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[Kim Seong-kon] Korean ministries in the eyes of foreigners

Aug. 19, 2020 - 05:30 By Kim Seong-kon

Sometimes outsiders can see what insiders cannot; that is why foreigners’ perspectives are often illuminating. Recently, foreign commentators have expressed concern and puzzlement about the policies and performances of some of our Korean ministries.

First, many have raised a question about the necessity of the Ministry of Unification. We know that the Ministry’s primary task is to prepare for the unification of the Korean Peninsula and deal with matters related to North Korea. In the eyes of foreigners, however, the Ministry looks redundant because they think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can deal with the North. Furthermore, some foreign commentators are disappointed in the Ministry of Unification’s recent decision to prohibit North Korean defectors from sending propaganda balloons to the North.

Some foreigners also do not understand why Korea needs the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. According to them, it sounds as if the Korean government were admitting and even publicizing the fact that Korea has serious issues around gender equality and family, so it needs a special division of the government tasked with interfering and controlling them. Moreover, many foreigners find it odd that this Ministry has kept silent on the former Seoul mayor’s sexual harassment case.

Both foreigners and many Koreans agree that the Ministry of Education is manipulative and imposes too many restrictions on secondary schools and universities, regardless of whether they are public or private. Consequently, Korean schools suffer from a lack of autonomy, which seriously hampers innovation in education. According to foreigners, what the Ministry of Education should do is ban ideology-oriented education at secondary schools by prohibiting radical teachers from teaching their students hate and bigotry against others, because schools should be different from terrorist training camps.

Foreigners also advise that the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism should respond to erroneous information about Korea on the internet or other media. For example, the Ministry should work to straighten out the mistaken idea that South Koreans eat dog meat, which is no longer the truth. Likewise, when Hollywood movies misrepresent Korea, though unwittingly, the Ministry of Culture should file a grievance to let them know about their mistakes. For example, in the Hollywood film “Olympus Has Fallen” South Korea is portrayed as a country represented by a prime minister, not a president.

These days, many foreigners have been keenly observing the conflicts and clashes between the Korean Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. The Ministry of Justice should be free from political power in order to maintain judicial independence. In the eyes of foreigners, however, the Ministry of Justice seems to be focused on carrying out only what Cheong Wa Dae wants, under the guise of “prosecution reform.”

These days, foreigners also anxiously observe the crisis in the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea continues to threaten South Korea with nuclear missiles. Foreign military observers are especially worried that South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense decided to delete the line “North Korea is our primary enemy” from its annual White Paper. Foreign experts are concerned that this will give the wrong signal to both North and South Korean soldiers. The Ministry of National Defense should be conservative in its nature, even when the government is progressive. Obviously, that is not the case in South Korea.

Foreigners find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs problematic, too. The primary purpose of diplomacy is to negotiate skillfully, not to clash or fight. As such, Korea’s ever-deteriorating relationship with Japan manifests the failure of diplomacy. Furthermore, the Ministry does not seem to make the most of experts on the United States and Japan these days, which is indispensable for diplomacy. The Ministry should also maximize the role of the Council on Public Diplomacy because South Korea now urgently needs those who have wide international networks and overseas human resources.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance should warn the government if it spends an astronomical amount of money unscrupulously. Strangely, however, the Ministry has been silent, even though they know that if the government is not frugal and prudent enough, the nation may end up being bankrupt eventually and the people will suffer the consequences later.

Foreigners also agree that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, too, is an embarrassing liability of the Korean government. The Ministry is responsible for the recent skyrocketing price hike of real estate caused by its misguided, ill-advised policies. In a futile attempt to control real estate prices, the Ministry has issued 23 policies already. Unfortunately, none of them has turned out to be successful. The Ministry is also responsible for the unprecedented heavy tax bomb for homeowners, whom it treats as if they were punishable adversaries in class warfare.

Of course, we know our ministries are striving under difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, they should try harder to earn a good reputation in the international community. It is embarrassing that some of our ministries do not meet the expectations of foreigners who otherwise like Korea. Our ministries should change, demonstrate competence, and walk in the right path.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.

They should try harder to earn a good reputation in the international community. … Our ministries should change, demonstrate competence, and walk in the right path.