Joy from Sweat and Purpose
A yellow maintenance car stands in a large space lined with vehicles and equipment needed for road restoration. A man in his mid-40s wearing a red safety helmet with his uniform steps out from the car and heads into the office.
Widespread shoulders, evenly spaced strides, the man seems like one familiar with organized structures and life. He is Mr. Pyeon Myeong-sik, a civil servant of 3 years at the Seobu Road Office.
Seobu Road Office, located in Sangamdong Mapo district, oversees the roads of 5 districts, including Mapo. They are in charge of temporarily restoring the road destroyed by heavy snow or rainfall, traffic accidents, and the like.
Life Doesn’t Go Your Way
Mr. Pyeon worked as the company commander of the border garrison in North Korea until 2014. After his military service, he worked as an instructor with the border garrison. For personal reasons, he even served time in prison in the state political security department. He felt disillusioned and hopeless with the corrupt North Korean regime, so he crossed the Yalu River in December of 2017 and reached South Korea in June of the following year.
He started his life in South Korea like everybody else: with dreams of working hard and getting rich. “I thought since I’m in a new place, I have to become familiar with South Korean culture and systems. I decided to start from the bottom and tried my hands at all kinds of work, like gluing tiles at construction sites, carpentry, and cleaning. Honestly, it was overwhelming. And then I started working at a small steel company.”
At the company, he dealt with various special steels and castings, and also cut iron materials. Just as he was getting used to his work, COVID-19 spread and the company faced difficulties. Just 6 months into his job, he found himself unemployed.
Around this time, his son was born. He felt burdened by the need to care for a new family member as the head of the house. But it wasn’t easy finding a stable job. He had no other choice. He worked in various different places, like processing food waste. When he was working at a delivery company, he wasn’t familiar with driving around, so he lost his way or drove in circles multiple times.
Fourth Time’s the Charm
He lived everyday in anxiety and with concerns over his employment. Then one day, he sought advice from an employment consultant and social worker at the Seobu Hana Center. He got information about work and help in preparing and filling out the documents needed for job interviews.
He found out that retirement age is guaranteed for civil servants and that the workplace environment and things like salary were up to par with his desires. And so with the help of the Hana Center consultant, he made his first attempt at being employed at the Gangseo Road Office. He got to the testing place and saw that they would only employ one out of the eighteen who applied. He passed the interview stage but failed the physical exam.
At first he thought it was because it was too competitive. He tried becoming a civil servant again, this time at the Gangseo Cleaning Office. He doubted his eyes the moment he got to the testing place. 5 would be employed but there were about 80 competitive challengers applying for the position. He failed again. He tried for the civil servant position at the Korea Railroad Corporation but failed once more.
Each time he failed in the tests, the stress was unbearable. He wondered if he was wasting his time, trying to climb an impossible mountain. He even wondered whether things were like North Korea, where successful applicants had been predetermined by people above or from bribes. Later on, he met someone who was successful in becoming a civil servant, and realized that his experiences had been obvious.
“Honestly, I thought too lightly of the civil servant exams. I just checked the job postings but didn’t look through the details of physical examination processes, categories, and more. I realized that knowing the basic information about the tests and being prepared would make or break your application. You have to check the details thoroughly and be prepared because you won’t get in if you are half-committed.”
Civil servant exams differ slightly depending on the hiring offices, but most of them have physical exams. This includes running, sit-ups, squatting with 20kg objects, and the like. All of these have to be accomplished within a set period of time. You can earn up to 3 points per category, and points get deducted if you go beyond the set time.
After many attempts, he was successful in passing the civil servant exam at the Seobu Road Office in Seoul. “I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t been prepared, like for my previous exams. I collected accurate information about the test and prepared accordingly, revealed my status as a North Korean refugee during the interview, and expressed my passion and sense of mission in working hard and dutifully, which I think led to my positive reviews”.
A Sense of Calling and Fulfilment Makes My Happiness
Every April, the Road Office gets to work cleaning up and fixing the roads. It’s not easy work, spread out across 5 districts’ roads. In the winter when there is unexpected heavy snow that needs to be cleared from the roads, there are times that call for sleeping and eating in the office.
One time, they got a complaint that a road in one of the districts they oversee was swollen. Arriving at the scene, he got out of the service car and started digging the road with a pickax. He thought it was the right thing to do but his colleagues stopped him, laughing. He had expected it to be like North Korea, using a pickax to clear through the road, but in South Korea, machines took care of everything.
“At first it was hard because I didn’t know how to handle the machines used for road restoration, and the snow-removing work in the winter was hard, too. But compared to North Korea, the work is not as intense. There’s some time to relax since we don’t have emergencies come up all the time, and what’s important is having a sense of pride and joy in your work. I feel really proud and a sense of mission when I think about how civilians can safely use the roads we restored.”
It isn’t easy work rushing to the scene to pick up after obstacles that block passageways or a median strip that’s fallen over, or restoring roads that are broken or caved in so that civilians won’t sense discomfort. But since it’s work that ensures retirement age, knowing this brings him ease as he works. Civil service workers see an increase in salary every year and are given welfare cards, and financial support is given for workers’ children so the conditions are satisfactory. Overtime or night shifts also result in relevant compensation.
“I’ve recommended working as a civil servant to many people around me. But a lot of them don’t apply saying that the starting salary is low. They don’t care even though I wear myself out explaining to them, and so they all head off to companies that give a lot of money right away. They don’t look far ahead and just seek to satisfy the immediate, which is unfortunate to see.”
The sun shines down on Mr. Pyeon Myeong-sik, who is working diligently and dutifully in his field for a better tomorrow even now.