Since the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea’s focus on education has been a major factor in its economic miracle over the last half century. In 1960, Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries, with a lower per capita GDP than many countries in subsaharan Africa and Latin America. Today’s it’s the 15th largest economy in the world, and the fourth largest in Europe, with a per capita GDP that ranks with countries in Europe.

Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea's national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent, and by the late 1980s various sources estimated it at around 93 percent. South Korean students have performed exceedingly well in international competitions in mathematics and science. Although only primary school (grades one through six) was compulsory, percentages of age-groups of children and young people enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary level schools were equivalent to those found in industrialized countries, including Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In 1945 the adult literacy rate in South Korean was estimated at 22 percent. In 1960, it was around 72 percent. By 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent, and by the late 1980s various sources estimated it at around 93 percent. Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: “South Korea stands out as a rare example of how a drive toward literacy can transform a nation. A generation ago, South Korea was an Asian backwater, an underdeveloped country with a 1953 GDP per capita of US$67 after the brutal occupation by the Japanese and the aftermath of the Korean War. But a campaign to build schools and improve teaching standards coupled with a deeply ingrained culture that prizes education fueled South Korea's industrial revolution.” Now South Korea is the world's 10th largest economy, with a US$31,846 per capita GDP (2019) and a 98 percent literacy rate. Its workers are among the most highly skilled in the world, churning out high-tech cell phones, LCD flat-screen TVs and popular vehicles. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, November 18, 2004]

According to the Asia Society: Over past decades, “Korea has shown what can be done to improve education. It has extended class size and schooling hours to meet a surging demand for better education, and students from all socio-economic levels do well on examinations, including the sophisticated problem-solving skills on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Primary and secondary enrollment rates have been near universal since about 1990, and currently 86 percent of young Koreans enroll in higher education programs. There was an unprecedented increase in primary and secondary education from around 1975 to 1990 when the country also grew at a rapid rate. A commensurate growth in tertiary education took place thereafter and continues to date. This expansion can be explained by a number of convergent factors: cultural and historical reasons, economic growth, value placed on education, and government policies that promote educational achievement. [Source: Asia Society]

Education in Korea Around the Time of the Korean War (1950-1953)

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “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. Many schools were destroyed in the fighting. In some places teachers were forced to meet their classes outdoors, on hillsides and riverbanks, attempting to teach without textbooks or writing paper. The result was a new determination to promote mass education after the war, and in South Korea the government spent more money on education than on anything other than national defense. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ “To overcome Japanese influence, the U.S. military occupation (1945-48) undertook a drastic revision of the basic educational structure and curricula using the American system and democratic ideology as a model. Initially Koreans ardently studied American educational theory by scholars such as John Dewey, E. L. Thorndike, William Kilpatrick, and Harold Rugg. Equal educational opportunity for all was their primary concern (HEK). Since 1945, the Korean language has been used exclusively for classroom instruction, except in foreign language classes. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Once the Korean War (1950-53) ended, Koreans embarked on a major recovery. The explosive expansion of Korean education at all levels in less than 50 years produced drastic changes in both the quantity and the quality of education. Whereas once the goal was to make education available to everyone, now the aspiration is to produce enlightened and efficient future citizens who will contribute to national welfare and reconstruction.

Education After South Korea Becomes Independent

When United States military forces occupied the southern half of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, they established a school system based on the American model: six years of primary school, six years of secondary school (divided into junior and senior levels), and four years of higher education. Other occupation period reforms included coeducation at all levels, popularly elected school boards in local areas, and compulsory education up to the ninth grade. The government of Syngman Rhee reversed many of these reforms after 1948, when only primary schools remained in most cases coeducational and, because of a lack of resources, education was compulsory only up to the sixth grade. The school system in 1990, however, reflects that which was established under the United States occupation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

During the years when Rhee and Park Chung Hee were in power, the control of education was gradually taken out of the hands of local school boards and concentrated in a centralized Ministry of Education. In the late 1980s, the ministry was responsible for administration of schools, allocation of resources, setting of enrollment quotas, certification of schools and teachers, curriculum development (including the issuance of textbook guidelines), and other basic policy decisions. Provincial and special city boards of education still existed. Although each board was composed of seven members who were supposed to be selected by popularly elected legislative bodies, this arrangement ceased to function after 1973. Subsequently, school board members were approved by the minister of education.*

Most observers agree that South Korea's spectacular progress in modernization and economic growth since the Korean War is largely attributable to the willingness of individuals to invest a large amount of resources in education: the improvement of "human capital." The traditional esteem for the educated man, originally confined to the Confucian scholar as a cultured generalists, now extend to scientists, technicians, and others working with specialized knowledge. Highly educated technocrats and economic planners could claim much of the credit for their country's economic successes since the 1960s. Scientific professions were generally regarded as the most prestigious by South Koreans in the 1980s.*

Education in the 1980s

Government expenditure on education has been generous. In 1975 it was W220 billion (for value of the won), the equivalent of 2.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP), or 13.9 percent of total government expenditure. By 1986 education expenditure had reached won 3.76 trillion, or 4.5 percent of the GNP, and 27.3 percent of government budget allocations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Approximately 4.8 million students in the eligible age-group were attending primary school in 1985. The percentage of students going on to optional middle school the same year was more than 99 percent. Approximately 34 percent, one of the world's highest rates of secondary-school graduates attended institutions of higher education in 1987, a rate similar to Japan's (about 30 percent) and exceeding Britain's (20 percent).*

Social emphasis on education was not, however, without its problems, as it tended to accentuate class differences. In the late 1980s, possession of a college degree was considered necessary for entering the middle class; there were no alternative pathways of social advancement, with the possible exception of a military career, outside higher education. People without a college education, including skilled workers with vocational school backgrounds, often were treated as second-class citizens by their white-collar, college-educated managers, despite the importance of their skills for economic development. Intense competition for places at the most prestigious universities — the sole gateway into elite circles — promoted, like the old Confucian system, a sterile emphasis on rote memorization in order to pass secondary school and college entrance examinations. Particularly after a dramatic expansion of college enrollments in the early 1980s, South Korea faced the problem of what to do about a large number of young people kept in school for a long time, usually at great sacrifice to themselves and their families, and then faced with limited job opportunities because their skills were not marketable.*

Education, Government and the Constitution of South Korea

The South Korean government places a high priority on education. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is an important government body. Education is also an issue that ordinary South Koreans take interest in and often have strong opinions about. Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The MOE is in charge of all education — general as well as professional or technical. However, the Ministries of Finance and Economy (MOFE), Science and Technology (MOST), and Labor (MOL) all participate in formulating and implementing policies related to education and professional training. For example, the MOFE allocates government funds for education, setting economic and social development as its priority. MOST's priority is science and technology, in accordance with the government's determination to make Korea an advanced nation in basic research and technology. MOL, with reducing unemployment its priority, engages in vocational training. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The Education Law promulgated in 1949 adopted the motto Hong'ik in'gan ("to benefit humanity") — attributed to Korea's legendary founder Tan'gun — as the guiding principle of Korean education. The prevailing contemporary philosophy, however, is a strong sense of egalitarianism. “The Constitutional Law of the Republic of Korea (Article 31) declares: “All citizens have an equal right to receive an education corresponding to their abilities. All citizens who have children to support are responsible at least for their elementary education and other education as provided by law. Compulsory education is free of charge. Independence, professionalism, and political impartiality of education and the autonomy of institutions of higher learning are guaranteed under the conditions as prescribed by law. The state promotes lifelong education. Fundamental matters pertaining to the educational system — including schools and lifelong education, administration, finance, and the status of teachers — are determined by law. The Education Law, promulgated in 1949, stipulates a school system on the 6-3-3-4 plan with extra years offered for kindergarten and graduate work (including medicine and dentistry) and other variations in the case of special schools. The following levels of education are chartered: Preschool education: kindergartens; Elementary education: elementary schools and civic schools; Middle school education: middle schools and civic high schools; High school education: high schools and trade high schools; Special schools; Miscellaneous schools.

