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When power shifts, the civil service gets uneasy

Feb 23,2017
It was during a meeting hosted by presidential frontrunner Moon Jae-in with members of a labor union for Korea Post, a state-run mail carrier, that one member made a direct request to Moon.

“I request that you, if elected president, upgrade Korea Post, which is now under the auspice of the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, to an agency,” demanded the member. Doing so, he claimed, would entitle temporary workers to full-time employment.

Government workers are worried about what a change in power will do to their jobs. And they’re scrambling for ways to communicate with presidential contenders.

Some presidential candidates have called for the dismantling of the future planning ministry because it was the brainchild of the Park Geun-hye government. Park launched it after taking office in February 2013 to help the country’s IT industry.

Ministry officials are now facing the prospect of their ministry being dissolved only four years after its inception.

Workers in other ministries and agencies are worried about the next administration downsizing or merging their departments.

Reshuffles are rumored for the education ministry, future planning ministry and the Korea Communications Commission.

Moon has called for the downsizing of the Ministry of Education and giving its control over elementary, middle and high school to regional educational offices, which unnerves many officials there. Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party is calling for an outright dismantling of the education ministry. Ahn’s aggressive position propelled ministry officials to compile relevant information and write an internal document refuting Ahn’s position to prepare for a possible public relations battle with the lawmaker.

In the document, the ministry alleges state-level education policies are required for the government to oversee curriculum and university admission process.

“It also is the ministry’s responsibility to narrow the educational gap among different provinces and cities,” the document reads. The ministry points out that Moon’s proposal to establish an independent committee tasked with overseeing education policy outside the ministry will “not be effective in policy implementation” and the choosing of committee members will be swayed by political influence.

A number of government officials say it’s become hard for them to present long-term policy as they find themselves packing up their offices and moving to newly launched ministries or to downsized offices every five years when the change of power occurs.

One director-level official at the future planning ministry said he has had to pack up his office every two to three years over the past 10 years. In March 2013, he settled in his current position at the future planning ministry. Now he suspects he will be asked to pack and move again.

Another future ministry official asked, “Who would want to work hard when every new government tries to shake the bureaucratic organization every five years? It is important to accumulate science and technology know-how with long-term planning. But under such conditions, it is hard to set up a long-term plan.”

One education ministry official was quoted by the JoongAng Ilbo as saying, “Presidential candidates’ pledges to dismantle the education ministry are no different from their promise to ignore education policies as president.”

Scrambling to find ways to keep their organizations intact, government officials are often seen at public forums hosted by lawmakers in a bid to get to know campaign aides in case they end up working in the Blue House.

At one discussion forum on broadcasting and communications policies co-hosted by Rep. Byun Jae-ill of the Democratic Party and Rep. Kim Kyung-jin of the People’s Party, bureaucrats from the future planning ministry and the Korea Communication Commission attended to get a sense of the direction the next administration is likely to take.

“I have a feeling that my office could be dissolved in the next administration,” said one official at the forum. “I hurried here to find out who might be in charge of a cabinet reshuffle in the Moon Jae-in camp.”

Financial Services Commission (FSC) officials are also paying close attention to platforms of the presidential contenders amid speculation that the financial watchdog could lose powers to the Financial Supervisory Service. “We have been consistently telling lawmakers on the parliamentary policy committee of the need to keep the FSC intact in the next administration,” said a senior FSC official.

Some refute such complaints, saying officials should always be ready to adapt to change.

“I spent 43 years in public service and never have I worried about a cabinet reshuffle,” said Jeon Yoon-chul, who headed the Board of Audit and Inspection from 2003 to 2008. “Public servants should be able to actively respond to changes that occur at any time.”

BY KANG TAE-HWA, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]