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Opinion

[Editorial] Reckless recruitment

Declining population compels Moon government to reconsider plan to hire more public servants

Since assuming office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in’s administration has employed 90,000 civil servants. It plans to hire more than 80,000 public servants in 2021 and 2022.

During his election campaign, Moon pledged that, if elected, he would recruit 174,400 public employees during his five-year tenure. That is three times more than the number of civil servants hired under Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

The Moon government has been pushing to add a massive number of public-sector jobs rather than encouraging private companies to increase employment by forging more business-friendly conditions. This misplaced policy has worsened the country’s unemployment problem, particularly for young people.

To ease the ever-exacerbating problem of youth joblessness, the Moon administration seems to aim to go beyond his promises and employ even more civil servants.

It is urged to refrain from pushing ahead with the envisioned recruitment plan, which experts worry would place heavy burdens on the country’s fiscal management in the long term.

A recent analysis by the National Assembly Budget Office estimated that employing 174,000 public servants during Moon’s tenure would incur at least 328 trillion won ($296 billion) in additional personnel expenditure over the coming three decades.

It is virtually impossible to cut the payrolls of public servants, who are guaranteed job security until they reach retirement age and whose salaries continue to rise.

According to data from Statistics Korea, the average monthly wage for public employees amounted to 5.22 million won in 2018, nearly double the average of 2.97 million won for all waged workers in the country.

Civil servants’ average monthly salaries increased for 10 consecutive years -- from 3.95 million won in 2011 to 5.39 million won in 2020.

In 2018, nearly a quarter of public-sector employees had worked for more than 20 years, with the corresponding figure for employees at private firms remaining at 3.4 percent.

A steep increase in personnel costs would push state debts to an unsustainable level in the coming decades. The country’s national debt as a percentage of its gross domestic product is projected to rise from 47 percent this year to 99 percent in 2045.

What is particularly worrisome is that the rapid increase in national debt will be coupled with a continuous decline in the country’s population.

South Korea saw its population shrink on-year for the first time last year, with a record-low number of births that was insufficient to offset deaths.

The country had 51,829,023 people as of Dec. 31, 2020, down 20,838 from the year before, according to the latest census figures released early this month by the Ministry of Interior and Safety.

Korea’s demographic decline is expected to be more precipitous in the years or decades to come, as all previous policy efforts have failed to reverse the slipping birthrate amid the rapid aging of the population.

A decreasing population will lead to fewer taxpayers and weaken the country’s growth potential. This means that future generations will assume disproportionately heavy burdens to pay for the reckless employment of public servants, and other ill-conceived measures taken by the Moon government.

A study by the Korea Institute of Public Administration last year predicted that demand for personnel will decrease in the fields of general administration, economic management, education and culture and rise in the areas of social welfare and safety. The government needs to reassign its employees to fit the trend, instead of adhering to its plan to increase the number of public servants.

During a debate with experts last week on demographic policy, First Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beom emphasized the need to improve productivity to cope with a decrease in the working-age population.

He made a valid point. But it should be noted that efforts to enhance productivity cannot be limited to the private sector, and that officialdom must join in.

In the post-pandemic era, it is all the more necessary to encourage private firms to increase employment so that talented people with creative minds can contribute to higher productivity across all economic sectors. Hiring more public servants might help gloss over worsening employment figures in the short term, but would undermine the efficiency of the economy as a whole by increasing regulatory measures in addition to personnel costs.
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