“The law specifies goals for the schools by level and regulates their administration and supervision. The elementary and secondary school curricula, established by MOE by 1955, were amended in 1963, 1973 and 1981. Both public and private schools have adopted standardized school curricula and time allotments for each subject. The revised curricula for elementary and middle schools was published on 30 December 1997 and those for kindergartens and special schools on 30 June 1998. They are being implemented, starting with kindergartens in 2000 and continuing through 2002.

“The Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), a quasi-governmental think tank established in 1972, has played a principal role in Korea's emergence as an educationally advanced nation. The Korea Institute of Curriculum & Evaluation (KICE), a governmentfunded educational research center established in 1998, strives to improve school education through research and development for school curriculum, textbooks, instructional materials, and educational evaluations. KICE develops tests (administered by the Metropolitan/Provincial Educational Authorities) and analyzes and reports results. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Increase of Educational Attainment and Literacy in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Since the Korean War, education has expanded enormously. As of 2000, there were 536 higher education institutions with 1,434,259 students in a country of 47 million; and in 1945, there were 19 such institutions with 7,819 students (in 1949 the population was just a little over 20 million). This means that the number of tertiary schools increased by a factor of 28 and students by a factor of 18.3, while the population only doubled. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Korea boasts a literacy rate near 100 percent and one of the highest levels of education anywhere in the world. This is a dramatic change over the past 70 years. In the late 1930s the adult literacy rate stood at less than 30 percent, in spite of the Confucian respect for learning and the easy to learn Korean writing system, han'gûl. In 1995, it was about 98 (UNESCO).

“As of the late 1990s, almost all Koreans of school age were able to finish high school. Even at college level, the enrollment reached 61.8 percent in 1996, compared with 6.7 percent in 1966 (UNDP). The enrollment rate in primary education reached 100 percent as early as the 1960s. The dropout rate is negligible in secondary schools. In 1985, the transition rate from primary school to middle school reached 99 percent. The transition rate from middle to high school exceeded 91.4 percent at the onset of the 1990s and 98.7 percent in 1996.

Increase of Higher Education Attainment in South Korea

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The transition rate from high school to higher education has also been increasing. Until the late 1980s, however, the government, while trying to make universal education available to precollege students, strongly controlled the expansion of higher education for fear of creating an oversupply of college graduates for available jobs. Following the government's relaxation of such control beginning in the 1990s, the transition rate from high school to higher education reached 79 percent in 1996. As of 2000, upon birth, a child has a 77 percent probability of receiving a higher education. Though the rate of high school graduates advancing to college has been increasing for both men and women, 92 percent of male high school graduates ages 18 to 21 went on to colleges in 1998, whereas the share for women was just 55.5 percent. Some scholars point out that concentration of male and female students in specific areas of study leads to gender discrimination and employment inequality (Shim). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Almost all high school graduates would be attending an institution of higher education were the quota increased and financing available. The overwhelming majority of Korean parents want nothing less than a college degree for their children. For example, in 1993, about 86.5 percent of the Korean parents expected their sons to get a college or university degree and 79.4 percent, their daughters (KEDI 1994, 33). Many who cannot pass their preferred institution's examination study abroad.

“As of 1995, about 28 percent of Koreans ages 25 to 29 had college degrees. This figure can be roughly compared with percentages of college degree holders in other countries among those ages 25 to 34: Canada, 20.1 percent; France, 12.4 percent; Germany, 12.9 percent; Italy, 8.3 percent, Japan, 22.9 percent; the United Kingdom, 15.2 percent; and the United States, 26.5 percent.

“As of 1999 the number of students enrolled in higher educational institutions was 3,154,245 compared to 2,343,894 in 1995, a 35 percent increase in just 4 years. The ever-increasing frenzy for education and the extent of Korean educational attainment are most evident in the number of doctoral degree holders. In 1966, the ratio of doctoral degree holders numbered 35 per 1,000,000. It increased to 200 per 1,000,000 in 1980, to 945 in 1995, and to 1,144 in 1997 (KEDI). The number has continued to explode; as of 2001, Korea had a total of 90,983 doctoral degree holders — 70,360 from Korean institutions and 20,623 from abroad — meaning almost 1 in 500 Koreans held a doctorate.

