One of the biggest tragedies of the Korean education system is the fact that children and teenagers study all the time and they have little time left over for fun, relaxing, vacations or enriching themselves in non school-related activities. Some kids study 18 hours a day. They spend 10 hours at school, go to cram-school classes after school and spend their time studying when are at home. South Korean students are usually beside themselves with envy when they hear stories from American high school students about how the time they spend driving a car around, dating, and making money with part-time jobs.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ Few students have outside jobs or much of a social life outside of school, even on the weekends. Nevertheless, during breaks in their daily routine, Korea's high school students manage to squeeze in a little time for fun. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

A college-bound high school student, in the late 1980s, typically rose at dawn, did a bit of studying before school began at 7:30 or 8:00 A.M., attended school until 5:00 P.M., had a quick dinner (often away from home), and then attended evening cramming classes that could last until 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. Sundays and holidays were devoted to more cramming. Because tests given in high school (generally once every two or four weeks) were almost as important in determining college entrance as the final entrance examinations, students had no opportunity to relax from the study routine. According to one contemporary account, a student had to memorize 60 to 100 pages of facts to do well on these periodic tests. Family and social life generally were sacrificed to the supreme end of getting into the best university possible. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Family Pressure on South Korean Kids to Succeed Academically

School children under great pressure from the family and friends to succeed academically. Parents go to great lengths to provide the best education for their children. In the past this was especially true but now is true for sons and daughters. Not only Koreans but most Asians have traditionally revered scholars, valued learning, and have seen education as a way of gaining success and bringing esteem to one's family. One star Vietnamese student in Los Angeles told Smithsonian magazine, my parents "are really proud of me. So I have to keep improving, even if there is no room for improvement. I also feel their pressure. Just study, they say. I can't wash the dishes, mow the lawn or take a summer job. Their entire goal is to see me succeed."

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Families put a lot of pressure on Korean students to excel, both for the family's reputation and for the students' own future. This pressure drives students to work long hours in the evening at the cram schools and at home doing homework. Korea's parents and grandparents used to drive their children to do well in school because they could remember when education by itself was desirable as the guarantee of a successful future. . [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: “In 2008, I taught advanced English grammar to 11-year-olds at an expensive cram school in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam. The students were serious about studying but their eyes appeared dead. When I asked a class if they were happy in this environment, one girl hesitantly raised her hand to tell me that she would only be happy if her mother was gone because all her mother knew was how to nag about her academic performance...My report card after the first exam in middle school ranked me 21st out of 60 students in my homeroom class. My mother, who was enlightened about the extreme horrors of South Korean education but nevertheless worried about my grades, immediately found me a private tutor for math, which helped me shoot up to a respectable No. 3 in the homeroom hierarchy.” [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,]

“Korean culture’s special focus on the family unit is also a major factor. Many parents believe that their right to decide their children’s future is sacrosanct. And the view that the family is an economic unit perpetuates such tight control over children. Marriage, for example, still often functions as a financial transaction between two families. To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.

Role of Family and Education-Crazy Mothers in South Korea

The Korean family is the cornerstone of the Korean school program, and because the father is rarely home, the mother bears most of the responsibility for making sure her children do well in school. She drills her children, reads to them and works hard to supplement what they are taught in school. Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “There’s even a phrase to describe the Korean version of a helicopter mother: “chima baram” — literally “skirt wind,” to describe the swish as a mother rushes into the classroom to demand a front-row seat for her child or to question grades. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, December 30, 2014]

Kim Soo-yeon, 19, who was accepted by Princeton, in the spring of 2008. “Sam Dillon wrote in the New York Times: Ms. Kim’s father is a top official in the Korean Olympic Committee. Ms. Kim developed fierce study habits early, watching her mother scold her older sister for receiving any score less than 100 on tests. Even a 98 or a 99 brought a tongue-lashing.“Most Korean mothers want their children to get 100 on all the tests in all the subjects,” Ms. Kim’s mother said. [Source: Sam Dillon, New York Times, April 27, 2008]

