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The Cult of Education in Korea

Education is notoriously highly valued in several nations within East Asia, and Korea is no exception. The emphasis on education dates back to the civil service examinations conducted in imperial China, then inevitably leaked into other nations who looked to China as a model for the organization of their governments and in the training of their bureaucrats (Adams, 1960). In 21st-century South Korea, the gravity of elite education is reflected in the structure of the education system. South Korea’s education system maintains a positive reputation for having the most educated population in the world, with one of the highest attainment rates in upper secondary and tertiary education (OECD, 2016). However, the focus on using education as the key to upward mobility creates enormous pressure for Korean youth to access highly competitive higher education, incentives for private education to supplement a lacking public sector, and propels other social concerns such as social status and economic stability.

Figure 1: "Gwageo Siheom" is the ancient civil examination. Gwageo Siheom Reenactment. Han, J. 2018.

To begin understanding today’s approach to education in South Korea, one must look back to the 1800s before the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and Korean War (1950-1953). As stated previously, scholars in Korea adopted their practices of education through Chinese influence. Stringent examinations were used to identify the brightest pupils among the population and then, training those scholars was not the only practice adopted. The philosophical lens through which this society viewed education also leaves deep imprints in the modern day. Don Adams (1960), who specializes in international educational policy, planning, policy, and evaluation, reinforces the influence of Confucian education standards:

Chinese scholars set standards for all aspiring Korean youth, and as in China, the idea became prevalent that one who knew the Chinese classics had nothing left to learn. In the Sohtang [a school for scholars and government officials] the elementary classics were taught through long hours of required memorization (p. 28).
Figure 2: The civil service examination in China also occurred in ancient Korea. Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China. Anonymous. 17th-18th c.

Thereby, the study of the classics as education standards was never explicitly challenged. Knowledge and societal harmony were already set and achieved by the ancient rulers of the past. Rulers continued to value the classics and relied on them to conduct policy, and as a result, rejected modernization and openness to foreign influence. However, Korea's entire economic, academic, and societal system took a rapid turn once Japan invaded in 1910. Industrialization and other modern reforms were forced by the invasion, changing how Koreans would now be educated and participate in the newly industrialized economy. Don Adams (1960) wrote how the schooling in Korea rapidly changed among other industrialization and societal reforms imposed by the Japanese regime: “The schools were used to promote the language and culture of Japan. The governmental centralization of control over all enterprises permitted Koreans to have neither leadership experience in managing governmental affairs, nor the opportunity to solve their own problems to their own liking” (p. 29). In the latter case, Korea never had the ability to standardize an education that suited their needs and values adequately.

Figure 3: Seowon are small educational institutions and are the first version of private universities. Unknown. The Korea Economic Daily. 2020.

Thus, once Korea became free from Japan in 1945, a civil war shook the nation five years later, leaving South Korea to undergo drastic reconstruction in 1953. The education apparatus of the nation, in addition to economics, suffered greatly. Mass literacy mandates ensued despite the severely limited resources. Clark W. Sorensen (1994), a professor of International Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, describes the conditions of schools built to suddenly serve thousands of Koreans:

Quality suffered, as classes frequently exceeded 100 pupils in size, and schools sometimes operated two and three shifts a day in crowded urban areas. From 1953 on the government implemented comprehensive entrance exams for middle and high school to make sure that those who received the limited secondary education available were the most qualified (p. 17).
Figure 4: Middle school students in South Korea. Unknown. Anonymous. (N.d.).

Primary and secondary schools are more equalized now, but an extensive entrance exam still exists for higher education institutions.

Additionally, two types of high schools were established in the 1960s and 70s, vocational (sirop kogyo) and academic (inmunkogyo), but of course, parents looked less favorably on the vocational schools (Sorensen, 1994). The state exam to enter college, established by the central government, has caused the most tension among high school students because “the best jobs go to graduates of the most prestigious Seoul-based universities who have come through the best public academic high schools” (Sorensen, 1994, p. 19). Therefore, bias arose from teachers, even at the elementary school level, as they determined which students had the most potential. James Robinson’s (1994) qualitative examination interviewed and observed teachers at Hanseong Elementary school to study the correlations between social status and academic achievement:

The Hanseong study is an example of how economic capital can be coveted through education in order to maintain the social system. Essentially, the data suggest strongly that parents try to do everything possible to ensure that their children get the best educational results possible in an overcrowded educational marketplace (p. 528).

