Recruitment ongoing for Blue House secret service
The job posting this year for the president’s secret service detail specifies that qualified applicants must “strictly regulate themselves at all times to be ready and courageous enough to devote their lives to protecting the president.”
On various corners of the Blue House, passersby can spot the advertisements, which state that the recruitment period for those brave security guards, ready to “die for the president,” runs from Sept. 1 to 12.
Due to fierce competition driven by the job’s prestige, only about one out of 100 applicants succeeds in winning one of the coveted positions. Once selected, those lucky enough to secure a place start as seventh-grade civil servants.
(Those who pass national examinations to serve as diplomats, judges and prosecutors, for instance, take fifth-grade posts on a 10-grade scale. Grade one is the highest level.)
The presidential office officially kicked off public recruitment for its secret service in 1988, with calls for applicants taking place every two years until 2005. Since 2006, the recruitment period has been held annually.
The presidential office also opened the recruitment process to women around the same time, when four were selected in 2004. Since then, about one or two female guards have been chosen every year.
However, the will to sacrifice oneself for the job isn’t all it takes to work in the secret service. The president’s security guards are typically imagined as stocky figures with excellent martial arts skills and an academic background in physics, stereotypes enforced largely by popular dramas and film.
It is true that many of the Blue House’s current guards are martial arts experts. Some even have varying degrees - a rank, or level of expertise usually indicated on a fighter’s belt - in a range of martial arts, from taekwondo to hapgido and judo.
According to data from Saenuri Party Rep. Hwang Young-cheul, the combined degrees for the 300 presidential security guards in 2008 totaled 1,503. That translates into an average of five degrees per person.
And not all of them entered the Blue House with a set level of experience: Some earned higher degrees or belts while on the job.
Another notable qualification in the recruitment process is English proficiency. Applicants must submit their scores on internationally recognized tests, for which the threshold is high. Candidates must score as high on their exams as fifth-grade civil servants.
On the TOEIC, applicants must score a minimum 700. On the TEPS, it is 625, while those who take the TOEFL must score a 530 (paper-based) and 197 (computer-based). “We had applicants take our self-developed English test in the past,” said an official with the Blue House’s Presidential Security Service. “But the number of unqualified applicants drastically fell after we asked applicants to submit officially authorized English test scores starting in 2010.”
But requiring top-rate English scores isn’t just to reduce the unnecessarily large number of applicants, the official noted. With the president frequently traveling abroad for diplomatic and business appointments, it is imperative that security guards be able to communicate in English.
“Of course we do have interpreters,” he said. “But there are always emergency situations when security guards have to deal with their counterparts in a foreign country.”
Successful candidates also encompass a range of educational backgrounds, it turns out. Contrary to popular notions, those with degrees in security science or physics are in the minority. Many are graduates of Korea’s top three schools - Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University - while others have been former civil servants from other departments, company workers or broadcasters.
Physical strength matters, too. Those who pass the initial written test are required to pass five different fitness tests, which measure endurance, flexibility and stamina through sit-ups, sprinting and field exercises.
Security guards often say they have their own “occupational hazards,” which stem from having to “constantly be on alert.” Agents are taught to look squarely into the eyes of their counterparts and assess their stare. A shifty gaze could be a red flag, after all.
Professional habits, however, don’t always work favorably off the clock, particularly when it comes to dating.
“Some of my dates have felt intimidated because I tend to look at them like I am trying to pierce them,” one guard confessed.
Another, a female agent, recalled a moment when she ran to the elevator to hold the doors open for her date in spite of herself.
Presidential security guards must also maintain a neat appearance, both in terms of hair style and outfit. In the past, some senior agents have even commanded their subordinates to “iron out underwear.”
The typical uniform is a black suit and pants for men and women. Clothing shouldn’t be too tight, either, with enough room for various security devices, including a gun and a walkie-talkie.
There was a time when all of the male guards had to have their hair parted neatly to the side, though that no longer applies to the younger generation since such a recognizable trait could be a giveaway during an operation or stakeout. “Hairstyle varies depending on the individual,” one male guard said. “There are even some guards who had their hair permed.”
A female agent admitted that women do wear makeup and color their hair, though they make it a point not to stand out.
However, the reality isn’t as cold as one would imagine.
On the recent television drama “Three Days,” which revolved around a fictional president and his security guards, one character ultimately chose his career in the secret service over a life with his lover, bound by an inescapable sense of duty.
But in real life, one female security guard and an assistant to the presidential protocol secretary actually tied the knot this past July.
“How could they fall in love when their duty was protecting the president?” one presidential secretary reportedly joked.
The couple met while working at the Blue House.
BY HUH JIN, SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]