Bureaucracy-Think Tank Partnership Powered Korea

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

March 12, 2010

One of the most prominent characteristics of an underdeveloped or developing state is the corruption of the ruling class. Failed states throughout the world are plagued by deep-seated structural corruption that spins a nation in a vicious cycle of power abuse, poverty, poor education and underdeveloped infrastructure.

Korea was one of the world’s poorest nations at the time the three-year Korean War ended in 1953, but in less than a half century the country became a leading global economic power with a vibrant democracy. How did the Korean bureaucracy contribute to this remarkable national development?

Legacy of Korean Bureaucracy

The last dynasty before Korea’s modernization was the Joseon Dynasty, lasting 600 years from 1392 to 1910. During this period, the typical public servant was either appointed by the royal court or recruited through national testing, thus respecting two moral principles of Korean society: selfless loyalty to the king and the value of knowledge.

Korean public servants, in principle and largely in practice, believed in living a life of service and rejecting the lure of materialism, as conveyed in the famous precept: “Pretend that you have eaten a hearty meal even though you have only had a drink of water.”

To be sure, many lower ranking bureaucrats in the provinces chased after personal wealth by using the powers of their office, but for the most part, Korean public servants retained a certain dignity and pride in their work and rejected gross structural corruption. One famous case is that of the court-appointed musician, Uruk, who invented a Korean zither or “keomungo.”

One day it rained so hard that Uruk’s house roof began to leak. Uruk sat still in the room holding an umbrella over his head while composing a piece of music. When his wife complained about their poverty, Uruk cheerfully encouraged her to listen to his music to fill her stomach and take her mind off their poverty.

When the Japanese ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945, they installed the Japanese civil service system, based on the German model. The emperor reigned, the prime minister ruled, the politicians engaged in factional struggles – but the bureaucrats actually governed. The Japanese economic development miracle was made possible by these disciplined and well-educated bureaucrats.

In Korea, Japan’s colonial rule was in many ways brutal, but it provided a basis and model of hard-working and disciplined public service, even if during the colonial era the service was ultimately to Japan rather than to Korea. After the Japanese left, Korean bureaucracy functioned with a very similar morale and standard. Korean bureaucracy has been noted for low corruption and a disciplined and dedicated work force that carries out the national agenda without being disturbed by national-level politics.

Korean Work Ethic

The most important reason why Korean bureaucrats are disciplined and hard-working is that civil service is considered to be a highly respectable career. To become a public servant is an honor and pride for the individual and his or her family. This is especially the case for those who come from low and lower-middle class families.

A notable case is that of the current secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, a Korean foreign services bureaucrat who rose to become the foreign minister. Ban is famous for his hard working, disciplined and clean life as a Korean public servant, merits that have contributed to creating a reputation for Korean service to the world community.

A second reason why Korean elite bureaucrats are dedicated to their service is the collective work ethic they share. Korean bureaucrats work in large government office rooms that are not separated into individual cubicles.

The large office floor serves as an open public space that is transparent to all workers. Western visitors to Korean government offices may experience the sensation of being in a large public hall with no privacy; however, working in such a place brings people together like family. As a standard of productivity prevails in an office, sharing a common space motivates workers to match the performance of the hardest working individuals.

A third reason why Korean administrators are so dedicated is that the bureaucracy respects certain rituals that create and sustain group solidarity, community obligations and personal self-esteem. For example, immediately after the celebration of the New Year, every office begins the next workday with a speech by the department head, who tries to instill encouragement and New Year’s resolutions.

On national holidays, officemates find ways to celebrate their work and life together to promote bonding and a collegial mood. Throughout the year, most officemates share happy, sad and important occasions together, and build solidarity and mutual support systems.

Promotion is based on seniority plus merit, leading to the expectation that loyalty and hard work will advance one’s career. Of course, at times human nature and a competitive spirit prompts individuals to try to take advantage of others to get ahead, but in the long run only brilliant and steady bureaucrats move on to the highest levels, while many self-promoting bureaucrats are weeded out.

Role of Korean Think Tanks

A criticism that has been justly leveled at bureaucracies in Korea, and everywhere else for that matter, is that they do not promote creativity. Bureaucrats play it safe. The same ethic that promotes solidarity tends to discourage those who have new and different ideas. Besides, the bureaucrat’s workday is filled with office work, small duties and mandatory items to be handled, leaving little time to engage in strategic thinking.

Yet strategic thinking is exactly what is needed to help an organization ― whether it is a company or a country ― meet new challenges and thrive in an ever-changing world. Bureaucrats have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in this kind of thinking. Especially when the environment is unfavorable, officials seem to put their head in the sand and adhere ever more closely to business-as-usual principles that have worked in the past. To provide strategic thinking, the role of Korean think tanks is vital.

To use another analogy, think tanks are like the weather forecasters and pilots that help a large ship navigate difficult waters. Without them the ship could sail perfectly well on its prescribed course, but if that course is headed into a storm or bound for the wrong port, the efficiency of the bureaucrat becomes a weakness.

Korean think tanks with their trained researchers, who come from a very different background than bureaucrats, provide analysis and policy suggestions that can help turn the sticky rudder of state policy. Think tank analysts (along with researchers at universities, who often lack the government connections and national security clearances of their think tank colleagues) can analyze long-term trends and tackle vexing problems. The frequently overlooked role of these think tanks is thus vital to good governance.

In Korea, notable think tanks like the Korea Development Institute (KDI), which plays a leading role in building the Korean economy, and the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), which is the country’s predominant national security and defense think tank, have contributed enormously to national welfare. These committees are staffed by a group of well-educated professionals selected specifically for their expertise. They devote their time to thinking about problems and formulating policy suggestions to help bureaucrats do their work.

In foreign policy, Korea’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) produces policies and reports on regional as well as global international relations to advise busy bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on long-term foreign policy directions. Ministry diplomats who are between assignments often reside as fellows at IFANS to retool their brains with refresher courses before heading out on another busy assignment.

Not that the relationship between think tanks and government bureaucracies is always smooth. To some extent, the two institutions have different goals. Bureaucrats seek calm water in which they can do their work. Think tanks like to make waves. But rather than being trouble-makers or second-guessers, in the final analysis think tanks provide new and objective analysis to the government.

Certainly, this ideal cooperation sometimes does not work, especially if top bureaucrats try to pressure think tanks to provide support for preferred government policies. In the short term, such support may be comforting, helping to keep the waters smooth. But if objective analysis is distorted or ignored, short-term calm may lead to long-term danger, or at least sub-optimum policy formulation. Korea is noted for having first-rate think tanks whose existence must be counted as one of the important reasons that Korean government bureaucracy has been both efficient and effective.