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Public Administration

Administrative reforms 1

Administrative Reforms in the First and Second Republics
 
1. First Republic
 
(1) Background
The First Republic of Korea came into being on August 15, 1948. After Japan was defeated and withdrew from Korea (and elsewhere) on August 15, 1945, Koreans struggled to set up an autonomous government, while the Soviets and Americans partitioned the Korean peninsula along the 38th Parallel. The U.S. military government ruled South Korea for three years, from after liberation until the foundation of the First Republic in 1948. The First Republic lasted from August 15, 1948, until April 1960, when Rhee Syngman resigned from the presidency in the middle of his third term. The pressing tasks facing the First Republic were national reconstruction, reunification with North Korea, and economic development amid the ruins of the Korean War.
  The First Republic endorsed liberal democracy as its main ideology, and sought to combine a presidential system with a parliamentary one. Yet the era of the First Republic marks one of the most politically tumultuous periods in Korean history, as the nascent republic faced a number of destabilizing factors, including the partitioning of the national territory, the imminence of threats from North Korea, the unrelenting ideological infighting in South Korea, the Korean War and its aftermath, and the authoritarian rule of the Liberal Party and the staunch opposition to it from democratic forces. Although the First Republic originally set out to achieve a number of ambitious goals, including the formation of a national identity, the construction of the nation, the reunification of the peninsula, and the reconstruction of the economy, the escalating political chaos eventually led the ruling elite to focus solely on maintaining their grip on power (Baek, 1999).[1] In addition to founding and consolidating the rule of the Liberal Party, the Rhee administration went on to amend the Constitution twice as part of attempts to continue Rhee’s dictatorial rule. This, in turn, served to anger and mobilize democratic forces and also led to some limited attempts at local self-administration (Baek, 1999).
 
(2) Purposes of Reforms
The First Republic’s task, properly speaking, was not reformatory but foundational. Its mission was to establish a modern state complete with a modern bureaucracy. The attempts made to reform the government organization thus mostly focused on establishing and consolidating the nascent government by tending to such matters as economic revitalization and the handling of attributed property. In terms of administration, the focus was on enhancing administrative efficiency and realizing the ideals of liberalism.
 
(3) Main Actors and Means
The main actors of public administration in the First Republic were public officials, the majority of whom had served as bureaucrats in the Japanese colonial regime.[2] The sense of urgency with which the early leaders sought to found the nation and the government prevented them from settling the colonial legacy. Rather, these leaders absorbed and colluded with former collaborators in the Japanese regime in forming the national administration. The centralized, closed, and authoritarian culture and manners of the Japanese bureaucracy thus remained intact in the new Korean government.
                  In a democracy, sovereignty belongs to the people, which expresses its will via representatives in the legislature, the administration, and the judiciary. In the years following the national emancipation, however, Koreans possessed only memories and experiences of the brutal Japanese regime, which had replaced any proper experience with modern and autonomous statehood. The national legislature was hopelessly incapable of defining and insisting on its role, and became only an agent of the presidential will. Of the three branches of the supposedly democratic government, only the President and his administration were capable of exercising power. The national administration as a consequence served more to strengthen presidential power than to build the nation.
The First Republic did strive to form and reform the national administration, and to rebuild the nation in the process, in spite of various obstacles and antagonisms. In hindsight, however, the attempts it made at administrative organization and reforms were ineffective and unorganized. The limited reforms attempted by the First Republic mostly concerned organizational matters and human resources. The attempts to reconstitute the government, often justified with the claim of cost-cutting, were sporadic and lacked comprehensiveness. The only reasons or pretexts for reforms were the elimination of waste and simplification, and other worthier ideals were neglected in turn (Oh, 2003).
In conclusion, the administrative reforms attempted in the First Republic are more properly viewed as attempts to form a modern bureaucracy in the Wilsonian mold than as genuine reforms. The foreign affairs and defense ministries were given comparably greater attention and support, while the government struggled to establish principles of law in Kamarch’s sense. The shortage of democratic experience and expert human resources, however, ultimately led the government to emulate the Japanese and American models without much discernment.
 
 
[1] Yoo Yeongjun, 1980; Ahn Haegyun, 1986.
[2] The mainstream public officials in charge of national administration had already served as bureaucrats during the colonial era. The number and power of these officials only grew over time, and they came to intervene in key areas of politics and policymaking (Baek Jongseob, 1999). Those who played key roles in forming the framework and basis of the new administrative organization and in passing foundational legislation such as the Government Organization Act studied law in Japan or had acquired administrative experience under the colonial regime. These bureaucrats lacked an understanding of the principles and methods of democratic and active administration. Moreover, the pressing need to form a modern state and government by solving a series of crises in the early years did not give these lawmakers much time to spare on research and deliberation, nor were there sufficient resources for establishing an innovative and improved administrative system. President Rhee rather focused on strengthening his power by absorbing individuals and groups that had collaborated with the Japanese colonial regime (Oh Seokhong, 2003).

Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa.