Korean society historically has prized learning and the well educated, yet education was not widely available to all until after the Korean War. As late as 1945, less than 20 percent of Koreans had received formal education of any kind. The modern education system is based on a 1968 charter that identifies education as an important aspect of citizenship and defines the government’s role in providing all Korean children with access to education. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Since antiquity, Koreans have studied abroad in China, India, and Japan, frequently acting as a bridge between nations. In spite of foreign invasions, Korea remained independent until succumbing to Japanese domination (1910-45). Shortly after liberation, Korea suffered the further agony of national division and a cruel civil war (1950-53), which is still not officially ended. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The Korean educational tradition has been shaped by two main cultural characteristics. First is the extreme class consciousness of the Korean people. Birth into a good family was regarded as a heavenly mandate or at least a reward for merit in a previous life. In pre-modern times nobility was strictly hereditary, and upward mobility into a higher class was not possible, except in very rare cases of merit. The second and most important characteristic is that Koreans have long believed society's leaders to be the most educated.

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: “There is a historical explanation for South Korea’s education fervor. During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), having children pass the civil service examination administered by the royal court was seen as a sure conduit to social and material success for the entire family. As the late Professor Edward Wagner at Harvard noted, even then a form of private education persisted, with candidates taking years of lessons to prepare for the exam and wealthier families splurging on special tutors.” [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014; Koo is a former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale, and editor in chief of Korea Exposé,]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ “The Korean passion for education is one reason for the country's rapid economic development and a major element in the process of urbanization. It is rooted in the traditional respect for the educated yangban class and the awe with which uneducated Korean commoners used to look upon anyone who could manage the magical process of reading and writing. Under the monarchy, educated men were appointed to office and ruled over others, and education was reserved for the few at the top of the social scale. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Purpose of Education in Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Korea has long retained a Confucian notion that man is perfectible through education. With the traditional class system's obsolescence, educational attainment has become the principal measure of a person's worth. The government plays a central role in terms of educational policy and research and their implementation, although recent educational reforms have emphasized the need for more autonomy for individual schools or regions. Under democratic ideals, the traditionally neglected population with disabilities has also been getting increased attention from government and society. Koreans have achieved remarkable progress in making education available to all, and the literacy rate quickly reached almost 100 percent. Koreans are among the most educated people of the world. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Originally intended by the elite for its own edification, education was at first provided to prospective leaders from aristocratic families to ensure high quality of leadership. The graduate would gain not only wisdom but also a sense of morality in governance. It served as a check against incompetent or cruel government. Education perpetuated the elite's exclusivity through self-improvement, thereby justifying their special status even more.

“Modern education, born at a time of a great influx of Western democratic ideals, has become accessible to everyone. Ironically, democratic education has now become a mechanism of creating and legitimizing new classes, albeit offering a chance of upward mobility even for people of the humblest origin. In recent times, as literacy has neared 100 percent, the focus has shifted from "basic literacy" to "life skill literacy" or "functional literacy" education.

“Having achieved the urgent initial goal of equity in educational opportunities, the Korean government and people have set for themselves a new aim of global competitiveness in the information-oriented twenty-first century. Research and development have been promoted, especially in science and technology, while the gifted and talented in other areas — including the humanities and the fine and performing arts — have also been given special encouragement. Applied research, with close cooperation between academic researchers and industry, as well as basic research, were promoted. Koreans have joined the ranks of the advanced nations in information technology despite the severe financial crisis of 1997 from which Korea has not completely recovered.

Confucianism, Buddhism and Education in Korea

Confucianism has shaped ideas about education in Korea. The glue holding the traditional nobility together was education, meaning socialization into Confucian norms and virtues that began in early childhood with the reading of the Confucian classics. The model figure was the so-called true gentleman, the virtuous and learned scholar-official who was equally adept at poetry and statecraft. In Korea education started very early because Korean students had to master the extraordinarily difficult classical Chinese language — tens of thousands of written ideographs and their many meanings typically learned through rote memorization. Throughout the Chosun Dynasty, all official records and formal education and most written discourse were in classical Chinese. With Chinese language and philosophy came a profound cultural penetration of Korea, such that most Chosun arts and literature came to use Chinese models. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Confucianism arrived in the Korean peninsula much earlier, but it was the Yi Dynasty (Chosun Dynasty) that adopted the neo-Confucianism of Chu Xi (1130-1200) as the official code for maintaining social and political order and for promoting harmony. Korean Neo-Confucianists believed in the transcendent dignity and goodness of man, and in human perfectibility (Lee 1993). They laid special emphasis on education aimed at sagacity and moral rectitude. Confucianism emphasized fairness and meritocracy. Human emotionality and rationality alike were viewed as needing cultivation and control (Ching). Koreans first established and then rigidly adhered to principles of propriety, earning the country the nickname of "the Eastern nation of etiquette." [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In Confucian societies such as China and Korea, education was a prime qualification for leadership. This education was acquired at great effort and expense in village schools and in district schools under the stern discipline of learned teachers. In China, and also for almost a thousand years in Korea, the government staged examinations for students to test their mastery of the ideals they had studied in the Confucian classics. For most of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) there were lower examinations in the Confucian classics and in Chinese literary arts, the latter leading to a coveted chinsa ("presented scholar") degree. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Buddhism also played a role — albeit a smaller one than Confucianism — in education in Korea. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Buddhism was introduced in A.D. 372 through China, first to the Koguryo, but was soon embraced by both aristocrats and commoners throughout the peninsula. It became the national religion for 865 years (527-1392). Chinese characters were imported with Buddhism, and art and scholarship flourished. Buddhist temples served also as centers of learning. Great scholar-monks developed important Buddhist schools in east Asia. In particular, Great Master Wonhyo, who strove to harmonize the doctrinal differences of various schools, is considered "the originator of the ecumenical tradition characteristic of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism" (Lee 1993, xix-xx) [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]


Traditional Education in Korea

Formal education has played a central role in the social and cultural development of both traditional Korea and contemporary North and South Korea. The traditional Confucian-style state examinations, called Gwageo, used to select government officials, began in A.D. 788 and continued until 1894.

During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), the royal court established a system of schools that taught Confucian subjects in the provinces as well as in four central secondary schools in the capital. There was no state-supported system of primary education. During the fifteenth century, state-supported schools declined in quality and were supplanted in importance by private academies, the swn, centers of a neo-Confucian revival in the sixteenth century. Higher education was provided by the Snggyungwan, the Confucian national university, in Seoul. Its enrollment was limited to 200 students who had passed the lower civil service examinations and were preparing for the highest examinations. Students at both private and state-supported secondary schools were exempt from military service and had much the same social prestige as university students enjoy today in South Korea. Like modern students, they were frequently involved in politics. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

Donald S. Macdonald of Georgetown University wrote: “The enormous importance attached to education in Korea is a principal reason for the nation's rapid development. This attitude, however, is only partly motivated by current realities: it springs from the Confucian tradition, in which entry into government service was by superior merit obtained through years of study of the Confucian classics, proven by examination. Government position and scholarship were intimately related: the social ideal was the scholar-official, and scholarship in effect served the state. At a time when government positions were the only way to rise in the world, education thus was key to fame and fortune. “

Confucian Exam System in Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In Confucian societies such as China and Korea, education was a prime qualification for leadership. This education was acquired at great effort and expense in village schools and in district schools under the stern discipline of learned teachers. In China, and also for almost a thousand years in Korea, the government staged examinations for students to test their mastery of the ideals they had studied in the Confucian classics. For most of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) there were lower examinations in the Confucian classics and in Chinese literary arts, the latter leading to a coveted chinsa ("presented scholar") degree. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Passers of the lower examinations next engaged in higher studies and took preliminary higher examinations in their respective provinces and then a capital examination in Seoul, at the end of which the top qualifiers were immediately appointed to government posts. The various civil examinations (munkwd) were held every three years and on additional occasions as needed. There were also military {mukwa) examinations. Passing the examinations, even at the lower or preliminary levels, was the chief qualification for membership in the aristocratic ruling class called the yangban.