Robinson’s 1994 study remains shockingly accurate, though the bias is slightly less obvious. Those in the elite social class with high income and distinguished careers desired to maintain the successful legacy of their family. Additionally, those within the middle class and lower aim to climb the social ladder. For example, the term “SKY Universities” references top universities in Korea that Korean youth strive to enter today. The acronym SKY highlights the three major universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. While SKY is an acronym, one could also believe that it indicates the intense ambition to reach the skies of heaven, and attending these schools is a salvation of sorts.

Figure 5: Younger students cheer for their older peers for the CSAT. Unknown. Anonymous. 2019.

Following the lead of these esteemed universities, to compete with the other students for a spot, parents of all classes invest in their children to ensure success through private education and tutoring. Though private education is not unique to Korea specifically, one of the most unique methods for private education is enrolling students in hakwons. Sunwoong Kim and Ju‐Ho Lee (2010), professors in public policy and economics, describe the phenomenon accordingly: “Students enroll in hakwons concurrently with attending formal schools, and they attend after school, in the evenings, and on the weekends” (p. 262). Hakwons exist for a wide range of subjects such as mathematics, English, art, music, science, and history, and they are made available to students of all ages. The additional private education industry (also called “Shadow education”) has incredibly lucrative businesses. Hakwons increased from 381 in 1980 to 14,043 in 2000 (Kim & Lee, 2010). In 2021, there are 73,865 with about 74.5% of K–12 students in South Korea attending them (Piao & Hwang, 2021). The stress put on Korean youth by their families who rely on their future success is a deep-rooted social issue in Korean culture.

Figure 6: Daechi-dong in Seoul is home to several hundred private cram schools that provide tailor-made lessons for students vying to enter the country’s leading universities. Lee, J. 2017.

As aforementioned, each student who wishes to attend university in South Korea must take a national examination: the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). The CSAT is only held once a year, and the score dictates which university they can apply to. To prepare their children for such a massive test, with only one chance to get a good score, parents take on enormous educational investments. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OCED) 2016 report on the educational policy outlook of Korea indicated: “An exceptionally high level of private spending on supplementary education and preparation for the third-level admission process remains a prominent feature of the education system in Korea” (p. 6). The OECD also acknowledged the Korean government’s attempts to bridge the educational opportunity gap with counter methods such as increasing the level of free online workbooks through the Educational Broadcasting System (EBS). Since 2010, “70% of the questions on the College Scholastic Admission Test have been linked to EBS workbooks” (p. 6). Though other measures were implemented, such as limiting the working hours of hakwons and how much they can charge students, private spending remains the backbone of the Korean education system.

Furthermore, this phenomenon is ingrained so deep within Korean culture, that these values continue even among second-generation Koreans abroad in western countries such as the United States. Dae Young Kim (2015), an associate Professor of Sociology at George Mason University, writes the following about academic success among second-generation Korean Americans: “Research on Asian American students indicates that many Asian American students, even those from low socioeconomic status, attain high levels of education” (p. 228). In fact, Kim (2011) cites a 2002 sociological study about the sacrifices Korean and Asian American families commonly make to ensure their children receive the most quality education possible:

Research indicates that such practices are not uncommon among Korean and Asian American parents. A Chicago study found that eight out of 10 Asian American parents, compared to three out of 10 white parents, were willing to forgo their financial security by selling their home to support their children’s education (Fong as cited in Kim, p. 241).
Figure 7: One of the most prestigious universities in South Korea, Seoul National University (SNU). Unknown. Anonymous. 2020.

Clearly, the value of education and its historical roots, such as the disparity Koreans faced as they rebuilt from the war, mixed with Confucian philosophy, seeps deep into the mainstream behaviors and beliefs of Koreans and other East Asians alike.

