Sat, 09 Dec 2000

Controversy surrounds S. Korean police reshuffle

SEOUL: The Kim Dae-jung administration apparently doesn't care much about allegations concerning its abuse of regional ties in appointing public officials.

A reshuffle of top police officers, which was carried out earlier this week, triggered harsh criticism from the opposition Grand National Party that undue favors were given to figures with certain regional backgrounds.

As one can easily guess, the regions are none other than Cholla provinces, the political stronghold of President Kim and his Millennium Democratic Party.

The government retained the National Police Agency chief, Lee Moo-young, who hails from North Cholla Province, and appointed Park Kum-sung, a native of South Cholla province, as Seoul Metropolitan Police chief.

For the first time in Korean police history, the two most coveted and influential posts are now filled by persons from Cholla provinces. The opposition criticism appears to have good grounds.

It is a well-known fact that both President Kim and Government Administration and Home Affairs Minister Choi In-kee are from the same Cholla region. As far as the police are concerned, people from a particular region have immaculately secured the chain of command.

The NPA defended the appointment of the top police officers, asserting that the reshuffle achieved a regional balance. Indeed, the four -- the Seoul police chief, vice director of the NPA, superintendent of the National Police Academy and head of the Maritime Police Agency -- are from different provinces. Yet, the importance each post carries varies significantly. The NPA obviously used a questionable logic.

It is no secret that controversy has arisen over the Kim government's allegedly partial personnel policy. From the start, this administration faced complaints about discrimination based on regional backgrounds.

Officials from Cholla provinces have noticeably advanced to key government posts, most conspicuously in the police, prosecution and military. This trend permeated many government- controlled banks and other organizations and even private businesses.

Often, school backgrounds were also blamed for unfair personnel administrative policies. In 1998, there was a controversy over allegations that graduates of specific high schools monopolize key posts in some government ministries. At one point, public opinion was so harsh that President Kim had to address the issue during a cabinet meeting.

He ordered corrective measures, warning against discrimination based on regional or academic backgrounds in government ministries and agencies. However, it is questionable whether the President and his ministers have made a sincere and concerted effort to secure a fair personnel policy in the bureaucracy. We can see no evidence of such efforts.

Key figures in this administration deny any discriminatory policies. They sometimes argue that they only try to correct problems created by previous administrations. Certainly, natives of Cholla provinces suffered disadvantages when power was in the hands of political leaders from the rival Kyongsang provinces. Presidents from the Kyongsang provinces -- Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam -- ruled the country for about 30 years from the early 1960s.

The present ruling elite may have reason to assert that they are just trying to correct historic imbalances, but maintaining this attitude will not resolve the problem.

Instead of attempting to defend themselves, they ought to try to ensure fairness. They should heed the complaints leveled at them by many people that they are being discriminated against. This gripe, if left unchecked, will haunt President Kim and his administration.

In a Police Day speech in late October, President Kim emphasized that personnel management should not be influenced by regional or school backgrounds, warning that such practices could undermine the morale of the police. Now, he may have to reflect on whether the latest police reshuffle was conducted in accordance with what he said.

The public must be sick and tired of hearing promises. President Kim and his government ought to prove by their actions that they are genuinely determined to ensure a fair personnel policy.

The immediate task is to correct the latest problematic appointment of top police officers. It will be a meaningful step forward in rooting out a chronic disease, which has long afflicted Korean society.

-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network