“Any successful examination candidate was regarded with awe by family members and neighbors and enjoyed great social status, even if he did nothing more than reside in the ancestral village and teach in the local school, using his tuition income to buy land and maintain his family in comfort. Competitors for advancement in the higher levels of the examination system were objects of even more pride and celebration, with their yangban status rubbing off on relatives. Thus it was in everyone's interest to invest in education and success in the examinations. At the pinnacle of the system, official appointees were put into positions where they enjoyed substantial incomes from fees and gifts as well as their salaries, income that they typically reinvested in more land, increasing the basis of their family's wealth.

“The examination system was based on the Confucian idea that a society's most moral people should be its leaders, and that moral knowledge was best acquired through a study of philosophy, history, and literature. Becoming saturated with moral messages from the past was the best preparation for an uncertain future in which no one knew what would happen or what decisions would be required — except that in all things, the leaders would need to base their actions and decisions on sound moral judgment.

Reenactments of the exam have been held at Gyeongbok palace. They feature children in traditional costumes using calligraphy brushes. During a reenactment of the test at Sungkyunkwan University in May 2006, participants dressed in scholar costumes used laptops and competed in composing poems in Korean, Chinese and English and played Internet games and tests of foreign language skills.

Early Education in Korea

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the ”World Education Encyclopedia”: “Formal education in Korea started in the Three Kingdoms era. It is recorded that the people of Koguryo (37 B.C.-A.D. 668), the kingdom closest to China, were already studying the Five Classics of Confucianism, as well as Sima Qian's "Historical Records" (Shıjì) and Bangù's "History of the Han Dynasty" (Hàn shū), the Yùpian Chinese character dictionary, and an anthology of Chinese literature called the Wén xua n (Lee 1984, 58). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud,”World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The first public educational institution, called T'aehak (Great Learning, Highest School of Learning, or the National Confucian Academy), was founded in 372 by King Sosurim of Koguryo. This was the first formal school in East Asia outside of China (HEK). The king, who officially adopted Buddhism, embarked on a series of reforms to speed national recovery from devastating invasions by educating youth for officialdom. T'aehak was modeled upon Chinese institutions, teaching the Chinese language and the Confucian classics (Han 63).

“Soon after the establishment of T'aehak, private schools called kyongdang were erected in each locality at a main crossroads, in order to educate the unmarried, non-aristocratic youth of Koguryo. Kyongdang, like T'aehak, emphasized a balanced education in letters and martial arts. The curriculum at both institutions typically consisted of the reading of Chinese texts as well as archery practice (Lee 1984, 58).

“Paekche, the second to Sinicize of the three kingdoms, had a curriculum for the Paksa (Savant or Erudite Scholar), a term now used to refer to the holder of a doctorate, which was given to teachers of the Chinese classics, as well as philosophy and history.

Education During the Shilla Dynasty

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ Shilla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), being the farthest from China, is thought to have been the most authentically Korean kingdom. It had a well-organized and original educational system, called hwarangdo (The Way of Flower Knights), to train young men for beauty and strength of mind and body with the eventual objective of national defense; this, indeed, led to the unification of the three kingdoms by Shilla in 668. Confucianism came relatively late to Shilla as compared with Koguryo and Paekche. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Not long after unification, Confucianism appeared to rival Buddhism as a distinct system of thought in the establishment of Kukhak (National Learning) in 682. Around 750, this state institution was renamed the T'aehakkam (National Confucian University) and offered three different courses of study with the "Analects" and "Classic of Filial Piety" as required subjects in each course. A kind of state examination system was established in 788 for selecting government official.

“The goals of the national educational institutions were twofold: (1) attainment of general knowledge, especially in Confucian classics for able leadership; and (2) training of bureaucrats. At first both aims were equal, but later, education became largely certification and test-oriented. During the Three Kingdoms period, students went to study in China. The students typically stayed about 10 years in China and then returned home, unlike those going abroad in recent times. At least 59 students from Shilla passed the Chinese civil service examinations (Kim-Renaud 1991).

