(3) A Look at Choson’s Bureaucracy

By Yang Sung-jin

As Korea’s economic woes are translated into bankruptcies and layoffs, the ordinary laborer’s job security is now more vulnerable than ever. It is no wonder that many college students are now, somewhat blindly, preparing for the highly-competitive state examinations to become civil servants, a post of higher social status and, well, enviable job security.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty tells almost the same story concerning the civil servant system of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910).

The state exams were difficult and time-consuming. Those who passed the screening test were given a fairly high social status and job security.

The only difference is that Choson public officials had to bear far greater moral and ethical responsibility than those of today. “The Choson Dynasty’s law clearly stated that if a public official was caught taking a bribe, not only did the person involved get dismissed from the office but also his descendents were barred from civil service posts, forever,” said Goh Yoon-hee, researcher of the Korean Studies Database Research Institute.

“Without this kind of strict and refined regulatory measures, the Choson’s bureaucracy would not have lasted such a long time,” Goh added.

Indeed, the 500-year-old Dynasty hinged on the high moral standard of the civil servants, in contrast to the current system focusing on specialty and professionalism. Yet, it seems that the everyday life of civil servants has not changed much over the past 500 years.

In general, the Choson state examination took place every three years, promoting 33 civil applicants and 28 from the military sector to the first rung on the bureaucratic ladder. Their journey upwards, however, was by no means easy. It took roughly 15-30 months to climb the next step of the 18 stages.

The only exception was the person who placed first in the examination, called “changwon.” While other ordinary officials had to spend over seven years to attain the post (if you were lucky), the changwon was able to jumpstart the complicated bureaucratic hierarchy under the systematic support.

“The privilege given to the changwon can be interpreted as evidence of the Choson Dynasty’s emphasis on individual effort as the essential condition for promotion, not family background, which was favored in the previous Koryo period,” Goh explained.

But the Choson’s merit-oriented policy was not complete. The applicant’s passing the exam totally depended on their academic ability and knowledge about the Chinese classical texts, which was fair enough. Yet, once the exam was over, those applicants of the privileged class were given a better job, leading to a faster promotion — a diehard legacy of the hereditary aristocracy.

The newly-appointed public officials had to go through a gruesome initiation process, or “hazing” by seniors. A record dated 1662 in the CD-ROM Annals states, “The newly appointed officials traditionally pay a visit to their seniors before they get the formal certificate. But, the seniors tear apart the newcomers’ clothes and play a humiliating trick on them.

Although its origin is unknown, this evil practice is still continuing in the name of custom, which should be eradicated as soon as possible.”

Worse, a feast offered by the newcomers followed the excruciating initiation ceremony. A document dated in 1529 in the Annals points out that newcomers avoided the post of sagwan (historiographer) because the sagwan appointees had to provide an expensive feast for the seniors as an initiation process.

Once the person was appointed to a government post, the nation offered a “salary” to the officials. Yet, Choson’s salary did not involve money. It was a piece of land, rice and clothes.

A track of land given to the officials as a payment was classified into 18 different kinds, based upon the official’s rank. Yet, as the scale of the government got bigger, more land was needed, but the government’s land was quite limited. So, King Sejo revised the related law, drastically cutting the number of officials receiving a piece of land in 1466.

Another form of payment was to give food (usually rice) and clothes to officials, which was called “nokbong.” There are 1,305 articles related to nokbong in the CD-ROM Annals, suggesting all the imaginable controversies about the limited salary and the officials demanding more.

Therefore, the honorary officials, who did not work in the office but received the nokbong, were the first targets of “downsizing.” For instance, a document in 1400 asks for layoffs for the honorary officials: “The number of ‘kumkyo’ (honorary) officials dramatically increased. But they get their salary at home without working in the office. Please get rid of the kumkyo’ post, which will cut unnecessary officials and thereby save the labors of the public.” This is a passage reminding today’s buzzwords such as “downsizing,” “restructuring” and a “small, efficient government.”

Choson officials were also required to abide by the designated office hours (5-7:00 a.m.-5-7:00 p.m. in the summer time) as today’s breadwinners do.

But as there are some deadbeats today, there were lazy officials in the Choson Kingdom, as well. In 1482, an official named Kim Seung-kyong states: “Even though the office hours are manifested by law, there are many absentees as I have inspected. And 10 lashes with a cudgel for the violators is too lenient a punishment.”

Interestingly, there was also a lunchtime set for the civil servants. Since the official lunch was provided by the taxpayer’s money, it was also the first target to be scrapped in emergency. The Uijongbu (State Council) filed a petition to King Sejong in 1436, the year the dynasty was hit by a severe drought: “The government should spend 57,280 soks of rice (1 sok equals 5.12 U.S. bushels) on a yearly basis. Yet we have only 123,300 soks as a total reserve. Considering the expected shortage of rice next year, we urge that the lunch for low-ranking officials should be curtailed.”

The Choson officials also had to perform night duty. Dreading this task, it seems, is a universal human trait transcending time because the CD-ROM Choson Annals reveals various incidents in which officials tampered with the night duty system. For instance, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) filed a formal report calling for the dismissal of officials found neglecting the night duty in 1632. In another case, an official named Lee Seung-jo was exiled in 1400 because he was caught inviting a kisaeng (female entertainer in licensed quarters) into the court while on duty.

Another part of human nature is to want a vacation. According to numerous records related to the word “vacation” in the CD-ROM Annals, not only the regular public officials but also government slaves enjoyed a vacation. Moreover, King Sejong ordered in 1426 that a government female slave should be given 100 days off following childbirth. What draws interest from present scholars is the fact that King Sejong went as far as to allow the husband of the female slave to have 30 days off also, to take care of her.

“Not only the government’s slaves but also prisoners had vacation during the Choson Dynasty,” Goh explains. “King Sejong allowed five days of vacation a year to prisoners so that they could meet and pay respect to their aging parents, which shows the importance of the filial duty during the Choson Dynasty even for prisoners,” she added. In short, when it comes to the vacation system for public officials, it was a pretty modern concept, from which today’s policymakers can take a cue.

Another interesting fact concerning Choson officials was the retirement system. Unlike today’s “forced early retirement” in a bid to trim the bloated organization, Choson people thought it a courtesy to let officials aged 70 retire after their life-long service to the country. One official, Cho Mal-saeng, implored to King Taejong in 1416: “It is often said that the subject should finish their life peacefully after serving the nation until the age of 70. How many years could be left for an official aged 70? Let all these officials retire.” Today’s civil servants, however, should not blindly quote the above passage to save their posts because only an official of high integrity was able to reach 70 without an error in the Choson Dynasty.