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Civil Service Exam

Posted August. 14, 2010 10:40,   


The small Chinese village of Hejin near the upper stream of the Yellow River used to be called “dragon gate.” The currents were so strong that neither boat nor fish could go upstream. A fish able to swim upstream was thought to become a dragon. The dragon gate is from the Chinese phrase "dēng lóng mén (advancing to the dragon gate),” or the gateway to success. In Korea, the dragon gate of modern times is the civil service examination. To ascend swift currents, countless youths are preparing for the test.

The government will replace the civil service examination for Grade 5 public officials with open recruitment. Thirty percent of new Grade 5 officials will be selected through this method from next year, with the rate to rise to 50 percent by 2015. Sixty-one years after the separation of the civil sector from the higher exam for the civil service in 1963, this marks a major shift in the recruitment of high-ranking public officials. The higher exam, which encompasses the civil, technical and legal sectors, began in 1949. The shift will bring big changes not only to public officials but also to prospective civil servants and private academies.

State exams in ancient Korean kingdoms were introduced to select talent from all walks of life equally by preventing influential families from monopolizing high-ranking government posts. So the civil service exam has acted as a fair and objective gateway to success. People in the provinces hold a feast with their neighbors if a native from their area passes the exam. Those who became public officials through the exam led economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Korea and Japan, however, are the only countries that recruit high-ranking government officials through such exams. France is seeking to reform its national government administration school to change its method of selecting public officials.

Since 70.6 percent of high-ranking government officials were selected through the exam in Korea, those who pass are considered vested interests. Some say the officials cannot swiftly respond to new administrative demand since they not only lack diverse perspectives and experience, but also are unfamiliar with a competitive environment. The reform of the exam reflects this opinion. The new system will have its own challenges, however. Many rightly say the recruitment system will serve as a gateway for law school graduates to public office. Those who have prepared for the civil servant exam are angry over this abrupt change. The government needs to absorb shocks stemming from the change while promoting openness and competition among high-ranking government officials.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)