Education During the Koryo Dynasty

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The Chinese-style civil service examination was first administered in Korea in A.D. 958 during the Koryo Dynasty and served for recruiting government bureaucrats who were much needed to solidify the new dynasty. The dynasty's national school was founded in 930 specifically to train future bureaucrats.A full-scale national school called the Kukchagam (National University) was established in 992. This system, although based on the Tang model again, was accessible only to aristocrats, who were further distinguished by their family's social rank. Programs training lesser bureaucrats enrolled the offspring of lower bureaucrats, while higher level trainees had a curriculum mainly involving Confucian classics. Technical fields were to be studied only by those of lower social position. The stipulation of such entrance qualifications offers still another insight into Koryo class consciousness. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The Kukchagam came to resemble a modern university at the time of King Injong (1122-46). It was comprised of a number of colleges, namely the so-called Six Colleges of the Capital: University College (Kukchahak), High College (T'aehak), Four Portals College (Samunhak), Law College (Yurhak), Writing College (Sohak), and Arithmetical College (Sanhak). Students' familial social status rather than their interest decided in which school they would be matriculated.

“New to the Koryo was the rise of private, rather than public, academies as the principal agencies for the education of aristocratic youth. The first and most famous of Twelve Assemblies was the Kuje haktang (nine course Academy), established by Ch'oe Ch'ung, called haedong kongja ("the Confucius of the East"), during Munjong's reign (1046-83). Ch'oe Ch'ung and the other masters of the Twelve Assemblies had officiated at the state examinations. These facts, together with the emphasis placed on lineage, made it a greater honor for the sons of aristocratic families to attend one of these private academies than the government's Kukchagam.

Education During the Chosun Dynasty

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: As the Chosun Kingdom or Yi Dynasty adopted neo-Confucianism, the goal of education was to create moral men, who would practice proper judgment in actions — qualities thought essential in all leaders, including the king himself (Haboush 1985). Respect for knowledge and scholarship was absolute. Members of the Chiphyonjon (Hall or Academy of Worthies), a royal research institute founded by King Sejong (r. 1418-50), the inventor of the Korean alphabet, enjoyed exceptional privileges, including the freedom to pursue their individual intellectual interests at home or in remote areas. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“A national school called the Songgyun'gwan (National Confucian Academy) was established in 1398 shortly after the dynasty's foundation in 1392 for reasons similar to those inducing Koryo to found a national institution at its outset. Again Confucian classics became a major educational focus. However, the system became increasingly examination-oriented and continued to serve mainly the aristocrats with the specific goal of passing the civil service examinations. Although in principle anyone could sit for these examinations, in actuality opportunities to prepare for them were available only to the offspring of yangban aristocrats.

“Because women were supposed to stay within the boundary of the home in Chosun Korea, they were excluded from formal education meant to prepare men for public service and scholarship. Even in an increasingly confucianized Korea, however, the notion persisted that women, as essential figures in family and society, needed proper education (Haboush 2000, 46). A textbook entitled Naehun (Instructions for Women, 1475), by Queen Sohye is an example of how elite women of Chosun Korea sought, within the constraints of the Confucian gender system, to define a space wherein they could play meaningful social, cultural, and political roles.

Private Schools During the Chosun Dynasty

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “At an early age, a yangban youth entered a private elementary school (sodang ) that could be found in any community nationwide. There he achieved literacy in Chinese characters. At the age of seven, he would advance to one of the Four Schools (sahak ) in Seoul or to a county school (hyanggyo ) elsewhere, which prepared students for their first examination. After a few years, youths passing the "licentiate" examination were admitted to the Songgyun'gwan in Seoul, the highest institution of learning. Only those who attended this National Academy could sit for the highest level examination called munkwa. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The private academies, called sowon, emerged in the mid-sixteenth century and prospered through the late nineteenth, when their number reached about 300. These schools seem to have differed from the national college in detail and scale only. Again, liberal, humanistic, and Confucian studies were considered the ultimate, while technical subjects such as agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, mathematics, and medicine were despised as caphak or "miscellaneous learning." Practical knowledge was considered merely "functional," allowing people to perform limited and superficial activities, while a liberal education was thought to offer general competence to handle unanticipated situations.

