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South Korea: Daughter's Hire Sparks Public Outrage

It's a disturbing but universal fact of life: people from privileged backgrounds get good jobs more easily, or at least have a head start on the road to success. Those from ordinary households, on the other hand, must usually work hard to make ends meet.

In South Korea, the recent hiring of the Foreign Minister’s daughter by her father's ministry has dominated the headlines for several days, enraging the struggling public. Pressure from angry citizens has led to the resignation of the minster and brought the government’s move toward ‘special hiring’ to a halt.

According to the local reports that have appeared so far, 35 year-old Yu Hyun-sun was recently hired in the foreign ministry over which her father, Yu Myung-hwan, presides as minister. Ms. Yu applied for a Grade 5 government contract during the ministry's ‘special hiring’ round, and was about to start the job when the national scandal broke out. This was in fact the second time Ms. Yu had applied for the job; on her previous try, she failed to pass the first stage of the paper-screening process due to the expiration of her foreign language test. The foreign ministry did not select anyone from that special hiring round, posting another job notice some weeks later, offering Ms. Yu an opening of sorts. Ms. Yu was able to submit an another language test she had taken in the interim, and underwent a revised and simplified hiring process comprising only the paper screening and the interview. Ms. Yu passed the interview process with almost full points. She was the only one hired from that special hiring round.

The Ilyo Journal (the Sunday Journal) which deals mainly with politics and business gossip, last year published an article about Ms. Yu’s unprofessional, somewhat childish behavior during her tenure as a contract government worker in a different division of the same ministry. According to the report, Yu Hyun-sun was absent from the work unnoticed and her mother called the director in charge and smoothed the situation. The director the next day gently reasoned Yu “Why couldn’t you made a call yourself, why was your mother the one to call me?” and the answer returned from her is “actually I asked my daddy to make a phone call, but my mom called you instead.”

Back then, the article was treated as a saucy rumor, but it is now being quoted in almost every media report dealing  with the story. It wasn't long before a flood of user comments in other media corroborated the stories of Yu’s ill manners and dependency on her parents. One local media outlet, quoting unidentified ministry officials, reported that Yu had been referred to as ‘the Third Vice-minister’ in the foreign ministry, and many co-workers felt very uncomfortable whenever Yu bragged about her dad, which she did frequently. 

This incident would have been treated lightly, as an isolated case of corruption, had it not occurred at a sensitive time. The government has been leaning heavily on the special hiring process, therby reducing the number of people selected through the national foreign civil service examination. The foreign ministry initially planned on hiring 50 percent of new employees through the the special hiring process, but today it took a step back and announced it would annul those plans.

The national exam is considered the only method offering equal opportunity to all candidates, regardless of background and educational level. (more on that story here). While the government tries to break down the status quo for the sake of diversity, the public hopes the decade-old system will hold fast. The opposition condemns the special hiring procedure as a back door open to people with connections and higher degrees, especially someone doctorates from the United States. It is almost impossible for an ordinary household to finance years of study in the United States without getting special help from organizations or winning a scholarship.

The public seems bent on cursing as hard as they can, but some bloggers in South Korea have been warning people against jumping to conclusions. Sosmikuru commented that it is too simpleton to act all out based on the prejudice formed during previous illegal cases.

(이러한 일이 일어난) 최우선적인 이유는 민중들이 과거 몇 십년 전부터 비리로 그렇게 직위를 세습하는 사람들을 수도 없이 보아왔기 때문이다. 비단, 어떤 공무 고위 관료직만이 아니라 기업에서 취직을 할 때도, 그 기업에 연줄이 있으면 취직이 되는 것을 보아왔기 때문에 어떤 사람의 지인이 그 사람과 동등한 곳에 간다면 무조건 불신을 하고 의심만을 해왔기 때문이다…부유한 농사꾼의 아들이 열심히 해서 농사를 물려받아 부유한 농사꾼이 되는 것은 비리가 아니고 장관의 딸이 노력해서 장관이 되는 것은 무조건 비리인가? 민중들은 과연 언제까지 그렇게 단편적으로만 해석하는 시각을 가지고 살아갈 것인지…

The most critical element that made this incident (this large) is the succession of (high-profile) positions done illegally by tons of people from previous decades. The positions are not only limited to high government posts but also include jobs in some companies. People with clout got good jobs and this has made people automatically suspect backdoor hiring whenever they hear of someone getting a similar post from someone to whom they have close ties… How it can not be corruption when a rich farmer's son inherits (the farm and money etc.,) and becomes a rich farmer just like his father, while it is clearly corruption when a minister’s daughter becomes a minister after she tried hard (to get that job)? When will the public discard their (biased) one-sided perspective?

