With South Korea gearing up for a presidential election, talk of the large-scale reorganization of government ministries and agencies is becoming a hot topic at offices in the government complex in Sejong, home to about 13,000 civil servants.
With leading presidential candidates, including the current front-runner Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party, churning out their visions and pledges including plans on government restructuring over the months, it seems a foregone conclusion that a shakeup will occur in the near future.
If President Park Geun-hye is ousted by the Constitutional Court, an election must be held within 60 days. If she is reinstated, South Korea will still go to the polls in December. The chief executive has been impeached by parliament on Dec. 9 for allegedly letting her close friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state policymaking. The high court is to make a ruling around noon.
At Sejong, an administrative city some 130 kilometers south of Seoul, officials at the powerful Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are expecting the policy responsibilities they control to be divided up in the future.
Many have forecast that the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, which was newly created by President Park, will be disbanded under the future administration, along with the Ministry of Education.
“It’s very confusing and complex. I and my colleagues are worried about how our office will change, or where we will work in the new government,” said a government official working in the Sejong complex who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “It’s hard to concentrate on work.”
The Democratic Party has already announced the draft of a plan to abolish both the finance ministry, which is in charge of budget, tax and fiscal affairs, and the Financial Services Commission (FSC), the top financial regulatory body, and to then create two new ministries that handle budget affairs and financial policies, respectively.
Officials in the finance ministry are divided on the idea of an independent budget office, which was merged with the finance ministry in 2008 and has apparently remained peripheral within the organization.
“We prefer being separated. We can be an independent ministry, not a subordinate organization,” said a director general from the budget office at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. “We can have our own decision-making process as we did a decade ago.”
“We’ve done everything. We have had a separate budget office and an independent economic policy planning body,” said another official at the director level in the policy bureau. “The current institution has the least complaints. No need to change it now.”
Meanwhile, officials at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are also wary of talking about a possible breakup.
Some criticize the current trade ministry as being too big to deal with a rapidly changing global environment and the re-emergence of protectionism sparked by the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
As the possibility of separation has emerged, people are reluctant to take positions in the outgoing trade department. Since January, the post of deputy minister of trade negotiations has remained vacant, and nobody has applied for the position due to such lingering concerns.
“Trade negotiations are not an easy task. The representative has to wield full power over other ministries who have different interests,” said a high-ranking official in the trade ministry. “It can exercise power under a big ministry.”
The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning was the symbol of the Park administration under the slogan of “creative economy.” It remained in Seoul, while 13 other government ministries and agencies moved to Sejong.
People in the science ministry think it is only a matter of time before their office is dissolved. Some of them are preparing to move, as the leading presidential candidate Moon promised to send the ministry to the administrative city.
“I just want to know where my wife, who is working at the science ministry, will go,” said a director from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. “I have to decide whether or not to renew the lease on my apartment in Sejong.”
Experts, however, noted that government restructuring or reorganizing should be aimed at constructing a capable and effective government institution, instead of erasing all traces of the previous administration.