“Many sowon were established by ex-officials out of court favor or in retirement. Some historians see their development largely as the result of the withdrawal of the Confucian literati collectively known as the sarim (forest of scholars) from national politics to avoid persecution, pursue their studies of neo-Confucian philosophers, and lead a quiet rural life. Others view the rise of private academies rather as a manifestation of the rise of sarim, a new breed of scholar-officials, ambitiously committed to the cause of neo-Confucianism and determined to realize the goals of the Confucian thinkers. As sowon were perceived as centers of neo-Confucian scholarship and moral cultivation, every administrative district had at least a private academy, and many had two or more by the middle of the seventeenth century.

Sirhak (Practical Learning)

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““In the early seventeenth century, amid the numerous social and political ills following the invasion, one critical cultural development was a movement called sirhak (Practical Learning). Sirhak thinkers, mostly southerners (namin ) outside the political process, meant to censure those with political power and criticize such age-old systems as the civil service examination. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Serious about changing the traditional order to achieve what they viewed as an ideal society, sirhak scholars stressed the need for popular education and the promotion of realistic thinking and technocracy. Their inquiries extended to social sciences such as politics and economics and far beyond Chinese classical studies to historiography (especially Korean history), geography, linguistics, astronomy, natural sciences, Western technology, agriculture, medicine, martial arts, and many more including virtually every branch of learning.

“An outstanding scholarly activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thus was the compilation of encyclopedias, both general and specialized. Yi Su-gwang, the first Sirhak scholar to display an interest in Korean history, began the trend with his encyclopedic work called Chibong yusol (Topical Discourse of Chibong, 1614). Yi discussed astronomy, geography, botany, and Confucianism, inserting his own views on society and government during earlier Korean dynasties (Lee 1984, 236, Han 331-32). Greatest among sirhak thinkers was Chong Yagyong or Tasan. During his 18 years of exile following the Catholic Persecution of 1801, Tasan wrote many works criticizing the conditions of his time and proposing various reforms. Had the sirhak scholars been heard by the ruling aristocrats, many Koreans feel that the nation's modern history would have been totally different.

Education in Late 19th Century

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modern private schools were established both by Koreans and by foreign Christian missionaries. The latter were particularly important because they promoted the education of women and the diffusion of Western social and political ideas. Japanese educational policy after 1910 was designed to turn Koreans into obedient colonial subjects and to teach them limited technical skills. A state university modeled on Tokyo Imperial University was established in Seoul in 1923, but the number of Koreans allowed to study there never exceeded 40 percent of its enrollment; 60 percent of its students were Japanese expatriates. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed major educational changes. The swn were abolished by the central government. Christian missionaries established modern schools that taught Western curricula. Among them was the first school for women, Ehwa Woman's University, established by American Methodist missionaries as a primary school in Seoul in 1886. During the last years of the dynasty, as many as 3,000 private schools that taught modern subjects to both sexes were founded by missionaries and others. Most of these schools were concentrated in the northern part of the country.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “In the late Chosun, patriotic leaders and members of the enlightenment movement saw education as a key to modernization and national independence. The government established the English School in 1883 and Yugyong Kong'won (Garden of Youth Education) in 1886. King Kojong authorized, in the Royal Decree of 1895, the establishment of other state-run modern schools, comprising primary, normal, and vocational schools. He emphasized the importance of education for the training of competent citizens and national revival. In 1895 the government established Hansong Normal School, a foreign language school, and a training school for various government officials and bureaucrats, including army officers, teachers, and trade officials. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The first modern school in Korea, however, was the Wonsan Haksa (Academy), a private school founded in 1883 by Chong Hyon-sok, a county magistrate in Wonsan, at the request of the Wonsan traders' group and other locals. Korea's first modern school was thus established at the initiative of the residents of a newly opened port city with their own resources in response to a challenge from abroad.

