Investing their youth in exams

SUN JOURNAL

Preparation: About 100,000 young adults spend five or more years studying all day, every day, for a slim chance to join South Korea's elite.

January 14, 2002|By Hyo-jin Kim | Hyo-jin Kim,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL - Shin Sang-hyo is tall and thin. At 30, he still dresses like a student. In fact, he is a student, of sorts, although he is not registered at any school.

Shin is a gosisaeng, a term referring to someone who has invested years of life in preparing for the bar or civil-service examinations. It is an all-day, all-year, year-after-year job. The payoff is a 4 percent chance of joining South Korea's elite.

Here is how an estimated 100,000 Koreans are spending five years and more of their youth:

Shin rises at 7:30 every morning. After eating steamed rice and side dishes in the dining room of his rooming house, he heads toward his desk in a nearby dokseosil, a library-style building with partitioned study desks.

"Of course, I could study at home," Shin says. "But studying for the judicial examination is very tough. You need maximum insulation against even the slightest distracting factor, such as a call from your friend, not to mention the temptation to watch television."

All his law books are there - more than 20 encyclopedia-thick volumes. He arrives at his desk no later than 8:30 a.m. and studies until noon.

"It is boring," Shin says, "but I try to remember the stories of those who passed the exam and are living contented lives."

At noon, he walks 5 minutes to a restaurant catering to students. He eats lunch and dinner at the restaurant, and changes restaurants about every month.

At 1 p.m. he returns to his desk to start his afternoon study shift. He takes a 10-minute break every two hours. "That is how the exam is conducted," he explains.

At 5:30 p.m., he leaves his desk to have dinner. He says he stuffs himself - otherwise he would not have enough strength to sustain himself through more than 13 hours of study.

At 6:30 p.m., he returns to his desk to study until midnight, at which point his physical strength gives out. Returning to his tiny room, he collapses on his bed. Drifting to sleep, he reaffirms: "Just this exam ... I should do it."

That five-year routine drains any semblance of a normal life from young adults, but it is not unusual among those trying to pass professional examinations in South Korea. In Sillim-dong, the district in southern Seoul where Shin lives, about 30,000 young residents are investing - or sacrificing - their early adult years.

Shin passed the first stage of the state judicial examination last year after four years of study. He took the second stage in June and is waiting for the results. "I may fail, so I need to keep studying for next year's exam," he says. "But I can't. My mind is distracted."

In Korea, law is a college undergraduate curriculum. But you do not need to study law in college to become a lawyer. You need only pass the examinations, and the rewards will be greater than those of most jobs in Korea.

The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs supervises the examinations, divided into two categories: for civil servants and for legal professionals. The government said it would admit 1,000 successful applicants to the bar last year; about 23,000 applied to take the test.

Those who pass the judicial exam undergo two years of training at the Judicial Research and Training Institute. The top 300 or so students will be recruited by the government as judges or prosecutors; the rest will be in private practice.

In Korea, most students want to be hired as judges or prosecutors because they are considered more dignified and prestigious than lawyers. A career practicing law for the government also can lead to a lucrative career in private practice after you return to the private sector - the old boys' network takes care of that.

"They say you earn 1 billion won [$800,000] the first year after you resign from a judicial position and become a lawyer, and make another 1 billion won in the 10 years thereafter," says Yoon Seok-kyu, 28, a gosisaeng of four years. Yoon was referring to the informal understanding that judges and prosecutors would "respect" former colleagues for about one year after they resign.

Only 300 legal professionals a year were taken until 1995. The government has increased the number out of a belief that they exercise too much influence because of the small numbers. The government also hoped that increasing the number would mitigate the bad effects of having the country's brightest young minds concentrating on narrow careers of government attorney or judge. But things have not developed as Seoul intended.

"Before 1995, about 12,000 gosisaeng lived in Sillim-dong," says Lee Min-soo, president of Chunchookwan Law and Administration Academy. "Now the number of them exceeds 30,000."

And Sillim-dong is not the only place that accommodates such students. Observers estimate that about 100,000 people are preparing for all state exams, based on the number of applicants for the 2001 examinations.

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