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The Korean Civil Service System

The Korean civil service is based on a grade system which reflects a strong tradition of seniority. Position assignments are made strictly according to grade, and remuneration is based on grade and length of service. The civil service is also characteristically a closed system: recruitment from outside is allowed only at certain grade levels, with age limitations imposed in favor of the young. Vacant positions, except at the lowest grade level, are filled mostly by promotions based on seniority. Korean civil servants, under provisions of the Civil Service Law, are servants of the people. They are required to be kind, fair and sincere.

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As of May 31, 1998, the Korean civil service was comprised of 933,384 individuals employed by both central and local governments in various job areas and grade levels. Of this number, 915,750 work for the executive branch (559,081 at the central government level, including 286,000 teachers, 91,500 police force and fire fighters, and 356,669 civil servants working at the local level). An additional 3,346 persons work for the legislature (12,078 for the judiciary, and 2,210 for the Constitutional Court and the National Election Commission). The ratio of civil servants to the nation's population is roughly 1 to 49.

The May 31, 1998 figure for the civil service size reflects an increase of 635 over one year period. The civil service sector has grown rapidly. Civil servants numbered 253,186 in 1962, 417,348 in 1970, 596,431 in 1980, 818,121 in 1990, and reached a peak of 936,689 in February 1998, when the current government of President Kim Dae-jung was inaugurated. The new administration soon began taking measures to reduce its size. The downsizing efforts of the current government resulted in a decrease of 3,305 employees for the three-month period between February 1998 and May 1998.

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Civil servants are broadly classified into two groups: "career" civil servants and "special career" (i.e. non-career) civil servants. The career civil servants constitute an absolute majority, as they include all the groups categorized as: general services personnel (those in engineering, research, and general administrative jobs); special services personnel (judges, prosecutors, diplomatic, police, fire-fighting, educational, and military personnel, civilian employees in the military, employees of the national intelligence service, and other personnel classified as special services by other laws); and technical services personnel (those in various technical and clerical services). The special career civil servants include: politically determined personnel (elected officials of all kinds, officials requiring consent by the National Assembly before appointment, and high ranking political appointees usually at the vice-ministerial level or above); specially designated services personnel (other political appointees and those in positions designated as requiring special talents or skills); contract-based personnel (experts employed through fixed-period contracts); and manual workers.

Classification of career civil servants, other than by area of service as indicated above, is based on grades. There are nine grades, with grade 1 being the highest (assistant minister level) and 9 the lowest. This grade system applies fully to the engineering and administrative job groups. Other job groups, although not so well suited for this grade system, widely use so-called "grade-equivalency" to define one's status relative to those in the administrative job group. For instance, the principals of public schools, the chiefs of police stations, researchers who are the heads of divisions in research agencies-all are regarded as being equivalent to a grade 4 official in the administrative group (a division chief in a central government agency). Qualification of every government position is specified strictly in terms of the title. A bureau chief, for instance, should be an administrative associate executive manager (grade 3) or an administrative executive manager (grade 2); a division chief should be an administrative senior manager, or a chemical engineering senior manager (grade 4), or an administrative associate executive manager (grade 3), and so forth. It is in this manner that position assignments are strictly grade-based.

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New outside recruitments for career service are made at the 9th, 7th, and 5th grade levels. Manpower vacancies at the 9th grade are met by new recruitments, while vacancies at the 7th and 5th grades are filled in large part by promotions and, to a lesser extent, through new recruitments. New recruitments are made through competitive written examinations. These new recruitments are intended to infuse fresh, young blood into the civil service system.

Apart from this limited scope for new recruitments and a recently introduced expert recruitment system (in which a limited number of positions are designated for contract-based appointments from both inside and outside the civil service sector), vacant positions are filled by promotions. Grade promotions are made either by competitive examination or by reviews among candidates. To be a candidate for promotion, one should first meet the minimum grade-specific length-of-service requirements, and then climb up through the list of candidates until he/she reaches the top range. In climbing up the list, the results of performance evaluation and training matter to some extent, but seniority is the key. It is in this sense that promotions are mainly seniority-based.

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Pay for public servants is a function of grade and length of career. Those at the same grade with the same length of career receive the same amount of pay, regardless of job group, education or any other job-related abilities. The pay system consists of a basic salary that makes up about 45 percent of total pay, and an array of special compensations in the form of bonuses and allowances. Everyone gets a within-the-grade step increase once a year.

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Current Government Reform Efforts

Faced with growing needs for a clean, democratic, decentralized, and competitive government to help society cope effectively with increasing international competition, the Korean government over the last several years has taken various steps to reform its traditional structure and methods of operation. Under pressures associated with an unprecedented economic crisis which began in late 1997, the government is now facing an even greater, and more urgent need to reform itself into a cleaner, more efficient organization.

The current government started by reducing the number of executive ministries from 23 to 17 when it was launched in February 1998, and is now working on a wide range of programs to drastically restructure the entire public sector. Included in the government reform programs are: the downsizing of the public sector, including central and local governments, public enterprises and other government-supported organizations, the introduction of competition into the civil service through the use of performance-based pay and merit-based promotions; the substantial increase of contract-based appointments of experts; the introduction of incentives for curbing government spending; the reduction of government bureaucracy and regulations; and the downsizing of the central government through continued decentralization.

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Local Government

Local governments, according to Article 117 of the Constitution, "shall deal with matters pertaining to the well-being of local residents, shall manage properties, and may establish their own rules and regulations regarding local autonomy as delegated by national laws and decrees." (It should be noted that, unless otherwise specificied, "local government" here refers broadly to sub-national governments at the provincial as well as municipal levels.) This constitutional provision, however, remained largely unfulfilled until July 1995, when the nation witnessed, for the first time in more than thirty years, the inauguration of popularly elected governors and mayors for provincial and local governments. Until then (except for a period of less than one year just before the military coup d'etat of 1961 when a parliamentary system was in place) local governments were no more than local administrative districts of the central government. The heads of local governments (in effect, simply administrative authorities) were appointed by the central government, and their capacity for autonomous decision-making was virtually nonexistent.

