Boot camp for bureaucrats

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Boot camp for bureaucrats

GANGHWA, Gyeonggi
The faces of people gathered in front of the government complex in Gwacheon are not too pleasant on a Friday morning. The steps these men take while climbing into a tour bus are heavy.
Don’t blame the weather; the skies are clear and blue.
Somehow, however, small whiffs of excitement manage to penetrate the cloudy mood. After two hours, the bus pulls up beside a training compound for Korea’s esteemed ― some say infamous ― marines, located on Ganghwa island on the west coast.
Fifty-six-year-old Park Ho-koon, Korea’s minister of science and technology, is on board.
Like him, most of the guests work in the sciences. Like him, most are over 40. Like him, they all are about to embark on two days of grueling military-style exercises.
Following a light lunch at the compound, these middle-aged men are summoned to a brief ceremony. It is all the hospitality they get before the military training gets under way on a sandy field to the sound of drill instructor Kim Hak-rok’s thunderous voice.
Clad in red shirt and a red baseball cap, Mr. Kim intimidates the men, who have changed into camouflage uniforms.
“Jump higher!” he shouts, urging the group to speed up the pace of their squats.
Almost in unison, the men squint and groan as their bodies rebel from the sudden burst of intense activity.
Ten minutes into the workout, one man gives out and collapses. A cadre of instructors swiftly escorts him off the training grounds.
Why would comfortable, middle-aged men undergo such hardship under summer’s blazing sun? Did the government cook up some kind of promotional hoopla? Speculation about the true reason for the ministry’s adoption of military regimen runs rampant.
The minister of science and technology, for one, argues that such training helps unify employees. When office workers sweat together, Mr. Park contends, their bonds strengthen. There’s at least one other good reason, says Mr. Park: Such physical stress makes workers more aggressive on the job.
Still, these are no green berets. It isn’t long before fatigue sets in among the trainees. Many are panting, drenched with sweat.
Thirty minutes into the first workout, most of these civil servants-turned-trainees have slumped to the ground, unable to sit up straight. Even the supreme advocate of this bonding exercise, Mr. Park, cannot move.
“I thought I was in shape from my usual mountain hiking but I couldn’t keep up,” Mr. Park says.
Mr. Kim, the instructor, explains that he opted not to subject the crew to the full rigor of the drill. “I was going to show them the true marine workout but I had to bring it down a notch since they can’t keep up.”
The day’s next challenge: sliding along a 50-meter (54-yard) rope. Sounds easy? Maybe for Rambo, but not these office-bound clerks. An hour later, an ambulance crew arrives to aid a trainee, who has fainted.
The men do persevere, though, hustling to scramble up a 10-meter tower and jump off.
“I wish I could just jump off but my body isn’t what it used to be,” says Kim Young-shik, 47.
The first day’s regimen still has a long way to go ― 16 kilometers (10 miles) to be precise, in the form of a post-dinner march.
By the time the lights go out in the barracks, the men are on the verge of passing out.
Night turns to dawn and .... it’s reveille! The blaring of a bugle rouses the pseudo-troops from their slumber. They grumble that every part of their body aches from the previous day’s workout, but their eyes ― sharper and more alert ― tell a different tale.
After a quick morning exercise the men chow down. To these guys, the baked pork, tofu soup and fried kimchi taste like gourmet cuisine. Breakfast ended, the men shift back into the training regimen.
For this round, they form six-man teams, each carrying a rubber raft that feels like it weighs a ton. Though still raw, the men exhibit better endurance than the previous day. One thing’s for sure: They are dogged.
As the red-capped instructors repeatedly shout ppali! ppali! (“Move! Faster!”), the men under the boats quicken their pace. ‘No 20-something instructor’s going to shout at me to move faster,’ they must be thinking. They clench their teeth and pant like hound dogs after a fox hunt, but refuse to slow.
By day’s end the men of the Ministry of Science and Technology bear little resemblance to their former selves. Their backs are straight and firm, bellies sucked in; confidence flickers in their eyes. In two days, they have been reborn. “I am positive that every person at the ministry now will be confident regardless of the situation,” says Park Chung-taek at the ministry, who says he is an ex-marine. “In the world of public officialdom, it is necessary for a civil servant to be creative, and not fear change and challenges,” Mr. Park, the minister, says. “I hope this training was a good opportunity to do just that.”


by Shin Jae-woo

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