Education Reforms in South Korea

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “Devotion to studying is credited with helping South Korea consistently rank at the top of the developed world in reading, math and science, although the latest rankings from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also show that Korean students come last when asked whether they are happy at school. South Korea also has the highest suicide rate in the developed world, which many suggest is related to a high-stress focus on education. Some politicians and educators are questioning whether things have gotten out of hand. As” the government “promotes a “creative economy” as the key to taking South Korea to the next level in its development, many analysts say the country would do well to take a more creative approach to education. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, December 30, 2014]

In 1996 Moo-Sub Kang, director general of the Korean Educational Development Institute, noted that education administration was gradually moving from the national Ministry of Education to individual schools. In 1998 a Presidential Commission for a New Education Community was established to encourage further reform. More recent educational policy encourages a modest degree of curriculum decentralization. Local boards of education, similar to those in the United States but covering larger geographic areas, now have the requisite degree of autonomy to interpret the national curriculum in terms of local needs. For example, some schools now offer more computer, art, music, and writing courses, eliminating the need for their extracurricular study. Principals now can work with social studies teachers in developing aspects of the curriculum that reflect local needs, such as character education and community service programs. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

In the early 2000s, South Korea developed a national strategy of a human resources for the development-oriented nation and even established a law for elite education. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “In a continuous effort at amelioration, a series of governmental reforms has greatly altered the educational system over the last few decades. In January 2001 the MOE was restructured and renamed the Ministry of Education & Human Resources Development (MOEHRD), indicating its expanded scope. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Following the initial pursuit of the ideal of democratic education, the Korean government turned its attention to producing highly select academic talents who would excel in teaching and research and be internationally competitive in the "knowledge-based" twenty-first century. Such an elite was deemed necessary not only for educating the future generation but also for the sake of international exchanges and cooperation in the global environment.

“One of the government's most daring education plans for the twenty-first century has been what it calls Brain Korea 21 (BK21). This policy, launched in the spring of 1999, aims to lift a handful of institutions of higher education to the rank of world-class research universities. The government allocated 1.4 trillion won (about US$1.2 billion) for higher education over 7 years. This budget made it possible for graduate schools to hire faculty with reduced teaching loads, teaching only graduate courses, so that they may concentrate on basic research. It also gave graduate students in those selected schools generous grants for tuition, living allowances, and study abroad. Funds also were used to improve the infrastructure for academic research. Funds are provided to research teams within an institution or between colleagues of different institutions domestically and internationally, after a rigorous evaluation of the education reform carried out by the institution the team belongs to. Through this project, the government hopes to nurture three to four internationally known research universities.

“Another US$285 million, 7-year project, which was begun in 1999, promotes specialized programs in each regional university to meet the needs of local industry and, it is hoped, to be highly competitive internationally. An important benefit of this project was thought to be decentralization of programs of excellence, which traditionally have been concentrated in Seoul.

“However, the BK21 project is severely criticized by many as elitist or as a scheme that will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Although some support has been provided for provincial graduate schools, most special funds have gone to those few in Seoul. This, combined with the continuous growth in the number of higher education institutions in Korea, has contributed to what is viewed by some as a minor crisis in the university system, especially at less prestigious private universities in the regions, due to the "domestic brain drain," more from rural areas to Seoul (Fouser 15).”

Investments in Education in South Korea

Government and private investment in education is heavy, particularly in technical schools and colleges, both of which have expanded exponentially in the last decades. According to the Asia Society: The dramatic growth of the Korean economy has also contributed significantly to the value that Koreans place on higher education. In the past 25 years, the country has realized an extraordinarily high rate of return from education investment, hovering around 10 percent. As Dr. SooBong Uh, from the Korea University of Technology and Education has stated, “It is wiser for young people to invest their money in education than to keep it in the bank.” [Source: Asia Society]

Secondarily, there is a large and growing wage premium attached to obtaining a higher education in Korea. In 2007, for instance, college graduates earn up to 2.5 times more than their colleagues with a junior high school degree. With the rapid industrialization of the country, Korea’s labor market is highly segmented along educational background. As such, obtaining higher education is seen as essential to enter the primary labor market. Partially as a result of this relationship, in addition to the tradition of Confucianism, education is associated with positions of power and influence: graduates from ten major universities have almost three-fourths of the high-ranking government positions.

