Many of my students participated in the candlelight marches two years ago and I remember how articulately they spoke about the changes in Korean society that they envisioned.
After graduation, however, many of those students grew discouraged because of the failure of the Korean establishment to reorder the economic and social priorities of the nation to offer their generation hope.
There has been much talk by politicians about creating jobs, but the long-term prospects for young people’s careers do not compare as a priority for government with the task of encouraging consumption to meet outdated concepts of growth, or increasing the profits for corporations.
The reality for my students is that reliable jobs are almost impossible to find for all but the most privileged. Even the mom-and-pop stores that drove the Korean local economy for the past 50 years are closing all around us as the Korean economy becomes more homogenous and less open.
Many students have decided that government jobs are their best bet because they offer a steady and predictable career that will spare them the shock of the restructuring that is rolling through Korean corporations.
However, my students do not express any enthusiasm for government work. It is ultimately a compromise for them and they assume that the office where they work will be run by colorless bureaucrats who offer repetitive assignments with little or no opportunities for originality.
But does government work have to be dull and uninspiring?
Might it be possible that young people working in government could carry on, and realize, the idealism born of the candlelight movement after they become motivated government officials?
Such a step is entirely possible, although it will take bravery, imagination and tenacity to realize such a transformation.
It is also important that youth discover that Korea has its own tradition of good governance over the past thousand years that has produced some of the most creative and effective policies for social justice and transparency achieved in human history by leaders like King Sejong. Korea’s tradition of government was not based on civil servants copying the habits of corporations, but rather on developing their own ethical system for administration that was devoted neither to efficiency nor to quantity, but to moral principles.
Before we dismiss government as boring and ineffective, let us remember that government, as opposed to industry, is by its nature dedicated to the public interest, no matter how much it has been corrupted by wealth and by power.
We need young people to read through the constitution of the Republic of Korea and to see there what the original potential of government was. We need them to see just how creative and passionate leaders like Dasan Cheong Yakyong were about service in government.
If enough young people enter the government with a collective will for change they can transform the culture of government officials, establishing a workplace wherein people talk about creating safer cities, giving youth more opportunities and reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Simply changing what is discussed over coffee among government officials and what is presented to civil servants as the goal of government work in presentations will create pressure for the transformation of the entire system.
Such a transformation of the culture will be far more effective than the appointment of any particular individual in achieving reform.
Assertive and organized young people in government, even at the lowest ranks, are entirely capable of changing how government is run and reviving a spirit of community that has been stifled by years of privatization and corrupted by the self-centered images of citizens as consumers that is promoted in the media.
There are a few concrete steps we can take to make it easier for young people to carry on this transformation from within government.
First we need to allow them to read, to educate themselves about policy, technology, demographics and other topics as part of their work so that they are intellectually engaged in the transformation of the nation and can make a meaningful contribution to the policy debate.
That means that education, including the reading of moral philosophy or literature, must be part of their job and they should be rewarded for such studies. Their days should not be packed with chores to help senior officials above them, but rather dedicated to making them ethically aware and intellectually informed members of a policy team.
Young government officials should not be subject to constant transfers that keep them from building up expertise but encouraged to delve deeply into the topics that they are responsible for, developing a profound expertise that will make government functional of itself, without having to rely on for-profit consultants or other organizations with blatant conflicts of interest.
They must belong to groups wherein they can discuss the important issues of our age and come up with concrete solutions that they can then implement. They must have the authority and the self-confidence to participate in the creation and implementation of policy.
That means that government institutions must become more democratic, more open to internal debate and should encourage alternative opinions. It also means that policy should not be created in secret within non-transparent political parties, or law firms, or consulting firms, but that process should be returned to the government itself, in accordance with the Constitution.
The nature of the exams for government service should also be transformed. Rather than having young people memorize the Constitution, or other obscure details of policy, the tests for government service should return to the great tradition of Korea’s civil service and offer questions that require the test taker to apply ethical principles to the resolution of complex problems in governance. Obviously the topics need to be updated, but the concept of moral action as the primary goal of government will be far more inspiring for youth than the insipid theme of “customer service” that has been propagated over the past 30 years.
Korea faces tremendous challenges today. An outdated concept of the economy that cannot keep up with current changes, a media system that has ceased to function as a means of obtaining reliable information and a generation of young people who have been cut off from the process of setting the direction for the nation. There is no easy way to start reform, but if we have a core of dedicated young people who grasp the transformative potential of morally committed government service, we will have a chance.