Moreover, the academically elite mindset is even more pungently competitive due to the population versus land mass. South Korea has a population, as of August third, 2022, of 51,360,968: 10,349,312 of which live in Seoul. The landmass is 37,541 sq. miles (Worldometer, 2022). This data does not account for all of the people living in the surrounding area of Seoul (Gyeonggi-do) who commute to Seoul for better-paying job opportunities and withstand the hour or more commute. Additionally, many of the major universities are based in Seoul, so many within the entire country have the desire to flock to this one area. The country is the size of one of the states in the United States, and with only so many spots available, those with financial means send their children abroad to study or hope that they could achieve a job abroad with resources found in acclaimed universities. Doo Hwan Kim and Yool Choi (2015) professors at Duksung Women’s University and Hawang University, concluded this observation from their study of higher education and its strain on Korean society:

Higher education expansion, which was expected to lessen inequality, actually intensified educational competition and deepened inequality in South Korea … Those who became upper-middle class and accumulated their wealth began to spend massive amounts of money and to change institutional rules imposed by authoritarian regimes in order to ensure their children inherited what they achieved (p. 457).

Indeed, although it seems advantageous that so many attend higher education, it also complicated the job application process for newly graduated Koreans. Although more blind hiring efforts have been put through to limit discrimination on the basis of educational and social backgrounds, it is common for recent graduates to take additional exams for specific companies to stand out against equally qualified peers.

Figure 8: Modern illustration of a Korean artist depicting a dreaming student among very focused students and one sleeping student. Classroom Sunset. Jeong, J. 2021.

In conclusion, understanding the historical and cultural context of Korea’s education system, and how it provides the key to upward mobility, prevents misconceptions and harmful stereotypes. The stereotype of “All Asians are smart” provides a very superficial and generalized observation that could fuel eugenics rhetoric that is damaging to everyone. Instead, these observations can be looked through a social perspective by asking the reasons why and considering historical and cultural factors. South Korea established itself as an economic powerhouse (among the Fout Asian Tigers) in the 1960s through aggressive economic reforms, strong community efforts, and hard work to keep up with the rest of the world and situate itself as a nation worthy of allyship and protection against the North Koreans and other political aggressors. Many of the older generations of Koreans alive today experienced the tragedies of war and occupation, and this generational trauma is interwoven and expressed through various systems of society. The concern of education and social mobility is one of which many policymakers across the globe will face to provide diverse and unstigmatized education and better opportunities for social mobility and economic stability for citizens.

Bibliographical References

Adams, D. (1960). Problems of reconstruction in Korean education. Comparative Education Review, 3(3), 27–32.

Hong, D. S., & Choi, K. M. (2011). Korean college entrance exams: an inside look. The Mathematics Teacher, 105(3), 208–213.

Kim, D. H., & Choi, Y. (2015). The Irony of the unchecked growth of higher education in South Korea: crystallization of class cleavages and intensifying status competition. Development and Society, 44(3), 435–463.

Kim, D. Y. (2011). The Pursuit of elite high schools and colleges among second-generation Korean Americans. Development and Society, 40(2), 225–259.

Kim, S., & Lee, J. (2010). Private tutoring and demand for education in South Korea. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 58(2), 259–296.

OECD (2016), Education policy outlook: Korea, pp.1-23. Retrieved from:

Robinson, J. (1994). Social status and academic success in South Korea. Comparative Education Review, 38(4), 506–530.

Sorensen, C. W. (1994). Success and education in South Korea. comparative education review, 38(1), 10–35.

Worldometer. (2022). South Korea Population (2022) - Worldometer.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Han, J. (2018). Gwageo Siheom Reenactment [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2: Anonymous. 17th-18th c. Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 3: The Korea Economic Daily. (2020). Unknown [Photograph]. The Korea Economic Daily.

Figure 4: Anonymous. (N.d.). Unknown. [Photograph]. Dreams Abroad.

Figure 5: Anonymus. (2019). Unknown [Photograph]. Korea.Net.

Figure 6: Lee, J. (2017). Daechi-dong in Seoul is home to several hundred private cram schools that provide tailor-made lessons for students vying to enter the country’s leading universities [Photograph]. The Korea Herald.

Figure 7: Anonymous. (2020). Unknown [Photograph]. CEOWORLD Magazine.

Figure 8: Jeong, J. (2021). Classroom Sunset [Illustration]. Behance.


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