The media reported that some government documents proving illicit hiring were removed from the ministry's database. Angry netizens have been posting ‘before and after Yu’ employment notices, circling the changes made during Yu's employment process. Even conservative mainstream media have turned against the minister, and both online and offline venues are full of grim reports on nepotism in South Korea. On an open discussion site, netizen ID: Pchom, who claims to be a former government official, said that nepotism is rampant in government offices. His article attracted 90,000 viewers in just few days.

수십만 공시족의 애환을 나는 다 알고 있다. 그렇게 5년을 공부해서 들어와서 공직에 대한 소중함이나 공직관도 투철했었다.. 학교 도서관에 새벽에 매일 출근해서 밤 11시에 가방메고 달밤에 체조하며 자취방에 오던 기억 말이다…(7급 공채로 공직에) 들어와서 보니 우리 과 직원 구성원을 보니 공채 출신이 50%밖에 안되더군…기능직 여직원은 그 당시 100% 인맥으로 들어온 애들이고 6급 특채는 석사,자격증 있다고 뽑았고 박사특채 는 박사학위로 들어왔고

I totally understand the sorrows of people who prepare for the public exam. Since I studied for five years (to become Grade 7 government official), I cherished my work as a government worker and my work ethic was clear… I remember those year (of exam preparation) I went to the school library early in the morning and came back to my place around 11 pm in the moonlight (after hours of study)…When I became a grade 7 government official [note: 7 is a lower post than 5, which Yu achieved], I noticed that only 50 percent of officials were selected after passing the public exam… The female technical officials were selected 100 percent through personal connections; many grade 6 workers were selected as a part of the special hiring process and they were picked on account of their master’s degrees and credentials. On the special hiring for doctorates, people with doctor’s degrees were employed.

Netizen ID: 최성 (ChoiSung) commented that this incident has shattered Korean people's trust in the society and their hopes for social justice:

(이 사건은) 첫째 그래도 성공한 사람은 뭐가 달라도 다를것이라며 어떻게든 당대 거물들을 본받고 존경해보려는 속성을 갖는 대중들에게 ‘롤 모델’을 앗아가버렸고 둘째, 내 갈 길만 반듯하게 가면 즉 다시말해 열심히 공부만 하면 내가 피해볼일은 전혀 없을것이라는 젊은이들의 사회에 대한 당연한 신뢰마저 꺾어버렸다. 셋째는 평범한 사람이 대다수인 이 사회에서 가장 중요한 것, 즉 초인적이진 못해도 분수껏 성실하면 한만큼이나마 결실 맺는다는 믿음조차 짓이겨 버린 것이다. 다정다감한 대한민국 대중들을 계속해서 냉소주의로 몰아가고 있는 것은 기득권층 그들 자신이다…왜 새파란 나이의 젊은이들이 벌써부터 닳고 닳아 ‘인간은 다 똑같아’ ‘줄 잘서고 시대를 잘 타고나면 출세하는거지 유별나게 뛰어난 실력, 그런게 어딨어’ 이런 생각을 계속 곱씹게 되어야만 하는가?

Firstly, this incident has stolen role models from people who want to respect the big figures. People want to believe that successful people are somehow different from ordinary people (in a good way). Secondly, the incident has toppled people's trust in the society’s most basic tenet–if you work hard and walk the virtuous path, then you will not be injured (or denied opportunities). Thirdly, the fundamental belief–the belief that your sincere efforts, ever if they are not superhuman-level, will one day somehow pay off–has also been trampled by the case. The privileged class themselves have driven good ordinary citizens to cynicism… Why young people repeatedly think that ‘all humans are same (in a bad way)’ and ‘exceptional (work) ability– that thing doesn’t even exist. You succeed only if you were born well and make personal connection with powerful people.’

The foreign ministry's revelations fueled other disclosures nation-wide. Several news outlets are actively chasing after the whistleblowers who have emerged in various sectors, and even the medical fraternity has made a disclosure on medical positions and succession in big hospitals. Perhaps people should be thanking Ms. Yu for directing citizens’ attention to a problem that has long been festering beneath the surface.

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