The government also shows a consistent commitment to investing in education: The Ministry of Education has a budget of US$29 billion, six times what it was in 1990. This accounts for about 20 percent of the central government expenditure. Koreans, as well, are willing to spend on education. The Korean government spends 3.4 percent of GDP on formal schooling; when taking private and informal schooling into account the amount nears 10 percent. Teachers are seen as a key part of that investment: OECD statistics place Korea 10th in rankings of entering teacher salaries. After fifteen years of service, Korean teachers move up to third place, demonstrating that the investment grows significantly over time.

Reeta Chakrabarti of the BBC wrote: “The huge investment in education has also resulted in an economy that's grown at an astonishing rate since the end of the war with North Korea 60 years ago. South Korea has in two generations gone from mass illiteracy to being an economic powerhouse. Brands like Samsung and Hyundai, Daewoo and LG are internationally known. The country has built itself up through the sheer hard graft of its people. [Source: Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC News, December 2, 2013]

Low Birthrate Has Big Impact on Schools

South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. This has had a profound impact on education, dramatically reducing the number of students entering primary and secondary schools. In 1981, 5.3 million children entered school in South Korea.In 1995, only 3.95 million did. Now only around a half a million enter school every year.

The trend is particularly evident in rural areas. At the Masan Elementary School is the southern town of Masan, there were 56 students in 2005, less than a tenth of the number in the 1970's. According to the New York Times: “Back then, pupils were packed together so that schools had what were called "bean sprout classrooms," said Kim Deok Sang, the principal. Nowadays, Masan's students have to join those at the two nearest schools for sporting and other events. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times August 21, 2005]

The student to teacher ratio has dropped about 60 percent over 30 years. According to the state-sponsored Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), the number of students per teacher fell to 18.7 at elementary schools in 2010 from 47.5 in 1980. The figure also dropped to 18.2 for middle schools from 45.1, and 18.2 for high schools from 33.3. “The fall reflects the extremely low birthrate and the sharp gains in the number of teachers between 2002 and 2003 as part of the government’s policy to promote the educational environment,” an official from the institute said. [Source: Han Sang-hee, Korea Times, February 6, 2011]

Han Sang-hee wrote in the Korea Times: “Ministry officials say that a further fall in the number of students is unavoidable as the country’s birthrate is unlikely to show any marked rebound, a prospect that will drastically change the country’s education landscape. Korea’s birthrate stands at 1.24. The reasons for the low birthrate vary but the expense of private education tops the list. The institute’s survey of more than 2,500 households showed that about 43 percent of Korean parents said they gave up having a second child due to education expenses. It also showed that 99.8 percent of preschoolers aged over three were receiving private education at a monthly cost of 440,000 won on average, including kindergarten fees. Not surprisingly, when asked if the high private education was one of the main reasons for the low birthrate, 95.8 percent of the parents answered yes.

“According to the Jungbu District Office of Education in Seoul, the number of new students starting school this year has dropped dramatically. Kyodong Elementary School in Jongno, which has some 100 students in total, will admit only seven new students this year, a drop from the 12 in 2010 and 15 in 2009. Jaedong Elementary School, also in Jongno, which had some 830 graduates in 1970, also saw a fall in graduates with only 70 this year. The school expects to register 38 new students. Other schools around the region, including Maedong Elementary School and Chungmu Elementary School, have also seen a decrease in the number of new students, a phenomenon witnessed in some Seoul districts which have been hollowed out as a growing number of residents move to the outskirts of the capital.

“With the decreasing number of students, more schools face difficulties in running school events including field trips and sporting activities, not to mention worries regarding social relations between peers and also the possibility of closing down permanently.Namsan Elementary, which welcomed only 30 students for the past two years, started to promote their school in banks, kindergartens, department stores and hospitals with fliers, and has also began an "eight to nine care center’’ where the school takes care of students with parents who both work from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Schools are engaging in competition with other neighboring institutions to attract parents and their children.”