Highly centralized governments have been a strong tradition in Korea, extending back more than six hundred years to the establishment of the ChosCon Dynasty (1392-1910). Thus, even with the advent of decentralization and popularly-elected local governments, a long road lies ahead before achieving local autonomy to a degree and extent practiced today in advanced societies.

The second comprehensive local elections was held on June 4, 1998, three years after the first elections in 1995. Beginning with the 1998 elections, local elections will take place every four years.

The functions of the elected local government CEOs, according to law, include: any functions delegated by the central government; management of public properties and facilities; assessment and collection of local taxes and fees; provision of services and goods to residents; and management of other administrative affairs. Each of the local governments has a Board of Education for handling education and cultural matters within its jurisdictions. Local councils are also authorized to inspect and audit local governments.

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Administrative system

Currently, there are 16 provincial-level governments, and 235 lower-level local governments (hereafter, municipal governments), including 72 shi (city) governments, 94 gun (county) governments, and 69 gu (borough) governments within the provincial-level metropolitan cities. Provincial governments, although they have to some extent, their own functions, basically serve as an intermediary between the central and municipal governments. Thus, their administrative systems resemble smaller versions of the central government's system. In fact, administrative units generally represent one-to-one matches with the central government's ministries and agencies, such that policies and programs directed by a specific central agency can be handled (received, conveyed to the municipalities, and reported back from the municipalities to the central agency) by a corresponding unit in the provincial government. The administrative systems within municipal governments are, for similar reasons, not dissimilar to those of the provincial governments. Thus, the administrative systems of all levels of governments, even those of the non-autonomous administrative districts at still lower levels beneath municipal governments, can be characterized in two words: uniform and comprehensive.

Municipal governments deliver services to the residents through an administrative district system. This system consists of what are called Cup and myCon in the gun government or less urbanized areas in the shi government, and dong in the gu government or urbanized areas in the shi government. Each municipal government has several of these districts which serve as field offices for handling service needs of their constituents (their number ranging from about 5,000 to 20,000 residents depending on the size of jurisdiction areas and population density). District offices are engaged mainly in routine and simple administrative and social service functions. Unusual and complex matters are dealt with directly by the municipal governments. Some essential functions, like public safety, road signs, fire protection, public schools, prosecution, and correction, are handled directly by central or provincial governments through their own field offices; and some other functions like public health and extension services are handled directly by the municipal government through separate delivery systems.

Local governments account for 32 percent of the total government employment, with 356,669 employees as of May 31, 1998, in both provincial and municipal governments they also account for 36 percent of total government expenditures. Their personnel and budgets are strictly controlled by the central government, with the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs being the primary supervising and controlling agency. Personnel systems, including classification, recruitment, promotion, and remuneration, are all the same as those of the central government. This is because every policy determined by the central government applies uniformly nationwide.

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Intergovernmental Relations

Local governments depend heavily on the central government for decisions and funding for their roles and functions, organization and personnel, and budgets. Their main function is to implement centrally determined policies and programs as directed and guided by central government ministries and agencies. Local governments do not have their own judicial, prosecution, police, or education systems. These systems belong to, and are operated exclusively by, the central government.

On the organization and personnel side, deputy CEOs are, by law, dispatched by the central government (by the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, to be more specific). It is these deputies that hold the authority to control all administrative matters of local governments. Any major changes in organization or manpower structure are subject to approval by the higher level of government, meaning the central government must approve changes in the provincial government, and the provincial government must approve changes in the municipal government. All policies governing personnel, including recruitment, promotion, performance evaluation, work conditions, and remuneration, are centrally established in a uniform fashion such that no variation may exist.

Financially, local governments rely so heavily on the central government that, if funding were withheld, the majority of them would cease operations within a month or two after commencing a new budget year. This is owing to several reasons, including a lack of balance in the distribution of revenue sources between the central and local governments and more fundamentally, a poor tax base in many of the local governments.

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Reform Efforts

Local governments will soon be a subject of major reforms in their organization, personnel, and modes of operation. Reform measures, to be initiated by the central government, will likely include: the downsizing of organizations, not only internal and external administrative units, but also local public enterprises, and other organizations financially supported by the local government, as well as overseas offices; manpower reduction and restructuring, and the introduction of business-like management systems.

According to a reform plan drafted by the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, the municipal governments' administrative district offices (Cup, myCon, and dong) will be substantially reduced in number and converted into social service centers; an electronic resident registration card system will soon be introduced, replacing the current paper-based document systems; the management of government-operated sewage treatment plants, cultural centers, and sports facilities will be contracted out to the private sector; and a substantial proportion of the work performed by unskilled administrative and clerical support personnel, manual laborers, security guards, garbage collectors, street sweepers, and road repair workers will be reduced or contracted out. All these measures will result in an estimated reduction of 87,000 employees, or 30 percent of all local government manpower nationwide. In addition, local public enterprises will also be forced to reduce their manpower sizes, and dozens of local government-attached development corps will be shut down over time.

Besides these organizational and manpower downsizing measures, the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs is planning to introduce an array of new performance management systems. Aimed at eliminating lackluster performance on the part of local government officials, the new performance management system will include: individual performance management under the concept of management by objective; introduction of point systems to be applied to compensation and promotion decisions; introduction of an annual salary contract system; and expansion of positions to be held by contract-based appointees and experts.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy

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