South Korea’s fact-finding commission on the culture ministry’s involvement in creating the blacklist of artists advised on Wednesday to investigate 26 former and incumbent senior officials from the culture ministry and its affiliated agencies and to punish as many as 104 officials. The list of 130 public servants to be investigated or punished included a considerable number of low-ranking working-level officials of the ministry as well as employees of public agencies. The ministry said it would make a decision on the scope and level of the punishment after examining fact and relevance on the basis of the fact-finding commission’s recommendation. However, given the fact that the commission is co-chaired by the culture minister, it remains to be seen whether the ministry’s verdict will be made differently.
The list includes both high-ranking and low-ranking officials and their position was not taken into account in deciding whom to be investigated or punished, according to the commission. Indeed, those who were passively directed by the superior are also on the disciplinary recommendation list, including deputy director-level and working-level officers. But let’s face reality. In a rigid organizational culture in South Korea’s public sector, it is almost impossible for low-ranking officers to refuse instructions given by policy makers such as a minister. Let alone high-level officials who created the blacklist and instruct guidelines, it is too much to give personnel-related disadvantages to those at working-level and to even request for an investigation just because they followed the instructions of the previous administration, different from the current administration’s.
Following a series of investigations by the special prosecution, the board of audit and inspection and the fact-finding commission, the latest list subject to the recommendation on punishment has sparked strong backlash both from the culture ministry and the bureaucracy. Regardless of their actual punishment, the 130 people pinpointed by the fact-finding commission are already labeled as “deep-rooted evils” that need to be eradicated. What is the point of guaranteeing the status of civil servants? It is to ensure they consistently perform their duties and policies even when the political power is changed by not making them take legal responsibility for their acts except illegality.
If public officials fear they might be punished in the next administration for a reason that they follow the current administration’s policy, it is only natural that they will make no effort to do anything and just watch and wait on any matters. Suppose President Moon Jae-in’s plan to exit nuclear power becomes an object of rebuke in the next administration. Who would actively perform his or her task? Back in March, when a fact-finding commission on the state history textbook announced the list of public officials involved in the matter along with the request for an investigation and punishment, the same kind of atmosphere was created among public officials. Then, President Moon made it clear that working-level officials who only complied with the government’s instructions should not be given disadvantages. Notwithstanding the president’s guidelines, the blacklist commission recommended the punishment of low-level public servants. What the government should do now is not a punishment of public officers who carried out the past policies. What is urgently needed is reform the bureaucracy so that they can make a step forward to build a better society and do not hold themselves back by being afraid of audit or penalty.