The Asian Voice

Diplomacy will decide Seoul's future, but why few want to be future diplomats: The Korea Herald columnist

Students sit the annual Scholastic Aptitude Test at a the Poongmun high school in Seoul.
Students sit the annual Scholastic Aptitude Test at a the Poongmun high school in Seoul.PHOTO: AFP

[HIS]Lee Jae-min

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Korean schools are notorious for their brutal competition. From elementary school to high school and to college, students and parents are exhausted with a continuous wave of competition. Exams, scores and rankings over and over again. It has almost become our fate. But none of us expected to see the same school-type competition after college, and certainly not in a government training program.

Consider this. The brightest students study, day in and day out, for a national exam for two to three years minimum. In the national exam, three rounds of tests are given -- multiple choice, essay writing and interviews. At each round, successful students are selected for the next round. All in all, roughly one out of twenty-five finally passes the national exam. Ordinarily (even by competition-prone Korean standards), this is the time for a big celebration to mark the end of the long race, but not for this particular national exam: the real race has just begun.

Successful students (now called "candidates") are then put into a national training institute for a final round of competition. For a year, students again attend lectures and are again constantly evaluated through written exams. Candidates are ranked from first to last, and the bottom 10-15 percent are asked to leave. Never mind that at this point they have already invested three to four years in this occupation.

A curve grading system applies, so it doesn't matter whether candidates are superb or very talented -- 10-15 per cent will have to go home anyway. Evaluation is done through lectures and paper exams -- yes, the same lectures and exams that these candidates have gone through in their high schools and colleges. You can imagine the extreme competition among candidates during this one-year testing period.

This survival game-type recruitment is adopted by the most unlikely government agency: the Foreign Ministry. The ministry, with its globalised culture, flexibility and openness, is supposed to be the last government agency that would endorse such a "cram and write" type of evaluation. But, sadly, this is how the ministry selects and hires young diplomats for the country's future diplomacy.

It was four years ago when Korea ditched its conventional national foreign service recruitment system, then in place for 46 years, for a major reform, in hopes of recruiting creative and diverse young talents. But the original proposal was soon left in tatters amid the bureaucracy of related government agencies and what emerged from the inter-agency negotiation is another exam school. The new system is entering its fifth year, and this past September 43 students were tapped for the yearlong intense competition at the government institute.

If someone wanted to deter the formation of a sense of collegiality among peers and colleagues, this zero-sum, elimination competition would certainly be one of the most effective ways of doing so. It surely does not chime with modern diplomats' demand for personnel geared toward cooperation, collective effort and more importantly, sacrifice.

The focus of the training of the new recruits should be just training, as the amended law in 2012 sets forth, instead of exams and elimination. As with any other national exam, three rounds of national testing including in-depth interviews should be able to choose those who are deemed ready to serve in the foreign service. Should someone be found to be unsuitable during the training period, that candidate can be filtered effectively. There is no need to run an exam school by the government. It is a waste of the government's time, and a waste of the students' time.

True, healthy competition leads to innovation and creativity. But what we see from the new system is far from the category.

A red light is already blinking. Statistics show that college students shun the foreign service exam because of the immense pressure from the continued and prolonged competition. Young hopefuls change their minds and take other paths. Ironically, the hyper-competitive foreign service is losing out in competition with other counterparts in the hiring market.

Recent developments on and around the Korean Peninsula underscore that the nation's future hinges upon diplomacy. If so, a recruitment system should ensure a stable supply of committed and talented young people to the sector.

The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University.