Even parents who oppose the brutal education system find it difficult to escape from it. Even the kids themselves complain that they can’t keep up if they don’t study long hours and go to cram school. One mother told the BBC wrote she worried about her daughter studying all the time but said her family has no choice when it comes to having to compete. "Korea has few natural resources, we don't even have much land, the only resource we have is people. So anyone who wants to be successful really has to stand out. As a mother I don't feel comfortable about this kind of situation, but it's the only thing she can do to achieve her dream." [Source: Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC News, December 2, 2013]

Family emphasis on education in South Korea can have other ramifications beside just pressure on students. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The once-widespread practice of giving cash bribes to teachers and the proliferation of smartphones in middle school classrooms today are partly explained by parents’ determination to ensure that their children are not mistreated by teachers or do not feel inferior to their classmates. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 24, 2011]

Korean Kids: Study, Study, Study

Amanda Ripley wrote in Time: “No one defends the status quo in South Korea. "All we do is study, except when we sleep," one high school boy told me, and he was not exaggerating. The typical academic schedule begins at 8 a.m. and ends sometime from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the ambition of the student. To be sure, some students opt out of this system — those who go to certain vocational high schools, for example. But most cannot transcend the relentless family and peer pressure to study until they drop from fatigue. "It breaks my heart," another teenage boy tells me, "to see my classmates compete against each other instead of helping each other." [Source: Amanda Ripley, Time, September 25, 2011]

“Parents remain the real drivers of the education rat race, and they will be the hardest to convert. Han Yoon-hee, an English teacher at Jeong Bal High School in Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul, says parental anxiety is profound. "I suggest to [my students] that they should quit hagwons and focus on school," she says. "But their parents get very nervous when they don't take classes at night. They know other students are taking classes. They have to compete with each other."

“Sometimes it's hard to know who is competing with whom — the students or their mothers. In 1964 a school entrance exam contained a question about the ingredients in taffy. But the exam inadvertently included two right answers, only one of which was counted as correct. To protest this unfairness, outraged mothers — not students — began cooking taffy outside government offices using the alternative ingredient. Eventually, the mothers won the resignation of the Vice Education Minister and the superintendent of Seoul, and several dozen students received retroactive admission offers.

“In response to the government-imposed curfew, for example, many hagwons have just put more lessons online for students to buy after hours at home. Other hagwons flout the law, continuing to operate past the curfew — sometimes in disguise. The night of the Daechi-dong raid, the inspectors I am following wait for the door to open. Then they take off their shoes and begin a brisk tour of the place. In a warren of small study rooms with low ceilings and fluorescent lights, about 40 teenagers sit at small, individual carrels. The air is stale. It is a disturbing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children's brains.

“By way of comparison, consider Finland, the only European country to routinely perform as well as South Korea on the test for 15-year-olds conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Finland, public and private spending combined is less per pupil than in South Korea, and only 13 percent of Finnish students take remedial after-school lessons.”

Elise Hu of NPR wrote: “In South Korea, grim stories of teen suicide come at a regular clip. Recently, two 16-year-old girls in the city of Daejeon jumped to their deaths, leaving a note saying, "We hate school." It's just one tragedy in a country where suicide is the leading cause of death among teens, and 11- to 15-year-olds report the highest amount of stress out of 30 developed nations. "The overriding impression was just a level of intensity I had never experienced at all," say Tom Owenby, who spent five years in Seoul, teaching English and AP history classes and is now a professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. "It's not about finding your own path or your own self as it is about doing better than those around you. It's in many ways a zero sum game for South Korean students," says Owenby. [Source: Elise Hu, NPR, April 15, 2015]

Studying for the South Korean University Entrance Exam

Michael Seth, the author of “Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea” told The Atlantic: There is “intense pressure on all students,from kindergarten till they’re a senior in high school.”. On preparing for the South Korean university entrance exam, Anna Diamond wrote: Once the students enter high school in 10th grade, the studying intensifies. A typical day, former South Korean students told me, consists of around 10 hours of school, a quick dinner break, and the rest of the evening spent in mandatory study halls until 10 p.m. Students might return home to continue studying or head to hagwons, cram schools. Se-Woong Koo worked at a cram school and described the experience in The New York Times: “Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas.” [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

