Last Thursday, a 30-year-old man committed suicide on a mountain near Mapo district, Seoul. He was a gongsisaeng — a student preparing to take a civil service exam for officials-to-be in lower levels of management. In his hand was a piece of paper on which he had calculated his score in a recent exam. Realizing that he had failed to make the cut for another year, he decided to take his own life.
Competition to pass South Korea’s civil service exam is now fiercer than ever. According to Hankook-Ilbo’s report based on a research from Seoul Youth Guarantee Center, 288,565 applicants last year reflected a 293 percent increase over the past two decades. And this is just for gongsisaeng alone — there are other civil service exams, like gosi, for officials in higher levels.
But what lies behind the state examination craze? Jobs in the public sector guarantee more security than positions in the private sector, which are regarded as vulnerable to economic fluctuations.
The number of gongsisaeng has been steadily on rise since 1995, whereas the chances of acceptance remain consistently low — 1.8 percent in 2016 and 1.9 percent in 1995. Last year, roughly 280,000 people failed the exam. 98.2 percent of applicants usually reapply.
According to the “World Happiness Report 2017,” South Korea ranks 122nd out of all 158 countries in terms of “freedom to make life choices.” Both this perceived lack of choices and the culture of protracted exam preparations — like for gongsisaeng — make young South Korean adults more vulnerable to mental instability.
Meanwhile, unemployment is rising, particularly youth unemployment. Korea Labor Institute forecasts an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent by the end of 2017 — the highest figure since 2002. The youth unemployment rate was 9.8 percent last year, a historic high.
Cover Image: 19th century artist Kim Hong-do’s painting of students taking the state examination. (Source: National Museum of Korea)
Seohoi Stephanie Park wrote this radar report.