A WEEK ago South Korea observed “Children’s Day”, an occasion when every school and office is closed, and the nation’s families march off in unison to chaebol-owned theme parks like Lotte World or Everland. Cynical expat residents are fond of asking “isn’t every day Children’s Day?” They mean it sarcastically but their sarcasm is itself ironic. In reality the other 364 days of the year are very tough for Korean youngsters.
Results of a survey released last week by the Institute for Social Development Studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University show that Korean teenagers are by far the unhappiest in the OECD. This is the result of society’s relentless focus on education—or rather, exam results. The average child attends not only regular school, but also a series of hagwons, private after-school “academies” that cram English, maths, and proficiency in the “respectable” musical instruments, ie piano and violin, into tired children’s heads. Almost 9% of children are forced to attend such places even later than 11pm, despite tuitions between 10pm and 5am being illegal.
Psychologists blame this culture for all manner of ills, from poor social skills to the nation’s unacceptably high rate of youth suicide, which is now the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24. Recently, a spate of suicides at KAIST, a technology-focused university, has drawn national attention. For most students the pinnacle of stress is reached somewhat earlier, in the third year of high school. This is the year in which the suneung (university entrance exam) is taken. Tragic reactions to the stress it creates are all too common.
Every suneung period is accompanied by national soul-searching and endless newspaper articles, but nothing ever seems to change. For hundreds of years civil service examinations were the only means by which social advancement was possible; testing became the means by which a person’s value in Korean society would be defined. In this ultra-competitive country, no parent wants their child to be seen as a B student.
Private education of course also costs a great deal of money, and is a major factor in South Korea’s low birth rate—it is a lucky couple these days who can afford to raise two or more children. South Korea is due to achieve the perilous status of being a “super-aged” country by 2026. Between those demographic consequences and the sheer misery it inflicts on its young, South Korea’s approach to education is starting to look like a matter of two steps forward, three steps back.