Empty South Korean Village Loses Its Primary School

Reporting from a rural town, 180 kilometers miles east of Seoul, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Nogok is about to lose an important symbol of youthful vitality: Next spring, the local primary school will close when its only student, a 12-year-old named Chung Jeong-su, graduates. “Villages around here have no more children to send,” the school’s only teacher, Lee Sung-kyun, said recently, looking over an empty, weed-filled playground surrounded by old cherry trees. “Young people have all gone to cities to find work and get married there.” Many children from Nogok Primary, for instance, moved on to work as welders and painters at shipyards on the southern coast of South Korea, earning wages their fathers could hardly have imagined as they toiled on their hardscrabble plots in the hills around Nogok. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2015]

“Hardest hit by this demographic shift were rural towns like Nogok and their public schools. Since 1982, nearly 3,600 schools have closed across South Korea, most of them in rural towns, for lack of children. In 1960, Nogok had 5,387 people, 2,054 of them age 12 or younger. In 2010, the last year the government conducted a general census, the town reported a population of 615. Only 17 were 14 or younger.

“Jeong-su, the Nogok Primary student, is the youngest child, and his 52-year-old father, Chung Eui-jin, the youngest married man in their village of Hawolsan-ri, which is part of Nogok. The school has not had a first grader since Jeong-su enrolled there five years ago. After two sixth graders graduated this spring, he was the only student left. “It’s cool to have all the school to myself,” said Jeong-su, a shy boy with glasses, who said he wanted to become a veterinarian.

“When asked what he would remember the most from his school days, he mentioned playing table tennis with his teacher, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee said the personalized attention was obviously good for Jeong-su. But he said he felt bad that the boy had no classmates with whom to share school memories later in life. “Until last year, when we had several students, we used to play mini-soccer,” he said, referring to a stripped down version of the game for small numbers of players. “Now, that has become impossible.” At recess, Mr. Lee said, he and Jeong-su now spent their time throwing paper airplanes.

““It’s a sorry sight,” said Mr. Baek, a graduate of Nogok Primary, pointing at the weeds in the school’s playground. “When I was a student here, 300 children were crawling all over there, giving weeds no time to grow.” In 1990, for the 60th anniversary of the school, graduates pooled money to build statues of an elephant and a lion, as well as a monument that urges students to nurture their “dreams into the future, into the world.” But by 1999, the school had lost so many students it became a branch of another school, Geundeok Primary School, in the nearby town. Today, the monument stands forlorn, overlooking a basketball hoop, slides and soccer goal posts rusting in the school field.

“Inside the two-story concrete school building, it is oddly silent. The wooden floors creaked when Jeong-su, Mr. Lee and the school’s janitor, Lee Dong-min, walked in on a recent school day. Walls lined with crayon drawings and origami created by former students bore witness to a busier past. Gathering dust in empty classrooms were big-screen TVs, table tennis tables, computers, a drum set, a piano, telescopes, anatomical charts, book-filled shelves, and desks and chairs, all empty. Painting and guitar instructors visit the school twice a week to give Jeong-su lessons. A yellow van operated by the local educational office delivers lunch for the boy and his teacher.

“It cost more than 100 million won (about $87,000) a year to run the school, Mr. Lee said. “You can’t say all the excess is justified by one student,” said Kim Bok-hyun, 71, a Nogok villager. Mr. Kim used to sell pencils, gum and toys to Nogok Primary students from a shop in front of the school. But he closed up years ago because of a lack of customers. He now spends most of his time sitting on a chair on the roadside, watching the few buses and trucks that pass by.

“Some rural towns started campaigns to save their schools, hiring buses to transport children from neighboring towns and even offering free housing for couples moving in with school-age children. Similar efforts did not work for Nogok, said Kim Jong-sik, 58, a village chief in the area. “There is no one coming in to live here, only people moving out,” said Mr. Kim, who said all his own children lived in cities. “With all the best schools, jobs and shopping malls concentrated in big cities, their attraction for young people has become irreversible.”

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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