[Lee Jae-min] Demise of open examinations?

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 27, 2014 - 20:58
  • Updated : May 27, 2014 - 20:58
Many universities in Seoul have “special study groups” organized, supported and funded by the universities themselves to help college students prepare for the annual National Civil Service Examination.

Each fall, when the exam results are out, banners are hoisted on campus and success stories are recorded in the school’s promotional materials.

I myself used to serve as a supervising professor for one such study group for several years because of my own exam experience and government background. I had opportunities to work with students day in and day out in the “annual” cycle. Some of them have passed the exam and now work for government agencies. Some of them are still studying.

On average, they spend three to four years studying for the national exam. For many of them, this exam offers a reliable way to get decent government employment with the possibility of promotion to higher positions. Fringe benefits, such as overseas education and a generous pension plan, are very attractive to college students from families of modest income.

More than anything else, no qualifications are required for this exam and anybody is eligible to take it. In fact, the only requirement is that an applicant should be at least 20 years or older. That is why it is officially referred to as an open competitive examination for Grade 5 (meaning mid-level managerial position). It is indeed open to anyone.

The first national “open” exam of this sort to hire new government officials was conducted in 1949 and it has since become a main pillar of employing young government staff. The national open exam originally had three branches: the Judicial Branch (i.e the bar exam), Civil Service Branch and Foreign Service Branch. Among the three, two have now been closed.

With the introduction of the new law school system in 2009 the original judicial exam is now being scaled down and will be phased out in 2016. The Foreign Service Exam was also abolished in 2013 and now the Korea National Diplomatic Academy under the Foreign Ministry selects diplomat-candidates through its own selection process.

With the government’s most recent plan to significantly curtail the Civil Service Exam and instead fill the vacancies through lateral hiring from the private sector on a rolling basis, the last leg of the traditional national exam is also gradually coming to a close.

The plan is designed to break the clannish, hierarchical environment inside the government agencies, which is based on the year members passed the national exam. This clannish aspect has fostered the post-retirement hiring of government officials by the private sector and quasi-private entities. This, in turn, has nurtured a cozy relationship between government agencies and private industries. This is one of the items on the priority list after April’s ferry disaster.

Given how diverse the Korean society has become over the past seven decades, perhaps no one would question the basic proposition that the traditional exam-based hiring system is outdated. Change is long overdue. But at the same time, it is also true that this open-competition national exam has provided a window of opportunity to young people from average families.

Judging from the outline of the proposal, the new system will focus on the proven background and abilities of each applicant, who will preferably have been trained in a highly competitive private industry.

While the traditional scheme may be called “recruit-and-train,” now the new one will be “recruit-the-trained.” Hopefully, those with strong, proven private sector experience will fill the vacancies. It is also feared, however, that the new scheme might tend to invite a situation where students with good family support and backgrounds are better positioned to compete.

The more critical question is whether the new system will be able to promise elimination of the criticized cozy relationship between the government and the private sector. Unless the root cause is treated, introducing a “revolving door” hiring policy will not help that much. The lateral-hire government official will go back to the private sector in later years anyway. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.