Power play

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2003, 12:00am

Although politicians are some of the least respected people in South Korea, the temptation to become one seems very high at present. Ahead of April's National Assembly elections, people from all walks of life - lawyers, scholars, journalists, and even athletes and film stars - are lining up to run.

But there is another unlikely group - cabinet ministers and other high-ranking bureaucrats who plan to quit their top jobs to run for parliament. The ministers for finance, justice and construction - all civil servants - are said to be among them. To ordinary people, such a move seems questionable. Why would anyone give up such an important position to be part of the messy world of parliamentary politics, where mudslinging and backstabbing are part of daily life?

Given people's deep distrust of political circles, such a move appears almost suicidal. Past records show that former cabinet ministers and other top bureaucrats have a tough time winning parliamentary elections. This was particularly the case during the previous government of president Kim Dae-jung, when many former ministers suffered humiliating defeats.

There could be many reasons for this, but one main cause is likely to be voters' feeling of betrayal. In their eyes, these people are opportunists who exploit their positions. While in public office, some civil servants fail to hide their political slant, despite their obligation to be neutral and impartial. Some bureaucrats are pressured to enter politics. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party tends to force popular civil servants to run in parliamentary elections in order to increase its number of seats in the assembly.

This trend has become stronger in recent years now that the MDP is a minority party - and it has resorted to almost any measure to win seats. In the process, even those who have shown no interest in running are forced to do so - it is no easy matter for officials appointed by the president to decline such requests. This may help the MDP in its battles with the opposition Grand National Party, but it also means that many cabinet ministers often quit after only a short time in the job - sometimes after only a few months.

That results in all-too frequent cabinet reshuffles and a subsequent inconsistency in policy. With so many problems at hand, inconsistent and precarious policies are the last thing South Korea needs right now.