The Economist reported: “Two months before the day of his exams Kim Min-sung, a typical student, was monosyllabic and shy. All the joy seemed to have been squeezed out of him, to make room for facts. His classes lasted from 7am until 4pm, after which he headed straight for the library until midnight. He studied seven days a week. “You get used to it,” he mumbled. His parents have spent much of Min-sung's life worrying about his education. His father, a teacher, taught him how to manage his time: to draw up a plan and stick to it, so as to complete as much revision as possible without collapsing exhausted on the desk. His mother kept him fuelled with “delicious food” and urged him to “study more, but not too much”. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

“Min-sung says he doesn't particularly want to go to university, but he feels “social pressure” to do so. He dreams of getting a job as an agent for sports stars, which would not obviously require a university degree. But he reluctantly accepts that in Korea, “You can't get [any] job without a degree.” Min-sung's happiest time was playing football with his friends during the lunch hour. Every child in his school dashes to the cafeteria when the bell goes and gulps down the noodles like a wolf in a hurry. The quicker they eat, the more precious minutes of freedom each day will contain.”

The college entrance exam is usually held a few months before the school year is finished, which mean that for high school seniors little gets done in those final weeks. The students no longer have incentive to study and many of them skip class and go shopping and patronize arcades, restaurants and bars. Students retaking the college entrance exams in some cases do so using a public computer during recess at school;

South Korean Kids Rank Last in Happiness Survey

In a survey of 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 countries, including OECD countries, on life satisfaction, Korean students gave an average mark of 6.36 on a scale from zero to 10. The figure is far lower than the OECD average of 7.31. Turkey was the only OECD member country that scored lower than Korea. Only half of Korean students — exactly 53 percent — are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with life, compared with the OECD average of 71 percent. In contrast, 22 percent of them answered four or lower. [Source: Korea Times, April 24, 2017]

In a survey conducted in 2014, South Korean children were crowned the least happy kids in developed countries, with the country’s ultra-competitive education system named as the primary culprit. Reuters reported: “South Korea ranked at the bottom among 30 countries in terms of children’s satisfaction with their lives, the country’s health ministry said, followed by Romania and Poland. “The most relevant factor to the children’s life satisfaction is academic stress, followed by school violence, internet addiction, negligence and cyber violence,” the ministry said of its survey of more than 4,000 households with children younger than 18. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 4, 2014]

“World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, himself born in South Korea, said the educational system put a heavy burden on children, with its focus on competition and long hours of work. South Korea’s survey results were measured against those of 27 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) grouping of 34 wealthy countries, plus Romania, Latvia and Lithuania.

“The survey, the first such exercise by the South Korean government, comes as around 600,000 students gear up for the annual college entrance exam, with places in prestigious schools and a pathway to a secure job at a top corporation on the line. More than half of children aged between 15 and 19 who are suicidal give “academic performance and college entrance” as a reason, according to National Statistics Korea.

“South Korean parents are well-known for marching their children off to cram schools until late in the evening, and beginning English tutoring in kindergarten. South Korea also made a poor showing in the survey’s child deprivation index, which includes child poverty as well as time for hobbies and school or club activities. It came in last, after Hungary and Portugal.

But at least South Korean students have more confidence than their Japanese counterparts. A survey carried out by the Japan Youth research Institute involving 7,200 high school students from Japan, China, the United States and South Korea found that Japanese students lack self confidence and express high levels of dissatisfaction with themselves. According to the survey only 36 percent of Japanese students said they were valuable people compared to 89.1 percent among the Americans, 87.7 percent among Chinese and 75.1 percent among South Koreans. Asked if they are satisfied with themselves 78.2 percent of the Americans, 68.5 percent of the Chinese and 63.3 percent of the South Koreans said yes but only 24.7 percent of the Japanese said yes.