Missionaries and Western Ideas About Education in Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Koreans also welcomed foreign missionaries who brought modern medicine and the liberal arts. In 1886, under King Kojong's patronage, American missionaries started three private schools: Paeje haktang (Hall of Learning), Kyongshin School, and Korea's first educational institution for women, Ewha (Ihwa) haktang, which is today's Ewha Women's University. In 1890, Chongshin Girls' School was added. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Western ideas were first introduced to Korea by Roman Catholics in the late eighteenth century and reintroduced by Protestant missionaries in the late nineteenth. Clearly it was not through proselytizing but rather on their own initiative — bringing treatises from China, such as "First Steps in Catholic Doctrine" (Ch'onhak ch'oham ) — that Korean Catholics developed a profound interest in the new religion (Lee 1984, 239). With it came new democratic ideals and respect for Western pragmatism. The old reverence for knowledge, traditionally identified with competence gained through humanistic and liberal education, has now come to encompass fields previously considered less noble: medicine, engineering, mathematics, manufacturing, commerce, foreign languages other than Chinese, professional (as opposed to amateur), fine and performing arts, and others.

“Since the war, South Korea has been in close contact with foreigners. Many of today's leaders have had extensive experience with other cultures. Contacts with Americans have facilitated much of the fifth year globalization of Koreans. Many have gone to study in the United States and returned with terminal degrees in practically all fields. More recently elite and non-elite Koreans also have studied and lived in Japan, China, Australia, Russia, European countries, and elsewhere.

Education in the Early 20th Century

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““In 1905, Posong College, which is today's Korea University, was founded by Yi Yong-ik. The first two departments — Law and Commerce — were intended to introduce Western legal, commercial, and technical knowledge to the Korean people struggling to maintain their country's independence. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“By 1908, two years before the country succumbed to Japanese colonial domination, Korea's 5,000 vocational schools enrolled about 200,000 students (Kim-Renaud 1991). Of these schools, 796 were established by Christian missionaries; schools for girls outnumbered those for boys (HEK). Modern-style education thus began for women at the same time as for men in Korea.

“The medical school of today's Yonsei (a portmanteau name originating from Yonhûi-Severance) University goes back to 1885, when King Kojong opened the first modern hospital, the Kwanghoewon, under the direction of Dr. Horace N. Allen of the Korean Mission Presbyterian Church in the United States. In March 1886, the Kwanghoewon accepted 16 students to be trained as Korea's first modern medical doctors. In 1904 the medical center was renamed the Severence Union Medical College and Hospital. In 1915, the Chosun Christian College was founded through the efforts of Dr. H. G. Underwood, a pioneering Protestant missionary and the College's first president. Two years later, renamed Yonhûi College, it became Korea's first modern college.

“Throughout the colonial period, the democratic ideals and individuals' self-esteem heralded by private schools offering Western-style education became a catalyst for Korea's independence movement. Conservative elements, which comprised the great majority of the society, considered the new education inappropriate and corrupting, especially for women; nevertheless, private schools for both genders continued to flourish, producing a new elite class, as the traditional belief in educated leaders persisted. Thus, even for women, education became a means of upward social mobility. New fields besides Confucian classics became important, such as medicine, mathematics, geography, and foreign languages. Women began to have a professional life outside the home. Women participated fully in the 1919 independence movement, which was initiated by Yu Kwansun, a young woman from Ewha Haktang. Taking notice of the private schools' nurturance of nationalist thinking, the Japanese Government General began controlling them and closed many.

“After the aborted 1919 independence movement, however, the Japanese established new schools to prove their "cultural administration," which was adopted under the pressure of world opinion, to make deceptive gestures in the direction of liberalizing their rule in Korea (Han 479). The most significant was Kyongsong Imperial University, which is today's Seoul National University, founded 1924. Even there, however, more than two thirds of the students (68-70 percent in 1935) were Japanese (Ono). Furthermore, secondary schools emphasized menial skill training; the majority of boys' schools had adjoining land for farming practice, and sewing and embroidery occupied much of girls' curriculum (HEK). However eager Koreans were to learn, they could not meet the challenge of Japanese imperialism, and the harsh Japanese rule of 35 years left the majority of Koreans illiterate.

