maintain balance between the two groups so that rivalry doesn’t evolve into discord.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 20, Page 34

*The author is a deputy economic and industry news reporter at JTBC.

CHO MIN-GEUN