|South Korea Table of Contents
For centuries the most honored profession in Korea was government service, which had been more or less preempted by the scholar-official class. In modern South Korea, however, the civil service has lost some of its earlier prestige, partly because financially rewarding jobs have been more plentiful in private industry and commerce. Nonetheless, the upper levels of the civil service, particularly in the economic ministries, generally draw upon some of the besttrained and most technically competent members of the population.
Civil servants have generally enjoyed reputations as competent and dedicated, but the proverbial corruption in the bureaucracy has also unfairly brought disrepute to the profession as a whole. Efforts to eliminate malfeasance have been continuous, although they have been perhaps most pronounced (in the fashion of traditional Chinese and Korean dynastic succession) after the assumption of power by a new regime. The record of reform has often been mixed. In 1980 Chun Doo Hwan announced a far-reaching program intended to "purify" the bureaucracy. Many South Koreans welcomed investigations of former cabinet ministers and the confiscation of large, unexplained fortunes from other leaders, such as Kim Chong-p'il, accused of enriching themselves under the preceding Park Chung Hee regime. Chun also dismissed more than 200 high officials and 1,000 lowerlevel functionaries. Political motives were clearly evident in the ouster on vague charges of all opposition politicians of any prominence and in the removal of public officials and staff members of state-run corporations likely to remain overly loyal to the late president's political machine.
The anticorruption reforms of Roh Tae Woo, marked by greater attention to due process and broad political participation than those of his predecessor, won considerable public support. In his presidential campaign, Roh had joined other presidential candidates in promising exposure of financial irregularities under the Fifth Republic and had pledged broader disclosure of public officials' assets through the amendment of existing laws. The first promise was largely honored. The question of Fifth Republic corruption was dealt with through vigorous prosecution of former high-level officials and relatives of former President Chun Doo Hwan charged with abuse of power or other irregularities. The opposition parties played a major role in the process by participating in an unprecedented series of National Assembly hearings conducted in late 1988. These riveting sessions, often televised, attracted millions of viewers, emptying the streets of Seoul while the hearings were taking place and drawing greater members even than the broadcast earlier in the year of the Seoul Olympics. By late 1989, the courts had tried and sentenced numerous Chun relatives and former high officials, including a former ANSP chief, on various corruption or influence-peddling charges.
Despite these successes, the disclosure of senior officials' assets remained an elusive goal as the 1980s came to a close, hampered by the lack of legal measures to penalize nondisclosure. The National Assembly had finally passed a law concerning public ownership of property that would require land owners to register property in their true names, but still had not ratified a more controversial bill that would impose stiff penalties for the failure of assemblymen, ministers, and vice-ministerial level officials to report their financial dealings.
The civil service is managed by the Ministry of Government Administration. Recruitment for the most part occurs through competitive examinations held annually in two categories, "ordinary" and "higher" examinations. Those passing the higher tests generally are recognized as bright and able and are loosely known as members of the so-called higher civil service examinations clique. They are given preference in appointment and over the years have become the nucleus of bureaucratic elites scattered in three major government functions--general administration, foreign affairs, and the administration of justice. The foreign service and judiciary are recruited through separate examination systems that are extremely selective. Faculty members at state universities, although selected according to traditional academic criteria rather than solely by examination, also are part of the civil service system, as are those who have passed examinations to become public school teachers.
The Constitution provides that "all public officials shall be servants of the entire people and shall be responsible to the people" and guarantees the political impartiality of public officials. From the perspective of the citizen needing to do some business in a street-level government office, however, the ethos of service sometimes gives way to the traditional self-regard of the official, a situation encapsulated in the traditional phrase kwanjon minbi (respect for the official, contempt for the people). Political neutrality also has been undercut by the persistence of political and bureaucratic pressures on civil servants, especially during national elections. These pressures can be especially intense upon low-ranking officials at the bottom of the bureaucratic chain of command and on those officials in the upper five of the nine civil service grades who serve as presidential appointees.
In early 1989, the number of government officials totaled 700,026, most of whom worked for the executive branch of government. About 7,200 civil servants worked for the judiciary. The new importance of the National Assembly under the Sixth Republic was reflected in an increase in staff hired by the legislative branch to some 2,700 employees--500 more than during the final year of the preceding administration. In the 1980s, about one-third of civil service employees worked in local government. The civil service still represents a cross section of society, although graduates of the so-called big three universities, all located in Seoul, Seoul National University, Yonse University, and Koryo University (more commonly called Korea University in English)--continue to enjoy advantages in gaining employment in the government as well as in the private sector and are disproportionately represented in the higher civil service grades.
More about the Government of South Korea.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress