Book Review: Journey of a man from Grade-9 Civil Servant to Korea’s Vice-Minister of Education

Book Review

  • The ‘Lee Gi Woo’s Happy Challenge’ is biography of Lee Gi Woo, who owns various titles including the Vice-Minister of Education and the President of Incheon Jaeneung University

  • One of Lee Gi Woo’s mottos is ‘one day is life’s everything’

By Lee Sang-Ki

Autobiographies often tend to be exaggerated or distorted. Especially, autobiographies published before running for the election can easily be filled with self-flatteries. However, I recently found an autobiography written in a frank and humble manner.

It is ‘Lee Gi Woo’s Happy Challenge’ (Published on 25th October 2019 by Alpha Media) of Lee Gi Woo, who owns various titles including the vice-minister of education and the president of Incheon Jaeneung University. On 15th of November last year, when it was only about ten days after the book was published, I received the copy of book from the writer and after about 100 days, on 6th of March last, I began reading and read up to the very last page – 393 page, without a break.

Then, up to the April 27, I read it four times in total. Each page, each sentence, and each word was meticulously filled with things to read. Like my usual reading habit, I highlighted with red pen at first, then with black to blue pen, and finally with red colored pencil.

Recommendations for his book were presented by three people including the 36th Prime Minister Lee Hae Chan, the 41st Prime Minister Kim Hwang Sik, and the President of Incheon Jaeneung University Park Seong Hun.

“We could not find someone to replace him even after he switched his seat from the secretary general of a Prime Minister to the Vice-Minister of Education. I even left the Secretary General’s position vacant. There are many people around this President of university. He communicates smoothly. His competency at work is based on the understanding, consideration, and affection for people. He is a one-in-hundred-year civil servant. Words I said while I was the minister of education are still on everyone’s lips. They sound right even now when I rethink about them,” the Leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, Lee Hae Chan had commented.

“I remember the president of university, Lee Gi Woo, not only greatly contributed to the management of the Education Reform Council with his various experiences and expert knowledge on education but also treated people with a polite and warmhearted personality… His life can be summarized in one word as a ‘continuation of endless exploration and challenge’. As an education expert, he played a crucial role in arranging various educational policies including a children Nuri program for children of age between 3 to 5, an improvement of special admission for university admission, and a comprehensive plan for the protection of educational authority,” said Chief Director of the Association for Commemoration Patriot Martyr Ahn Jung Geun, Kim Hwang Sik.

“Fourteen years ago, when Lee Gi Woo was appointed president of university, I told him that I will give him the full authority for the management of university, so please make a good university. He presented a vision of a masterpiece talent and masterpiece university and started to renovate the school. The school’s status changed day by day. It received 9 crowns including the school with highest employment rate in the capital area and the world-class university and became a school that is benchmarked the most in the nation. Through ‘Lee Gi Woo’s Happy Challenge’, I enjoyed reading about the background behind how his three-point philosophy -truth, diligence, and desperation- was born,” The president of Jaeneung Group, Park Seung Hun said.

The writer Lee Gi Woo stated three reasons for deciding to publish this book. One is to encourage and console the young of this generation. Another reason is to objectify his life. He says that “The highest intelligence of human being is self-objectification.” The third reason he mentioned is to thank those who opened a meaningful turn of his life.

He said that he wanted ruminate the memories of his parents who made him build a strength that can bear the cold wave with a naked body. “My teacher Lee Myeong Gul and Kim Myeong Jin at my hometown’s Yeoncho middle school opened me up a new possibility during my childhood. Busan University, the people I shared joys and sorrows with at the Ministry of Education, office of the Prime Minister, Teachers’ Credit Union, and Incheon Jaeneung University all remind the values and meanings of them.”

I would like to introduce several parts that touched my heart. When he was an assistant clerk of Geoje Office of Education in the early years of grade-9 Civil Servant, his mind was elsewhere, and his work was pushed aside. Then one day, he went to work and found out that his desk was gone. His undiligent attitude made his superior relocate him from general clerk to facilities clerk. Everything he did there was sitting on a desk and copying documents. In fact, that work meant the same as telling him to quit.

“However, at that very time, I was able to come to my senses. Having my task taken away was a shock and a chance to come to my chances concurrently. All of a sudden, everything became clear and I got it together. With the mindset of repenting myself, I sat on my desk in a right posture and copied documents every day. After that, for 3 months, I literally only copied documents, sitting in a right posture, except the time I go to a bathroom… For me, those three months remain as a memory I can never forget. It’s safe to say that my diligent civil servant life started from the self-reflection and mindset in front of that desk. The day my desk disappeared can be considered the first day I was born as a civil servant.”

“Sometimes people ask me if there weren’t any difficulties among people who passed the highest civil service examination as a high school graduate. To get to the point right away, there weren’t. The question itself is wrong as it is based on a prejudice… There always were people who needed me since I did my work very thoroughly. If there was a position given, I did my best to become someone who suits that position. So I was promoted faster than those who passed that exam. A diligent person is a prepared person, and a prepared person gains trust. That trust was built up and made me the person who I am now.”

On the other hand, in the chapter called ‘Don’t ask but help’ has this passage. “As a civil servant, I have met members of the National Assembly day and night to resolve the government’s administrative challenges or budget problems. Through long-built experiences, I gained a title called ‘National Assembly Expert’, and I have a secret for this. When I meet members of the National Assembly, I meet them as a helper instead of a person asking for a favor. For example, it goes like this. From the perspective of members of National Assembly, when they deal with civil servants, they can hold a lead only when they have more knowledge or data. Only that way they can lead the discussion in a direction they desire. Then, is it the best to provide a limited amount of data and not provide any data that might be unfavorable to us? Probably, general people would be thinking like this. However, one must produce data more thoroughly so that the members of National Assembly can unroll their opinions. This is also an expression of a confidence that one prepared data perfectly and knows even the lacking things. Then, what would happen? The members of National Assembly would rather become thankful for that civil servant. They will prepare to be a policy partner.”

He says “you must visit the person until he or she is touched”. “Three times is a common sense, and it is difficult to change one’s mind with that common sense. However, if the number of an encounter becomes five or six, thoughts change. They say nothing is impossible through Lee Gi Woo. Why is that? How you do when there is a civil servant, when things go wrong is more important than how you do when things go smoothly. I tell them why it’s not working, and what should they do to make up for it like a doctor operates a surgery. Therefore, a saying ‘nothing is impossible through Lee Gi Woo’ was born through such process.”

One of Lee Gi Woo’s motto is ‘one day is life’s everything’. He is ready to kill the old him and accept the reality any minute. As he accepted the reality, there was no reason to be stressed. He says “inscribe the thankful mind on a rock, and write the resentful mind on the flowing water”.

The book is composed as such. It has 6 chapters and 78 sections including △Starts as Grade 9 Civil Servant △ One-In-Hundred-Year Civil Servant △ A New Path, lays foundation of Incheon Jaeneung University △Rises as a Top University △Created a General Tool of Korea’s Education △Receives the press’s attention.

At the end of the book, he said he wishes to be evaluated as: “there always were people around Lee Gi Woo”, “education is the hope” and “people are the hope”.

The below are words and texts that describe him well.

Legend of a high school graduate, Legend of a civil servant, Once-in-hundred-year- civil servant, Legend of serving 4 terms as the president of university, Social butterfly with 320mm foot size, Work that cannot be done if Lee Gi Woo cannot do.

(The writer is CEO of Seoul-based news organization TheAsiaN, and founding President of Asia Journalists Association – AJA)

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