South Korea’s Unhappy School Children

Matt Phillips wrote in Quartz: “It’s no secret that many Korean students are miserable, especially in high school, as they prepare for the highly competitive College Scholastic Ability Test, which determines entry into college.Compounding the stress are expectations from Korean parents, which are some of the highest in the world, according to the OECD. While suicide has been on the decline among most developed nations, Korea remains a glaring outlier. OECD Meanwhile, birth rates have fallen to some of the lowest levels in the developed world, which some attribute partly to the expense and strain of the Korean educational system. Low birth rates have turned Korea into one of the most rapidly aging societies on earth, which could slow economic growth over the coming decades. [Source: Matt Phillips, Quartz, December 4, 2013]

The Korea Times reported: “Not surprisingly, long study hours and stress about grades are largely to blame for Korean students feeling unhappy. In fact, the study showed 75 percent of them are worried about doing poorly on tests. Their huge academic burden is nothing new. While adults make it a principle to work 40 hours over five days a week, students in Korea are under constant pressure to study all through the week. This has resulted in 23 percent studying 60 hours or more a week. Private education is also prevalent, with 68 percent of elementary, middle and high school students taking private lessons. [Source: Korea Times, April 24, 2017]

It is a pity that our students are exhausted with the heavy burden of study, driven by excessive competition to enter universities. What's more pathetic is that many of them find it increasingly difficult to get a job after graduation. Presidential candidates are rushing to pledge education reform, including the abolition of the education ministry. But it is doubtful if such half-baked pledges will help normalize our public education as many parents and students hope. Finding out why our students are not happy is long overdue. Education reform should begin with viable and realistic measures that will make them happy and satisfied.

Stress Caused By Education in South Korea

According to The Economist: In one survey a fifth of Korean middle and high school students said they felt tempted to commit suicide. In 2009 a tragic 202 actually did so. The suicide rate among young Koreans is high: 15 per 100,000 15-24-year-olds, compared with ten Americans, seven Chinese and five Britons. Min-sung's older sister, Kim Jieun, who took the exams a few years ago, recalls: “I thought of emigrating, I hated the education system so much.” [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: “ Many young South Koreans suffer physical symptoms of academic stress, like my brother did. In a typical case, one friend reported losing clumps of hair as she focused on her studies in high school; her hair regrew only when she entered college. Students are also inclined to see academic performance as their only source of validation and self-worth. Among young South Koreans who confessed to feeling suicidal in 2010, an alarming 53 percent identified inadequate academic performance as the main reason for such thoughts.” [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,]

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who was born in Seoul and moved to the United States at age five, said that South Korea’s education system exacted a heavy cost. “Students endure a substantial psychological burden from competition and long hours of work,” he said..

Kid with Record 210 IQ Grows Up to Be a Salaryman

Kim Ung-yong was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records possessing the world’s highest IQ of 210. . He was born in 1962 and in his 60s now. Guinness Book of Records stopped listing the “world smartest person” or highest IQ in 1990 due in part to fraudulent or misleading claims, A quote from the 1978 edition reades: “HIGHEST IQ: This Korean boy, with a 210 quotient, at the age of 4 years 8 months spoke 4 languages. In 1969, when Kim was seven he solved a differential equation in a Japan Fuji TV show.

Kim Ung-yong told the Korean Herald in 2010: “I was famous for having a 210 IQ and being able to solve intricate math equations at the age of four,” Kim said, adding, “Apparently, the media belittled the fact that I chose to work in a business planning department at Chungbuk Development Corporation.” [Source: Hwang Jurie, Korean Herald, October 6, 2010]

“Kim says the media denounced him as a “failed Genius” but he has no idea why his life, which he considers a success, had to be called a failure. “People expected me to become a high-ranking official in the government or a big company, but I don’t think just because I chose not to become the expected it gives anyone a right to call anyone’s life a failure,” he said.

