[Column] The dark side of Korea’s status as Republic of Testing

Posted on : 2023-04-18 17:34 KST Modified on : 2023-04-18 17:34 KST
Korea has embraced testing at a level hardly seen anywhere else in the world
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

While the term “developed country” is generally used to refer to the West, the fact is that East Asia was the developed part of the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. Its advancement was epitomized by the fact that East Asia was where such major inventions as paper, movable type, gunpowder, rockets and paper currency first occurred. But that wasn’t the only respect in which East Asia was advanced.

The system of appointing civil servants through an examination was adopted by the Han dynasty of China in 134 BCE and by the Korean kingdom of Shilla in 788 CE. That kind of system wasn’t used anywhere else in the world at the time.

In other Eurasian empires — including Byzantium, the Arab caliphates and the Sasanian Empire — civil servants were generally appointed through connections or family rank. But in East Asia, more objective standards were applied to appointment and job assessment from an early date.

By comparison, examination systems didn’t develop in Europe until much later. The University of Bologna in Italy was the first in Europe to require students to sit for an exam before receiving a degree in 1219, but that was an oral examination, not a written one. The first written exams weren’t introduced in European universities until the 15th century and weren’t generally adopted until the 18th century.

Civil service exams were brought to Europe in 1748 by Prussia. Those exams were modeled on the examination system of Qing China, which was much admired by Europeans of the Enlightenment.

Identifying talented individuals through examinations has basically continued without interruption in Korea since civil service exams were adopted by the Goryeo dynasty in 958. And even though traditional exams were scrapped by the Gabo Reform in 1894, the Council of State Affairs soon set up new offices to administer civil service exams focused on more modern subject areas.

The Japanese Empire opened up the civil service exam in the home islands to its Korean subjects in the hope of securing the loyalty of the Korean elite. During the colonial period, 385 Koreans passed the ordinary exam and 134 passed the higher exam, most of whom built civil service careers at the Japanese Government-General of Korea.

After Korea’s liberation, those officials went on to form the foundational framework of the civil service of the Republic of Korea. The civil service exam from the Japanese colonial period also served as the basic frame of reference for the new higher civil service exam that was instituted in 1949.

From its very inception, therefore, Korea’s civil service exam has been more of a continuation of the colonial system of examinations than an interruption of that system.

Korea has embraced testing at a level hardly seen anywhere else in the world.

Three-year-olds have to pass a level test to enter English-language immersion kindergartens. I challenge you to think of a country other than Korea that forces entrance exams on toddlers.

And Koreans keep taking exams into older age. Lists of successful candidates for the civil service exam sometimes include people in their 50s. In other words, Koreans are likely to spend most of their lives preparing for exams.

The idolization of university professors, a phenomenon rarely seen in other countries, is related to Korea’s status as the Republic of Testing. Most of the people who are paid to write test questions and test prep materials for students to read are professors, after all.

Korea is divided between the elite minority who supervise the rite of passage known as testing and the mass majority who stake everything on passing the test. Needless to say, the relationship between the two groups could never be equal.

Chalmers Johnson (1931–2010), who studied Japan’s civil service at a time when the economic bureaucrats who oversaw economic development were appointed and promoted through tests, explained this through the concept of the “developmental state.” Since then, many researchers have praised South Korea, Japan and China, as well as Taiwan and Singapore, for their meritocratic bureaucracies and their practice of appointing and promoting officials through exams.

This praise assumes that a bureaucracy that’s solely based on exam results and that includes self-made men and women from humble backgrounds will be relatively autonomous from vested interests and can thus act rationally on behalf of the public interest, rather than out of self-interest.

To be sure, this fondness for East Asia’s meritocratic bureaucracy — a fondness shared by even relatively progressive academics — is not without its reasons. For all its drawbacks, a system of examinations is certainly more advanced than the sale of government posts, nepotism, or a spoils system in which plump posts are parceled out to political allies.

The fact that Lee Jae-myung (today the leader of the opposition Democratic Party), who was a factory worker as a young man, was able to pass the Korean bar exam in 1986 illustrates the meritocratic nature of the Republic of Testing prior to the advent of neoliberalism.

But it would be foolish to assume that public officials selected through examinations only serve the public interest, rather than vested interests. That has been especially true since the introduction of neoliberalism. Today it’s rare to find people unconnected to the establishment among those who are elevated through various exams to the high ranks of the civil service.

Last year, 54.2% of people admitted to law schools in Korea were graduates of the “SKY” tier of prestigious universities — Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University — and more than half of SKY students are from families with an annual income of more than 100 million won (US$75,800).

It would be nearly impossible for even the most talented of young factory workers to break into a system in which the children of wealthy families receive expensive tutoring to usher them into the prestigious universities that will help them rise to a high rank.

The fact that prosecutors who had recently been investigating chaebols can then be hired as legal counsel by those same chaebols shows that the seemingly meritocratic system of civil service examinations cannot prevent what amounts to the privatization of state organizations.

The Republic of Testing has never been fair; indeed, it cannot be fair. Passing a test has always depended not solely on the effort of the candidate, but also on the wealth and cultural capital of the family. At the same time, Koreans’ blind trust in exams as a seemingly fair and rational method of selecting officials has greatly reinforced neoliberalism’s ideological hegemony over Korean society.

In a society where everything depends upon passing tests, the tragedies endured by the underprivileged, including irregular workers (such as contract employees), can be easily dismissed as being due to “insufficient effort.”

Under the ruling ideology of the Republic of Testing, irregular workers are just incompetent people who couldn’t get into permanent positions, and the discriminatory treatment they face is justified by the discourse of fairness and meritocracy.

From the perspective of social justice, of course, the mass production of irregular workers is itself a repudiation of fairness.

In a country where exams are administered from infancy to old age, one can witness the self-contradiction of underprivileged people unable to see through the very meritocratic discourse of neoliberalism to which they’re being sacrificed.

That means that genuine progress won’t be possible in Korean society until it’s generally understood that Korea’s test-centered meritocracy is merely a rationalization for discrimination and exploitation.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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