Education During Japan Period (1910-1945)

Mass education did not begin until after 1910, during the Japanese colonial period. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, the colonial regime established an educational system with two goals: to give Koreans a minimal education designed to train them for subordinate roles in a modern economy and make them loyal subjects of the emperor; and to provide a higher quality education for Japanese expatriates who had settled in large numbers on the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese invested more resources in the latter, and opportunities for Koreans were severely limited. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In 1930 only 12.2 percent of Korean children aged seven to fourteen attended school. A state university modeled on Tokyo Imperial University was established in Seoul in 1923, but the number of Koreans allowed to study there never exceeded 40 percent of its enrollment; the rest of its students were Japanese.Private universities, including those established by missionaries such as Sungsil College in Pyongyang and Chosun Christian College in Seoul, provided other opportunities for Koreans desiring higher education.*

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The Japanese installed a system of government schools that began to spread the power of literacy. Foreign missionaries also created a school system that taught secular subjects and welcomed children from all social classes.Despite these major initiatives, however, fewer than 20 percent of the Korean people had ever attended a school of any kind by 1945, when Korea was liberated. Koreans possessing education were the ones who moved into leadership positions immediately after 1945. This fact was obvious to Koreans in general, who demanded access to education for their children and forced both governments, north and south, to put a high priority on educational development. The Korean War (1950-53) was a serious setback for these efforts. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Development of Modern Korean Education During the Japan Period

A national drive against Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of economic self-reliance and national cultivation through education. This resulted in the establishment of approximately 3,000 private schools across the nation, which bolstered the Korean education system. Decrying the state of young people’s existence in Korea, Yi Kwang-su, an early reformist intellectual, wrote in a 1918 essay, “On Child-Centrism,” “As long as parents live, children have no freedom and are treated like slaves or livestock not unlike subjects of a feudal lord.” [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014; Asia Society]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The government of Japan turned to formal education as a nonmilitary means of ensuring the proper implementation of its policy of educating only as many Koreans as needed, i.e., to improve "market worth" of the colonized to the Japanese interests. The harshest policy was that of assimilation under the slogan of naeson ilch'e ("Japan and Korea are one entity"), which the Japanese government adopted from 1930 to 1945 in a sweeping campaign to eradicate Korean national identity (Lee 1984, 353). Koreans were forced to change their names, even family names, to sound Japanese, and the Korean language was prohibited in all official situations, especially at schools and in publications. Thus, ironically, the colonial relationship brought the Japanese and Korean cultures, which already shared a good deal, including close linguistic and philosophical foundations, even closer. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Other byproducts of the Japanese occupation include the Koreans' thirst for modernization and increased appreciation of Western culture — aspects Koreans perceived as having strengthened Japan. Even before occupation, though, many Koreans had been interested in Western ideas and practices as possible solutions to the many ills in their legacy. Therefore, the question of whether Japanese rule actually helped accelerate Korean modernization or interfered with it is much debated.

“The religion that has emerged as a strong new thought system in Korea is Christianity. Catholicism, introduced to Korea in 1784, was first studied as a Western philosophy and later as heterodoxy, subversive and harmful to the nation. Protestantism arrived exactly 100 years later, just as Koreans began embracing modern Western civilization. Christianity soon became a patriotic religion of the Korean people, offering them hope. The number of Christians in Korea has exploded over the recent years. In the early 1960s, there were barely one million Christians. As of 1997, there are 11 million Protestants and 3 million Roman Catholics, making up one-third of the total population (Korea Web Weekly).

“Determined to rebuild following the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, the nation has undergone dramatic changes. Pragmatism, perceived as helpful to advancement, has become not only inevitable but also respectable. Economic development was the focus of the first national agenda, especially during the 30 years of military government (1961-92). As Koreans' economy and politics required constant contact with foreigners, their international awareness intensified.

“The nation's division and economic agenda have often been excuses for different regimes to become dictatorial, against which the now fiercely democratic Korean populace continuously protested. With a new confidence based on their rapid economic development and the return of the presidency to a civilian, Koreans mean to be players on the world stage. In the information age, the society has given added respect to science and technology, while the gifted and talented in other specialized fields are also now esteemed.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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