Hwang Jurie wrote in the Korean Herald: “Invited by NASA at the age of 8, Kim worked there for 10 years but calls the time spent there his lonely years. “At that time, I led my life like a machine ― I woke up, solved the daily assigned equation, ate, slept, and so forth. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lonely and had no friends,” he said. But for young Kim a longing to be with his mother was the decisive factor in his decision to return to Korea.

“As expected, the media covered his return. “I was sick and tired of being the center of attention, again. I felt like a monkey in a zoo,” he said, adding, “At that time, there were no twitters nor instant messaging, so that gave newspapers more power, I guess ― the word went around so fast ― some people even started calling me schizophrenic for being cooped up in a room. I wanted to avoid any kind of attention toward me.”

“Meanwhile, he wanted to get a job in Korea but to even do that he was told that he needed elementary, middle, and high school diplomas. “Since I had no official diploma ― I had to start all over from scratch,” Kim explained.Nevertheless, that was no obstacle for Kim. Soon, he took certificate exams and earned his elementary and middle school diplomas within a year and then a high school diploma in the following year. “After that, I wanted to attend a university, rather than get a job right away. I wanted to attend school with friends my age, and outside of Seoul, where I thought I would receive less attention,” he said.

Kim says he’s led a happy life ever since. “At school, I lived my freshmen year as an elementary school kid, my sophomore year as a middle schooler, my junior year as a high school student, and spent my senior year like a normal college kid,” Kim said. “I consider my life a success ― there aren’t many people who do what they really want to do, but I do. That is what you call success, what else do you call a happy life?” he said.

Despite numerous attempts to avoid the media in the past, Kim was hounded by them again when a story arose of a boy entering college at the age of 9 ― the reports mentioned Kim as a “failing model.” “The stories pointed me out as if I set a bad example for the little boy and reported that the kid should not grow up like me,” Kim said, expressing regret at the media reports. Kim claims that people invest too much meaning in IQ. “Some think people with high a IQ can be omnipotent, but that’s not true. Look at me, I don’t have musical talent, nor am I excelling in sports,” he said.

“Just like the world records for athletes, having a high IQ is just another element of human talent. “If there is a long spectrum of categories with many different talents, I would only be a part of the spectrum. I’m just good in concentrating on one thing, and there are many others who have different talents,” he explained. Kim says high IQ does not necessarily mean imperishable memory. “I could speak four languages ― French, German, Japanese and English ― but I can’t speak fluently now, I could brush up and speak a bit, but honestly it became rusty,” he said. “Society should not judge anyone with unilateral standards everyone has different learning levels, hopes, talents, and dreams and we should respect that,” Kim said. When Kim decided to leave NASA and became an ordinary company worker, the media took him to task. Kim says he is still bitter with the memory. “I’m trying to tell people that I am happy the way I am. But why do people have to call my happiness a failure?” he said.

Cheating in South Korea

Cheating is called cunning in Korea and it is very common practice especially in universities, at least when I was at a university there in the 1990s. At that time students routinely wrote formulas and answers on desk tops before an exam and then sat at same desk during the exam. Women sometimes wrote the answers on the part of their leg concealed by their skirt. High school students were more creative. When taking a multiple choice, for example, students sometimes asked teacher about a question they don't know — number 25 for example — and students who knew the answer to the question would hand signals to tell the student whether the answer was A, B, C, D or E.

According an informal survey at Seoul National University, Korea's top university, in the 1990s, students estimated that between 25 and 30 percent of all students cheated. University students also routinely pass in reports that are plagiarized works by other authors word for word. In the early 2010s at least seven lawmakers accused of academic plagiarism.

