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Korea looks overseas to train officials

Seoul to dispatch some 200 officials to foreign institutions this year


GWACHEON, Gyeonggi Province ― With its emergence as a developed nation, South Korea has been host to numerous international events.

But what many people don’t see is the officials behind the scenes that made hosting events such as the G20 Summit and the World Cup possible.

These officials could not have made waves simply by learning another language. Most of them have studied in other countries to broaden their perspective, raise their cultural awareness, create networks, and bring knowledge home to hone Korea’s competitive edge in an interconnected world.

To keep that edge sharp, Korea regularly sends officials to learn overseas. In 2011, Korea will dispatch some 200 officials to educational and government institutions all over the world.

“Our country is already developed, but that does not mean that it’s the best in every field. But when we study abroad, we learn the strengths that other countries possess and their best practices, and if we implement that knowledge in our country, our state will really develop,” said Lee Joo-yong, who oversees the overall financial policy at the Defense Ministry.

Government officials have realized the administration’s shortcomings and set out to change them.

“While attending meetings and working under the international audit division, I realized that I need a bit more knowledge of global systems, so I decided to study the international taxation system and create cooperation projects with the U.K. tax department,” said Lee Sun-joo, the deputy director at the National Tax Service.
Officials to be dispatched abroad attend a session at the Central Officials Training Institute in Gwacheon, south of Seoul. (COTI)
Officials to be dispatched abroad attend a session at the Central Officials Training Institute in Gwacheon, south of Seoul. (COTI)

“Many multinational corporations and individuals of great wealth use finance to develop complicated structures for their tax plan,” said Lee Joo-yong, who chose to study in London.

“Our Defense Ministry sends soldiers to countries where they take part in civil military operations helping people.

“Britain and the U.S. have well-developed foreign aid policies, but Korean departments still individually manage aid, which is not very efficient. So in order to find ways of integrating the efforts of the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Korea International Cooperation Agency, I am going to study development,” he said.

These government officials also understand the weight of the heavy burden that falls upon them, and that their actions abroad reflect not only the government but also Korea as a whole to both the local and international community.

“The government has given me the opportunity to go abroad, and since they are funding me with taxpayers’ money, I feel that I should excel academically, which will not be so easy,” said Lee, 37, who is looking to study development in England.

“I feel that I am faced with the responsibility to act as a public official. I need to make sure that I act responsibly,” he said.

To add to the burden of performing well abroad, the officials are also faced with other difficulties, mainly regarding their family.

“The biggest concern I have is regarding my child. My baby is still young, 9 months old, but I heard England has less-developed child care, which worries me a bit,” said Lee Sun-joo, 30.

“I am also taking my family ― my wife, son and daughter ― along with me, so I have to worry about my family adjusting as well.”

Although the officials selected for the program are the cream of the crop, the Central Officials Training Institute in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, looks to further pinpoint the officials’ academic focus by reducing unnecessary stresses they might encounter during the two-year program.

Officials at COTI’s office of international training and cooperation take pride in offering practical knowledge, fully catered to the needs of the prospective students.

“The program teaches us how to obtain housing through a realtor, create a bank account and purchase a car among other things,” said Lee.

“We will also learn practical and academic English to help us in our occupation and at graduate school, like how to write academic essays.”

To adjust to the education system in the U.S., students at the COTI also practice with videos of graduate level lectures from top universities around the world.

“Korean people’s communication skills are not always up to par, so we learn how to listen respectfully and take our stances assertively, among other communication skills,” said Lee.

“The education style that we are learning here, and will face abroad, is not the education style that we experience here. They are complete opposites,” said Min Yoon-gi, a customer support official with the Public Procurement Service.

“In order to compete with our foreign counterparts, I believe that we need to develop our global edge and the course here at the COTI will help us raise our voices,” said Lee Sun-joo.

“While applying for schools abroad, it is apparent that essay and dissertation writing is important. However, they are nonexistent in Korea, so this program helps us to address that,” she said.

Also trained at the COTI are officials who will be sent to China and Japan, and also outsources officials to universities before they go abroad to Middle Eastern, South American, African countries.

According to Yun Chang-hee, deputy director at COTI’s office of international training and cooperation, they are constantly evolving and changing to further Korea’s place in the world.

Because of the popularity of the program, 60 officials take the course originally meant for 40, straining the already low staffed and under budget center.

With China reportedly planning to educate 20 percent of its officials overseas by 2030, Korea may need to give more support to COTI programs to remain competitive.

The COTI has not only trained local officials, but they have also trained more than 3,500 foreign government officials since 1984. They learned about Korea’s economic development and successful policies such as the establishment of e-government and the drive for low-carbon, green growth.

By Robert Lee (rjmlee@heraldcorp.com)
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