Old school ties ― boon or bane?

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 12, 2014 - 20:53
  • Updated : Mar 12, 2014 - 20:53
The main gate of Seoul National University, the nation’s top university often considered to provide the best academic connections. (Korea Herald file photo)
Korea is a country of connections. Connections through geographical origin, school and even military service play a significant role in Korean society. Some people even consider church as a place to make new connections, a strategy that seems to have paid off for some during the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Among the diverse connections, those formed by attending the same school, a relationship called hakyeon, wields perhaps the strongest influence long after graduation.

For 34-year-old office worker Jeon, who attended high school, university and graduate school in the U.K. and U.S., hakyeon ― or the lack thereof ― is felt every day.

“For my locally educated colleagues, their alma maters would often provide common ground with work-related people they meet for the first time, but I can’t really do that,” Jeon said. He added that he often regrets attending neither high school nor university in Korea.

“Obviously I can’t know for sure, but sometimes I think that perhaps my lack of hakyeon works against me in assessments, and that only those from specific universities in Seoul get promoted, helped by those higher up who studied at the same places.”

Although Jeon muses that he may be overly sensitive, personal connections have long been a factor in the workplace. Using academic connections to advance in society has been so common that it gave rise to the familiar phrase “pull and push,” which describes the actions of those with personal connections helping each other advance in society.

Despite the attempts to root out such practices, Koreans continue to consider academic connections a critical factor.

According to a 2012 survey, civil servants working on Jejudo Island chose personal ties including academic connections as the most important factor in promotions. The individual’s capability came in last with only 26.7 percent saying that it plays the most important role.

Such views are bolstered by the prevalence of graduates of a specific university at the highest level of government, a phenomenon often observed after a change of administration.

The personnel selection method of former President Lee Myung-bak was often referred to as “Ko So Young,” which sounds like the name of the actress Ko So-young. The “Ko” in the term refers to Korea University, Lee’s alma mater.

The “So” stands for Somang Church, Lee’s choice of Presbyterian church, and “Young” stands for Youngnam, a term for the Gyeongsang provinces.

With the Park Geun-hye administration taking over, however, the number of Korea University graduates holding high-level posts has dropped.

In their place, graduates of Sogang University ― the current president’s alma mater ― have made significant advances.

By Choi He-suk (