Annually in March, the South Korean justice ministry test administers a test for those vying for appointment as judges. The test is given in Seoul and takes three hours, during which, to prevent cheating, restroom breaks were not allowed. In the past those who need to go to the bathroom were given plastic bags (for men) and skirt-like covers with plastic pots (for women), for use in the back of the exam room. [Chuck Shepard’s, News of the Weird, AFP, March 8, 2002]

In June 2009, two South Korean men were arrested for using high-tech electronic devices to give real-time answers to people cheating on the TOEIC English exam. The men made about US$39,000 sending answers to university students and job seekers. [Source: AFP]

In June 2016, the ACT college-entrance exam was canceled in South Korea and Hong Kong just hours before hours before test takers were going to take it. ACT spokesman Ed Colby said, “ACT has just received credible evidence that test materials intended for administration in these regions have been compromised,” ACT said in a statement.Colby declined to discuss how the test had leaked or where. He said ACT discovered evidence of the breach on Friday. Colby said the cancellation affected about 5,500 students who were scheduled to take the test at 56 different test centers. They will receive refunds of registration fees. He said it was “not feasible” to reschedule the exam; the ACT will not be administered again until September. "It impacts innocent students who had no involvement in any kind of wrong activities,” he said. [Source: Steve Stecklow, Reuters, June 10, 2016]

Cheating on SAT Test in South Korea

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were several incidents in South Korea involving cram schools and cheating using stolen material from the SAT tests — the Scholastic Aptitude Test used for admission into U.S. universities. In 2007 , the group that administers the exam, Educational Testing Service (ETS), cancelled SAT scores from 900 test-takers in South Korea who had seen at least part of the exam before the test was given and were thought to have received stolen test material from a local cram school.

In 2010, a local cram school was accused of using paper cutters and electronic devices to copy questions from SAT tests and passing them to students. Reuters reported: Police have questioned four people working for an expensive South Korean cram school that guarantees high scores for its students taking the SAT. "The four smuggled paper cutting blades in erasers into the test center and worked together to systematically cut out questions from the test sheets," a police official said. The group includes an instructor at the cram school and three college aged-students who were paid 100,000 won (US$87) to cut out various exam questions and record others on calculators that are allowed into test centers, the official said. The group, suspected of stealing test material for about five months, used the questions to help other students prepare for upcoming tests. They also sold questions to students in U.S. time zones who would take the same exam several hours later. [Source: Reuters, January 25, 2010]

In 2013, for the first time ever, the SATs were canceled in an entire country — in South Korea, again for cheating. About 1,500 South Korean students who had signed up to take the test, scrambling after for alternatives the U.S.-based administrator of the SATs, ETS, cancelled the test four months before it was scheduled to take place because of allegations of widespread cheating. Officials decided to cancel the exam after discovering test questions circulating in test-prep centers in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. The ETS saiid it made “difficult, but necessary” decision to cancel the exam “in response to information provided to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office regarding tutoring companies in the Republic of Korea that are alleged to have illegally obtained SAT and SAT Subject Test materials for their own commercial benefit.” [Source: Kayla Webley, Time, May 10, 2013]

Kayla Webley reported in Time: “The details are scarce, but a CNN report says the prosecutors’ office in Seoul confirmed it had raided several testing centers for evidence, and the Journal story notes that at least 10 staff members of test centers have been barred from leaving the country while the prosecutors’ office investigates. Test center managers told the Journal that the problem is widespread and that official test booklets can be purchased from brokers for about US$4,575 — a relatively small price to pay for families fighting to gain admittance to Harvard, Stanford and other prestigious American schools no matter the cost.

South Koreans Use High-Tech Methods to Cheat on the TOEIC Test

In 2014, a number of job seekers were caught cheating on the TOEIC (English-language communication skills) tests using high-tech devices such as spy cameras, smart phones, automatic photo-transmitting apps, and mini transmitting devices. The Busan International Crime Investigations Unit arrested a 30-year-old man named Lee and two other people for taking tens of millions of won from cheating TOEIC test-takers in November 2013. The arrested men used smartphones to take pictures of high scorer’s answers and then sent them online to test-takers. A 27-year-old student named Um, attending a well-known popular college in Seoul, was also arrested for leaking his answers and receiving money. [Source: Seulki Yu,, Yonhap, KoreaBang, January 29, 2014] reported: According to the police, Um took a test wearing a fake cast on his left arm under the promise of receiving 1400 dollars per test from Lee. Inside the cast, a smartphone with a wireless photography apparatus were hidden, and the pictures taken by Um during the test were sent by internet through an automatic uploading program (a kind of Cloud service). After Lee checked the answers from Um they delivered the answers to test-takers who were taking the test on a same site as Um using a wireless set. The test-takers were wearing a subminiature wireless apparatus in their ears. The machine was 2mm in diameter. The test-takers who gave money to these criminals were booked without detention.

In January 2014, the Busan International Crime Investigations Unit arrested a 33-year-old with the last name of Jeong under suspicion of illegal obstruction for using an image transmitter during the TOEIC exam. “ Jeong, who studied electronics in high school, built a small device using parts found at an electronics store. The device was capable of transmitting in real-time during the test. TOEIC high-scorer Lee hid the device inside the padding of his jacket, went to the testing hall, and proceeded to answer the test questions while sending out images of his answers. Outside the testing hall, Jeong received Lee’s answers by wireless transmitter and cheated by passing the answers to the other participants in the scam. Jeong confessed, “I made small receivers and transmitters which didn’t require the use of smartphones and could draw from the answers on a skilled test taker’s answer sheet. I made this device.” Jung-Hyuk Jo, Chief of the International Crime Investigation Unit, said, “The revelation of this kind of device, which unlike a smartphone cannot be detected easily and can transmit test answers outside the test hall, raises concerns about further test abuses on national standardized tests.” These test-takers raised their average score from 500 points to over 900 points by cheating on the TOEIC.

Bullying in South Korean Schools

According to South Korean culture lays significant importance on conformity. Accordingly, children in South Korea value belonging and conforming and being one and the same: focusing on academic and athletic success, and shunning out those who are different. Bullying in South Korea, be it social or physical, verbal or online, can be attributed to many factors, among which are the following: 1) The highly competitive nature of academic life; 2) Conformity and rejection of anyone who stands out, people those deemed too short, or too fat; 3) long school days; and 4) lack of school help and protective policies. There’s a general lack of procedure taken by the school to ensure the safety of the children. Most teachers don’t know how to deal with the problem, especially in cases of social bullying, where a whole class is involved. According to one survey, 41.8 percent of the students who sought school helping policies, have found them inefficient, and their situation wasn’t made better. [Source:, October 23,2016]

“Due to the huge value society reserves to community and conformity, exclusion has come to be the cruelest form of abuse a South Korean child can be subjected to. The phenomenon of Wangtaa (loosely translated into “loser” but can also refer to the whole situation, not just the victim) is a perfect example of using social exclusion to punish or emotionally abuse a student. Wangtta is where a whole class agrees to completely ignore a single student. Not for one day, not for a couple of weeks, but for the whole year. If you keep in mind the amount of time students regularly spend at school, you’ll realize the severity of the abuse. Having to spend almost your whole day (16 hours or more) with no social interactions whatsoever, for the whole academic year, can be extremely damaging to the psyche of a child who wouldn’t even understand why this is happening to them.

Why does this happen? Often the child hasn’t provoked any attention. Sometimes they’d be a little different in how they present themselves or how they look, sometimes they are shy or a little too anxious; but other times there’s no apparent reason as to why they are chosen to be the Wangtta. The bigger issue with such situations is that the whole classroom does not always intend the Wangtta victim harm. It’s started by the bullies who pick on the child or abuse them in different ways. The rest of the students, even if compassionate, are forced to ignore the child not to be Wangtta-ed too. They are afraid to sit next to them, practice with them in class, or include them in any social activity. This can pose a challenge on teachers who try to help. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation causes even the good kids to participate in the bullying, it also prevents them from seeking help or telling a parent or a teacher. And things remain unsolved.

Bullying in South Korea

According to a survey conducted by the South Korean Education Ministry in 2014, more than 77,000 school students of all ages said they had been bullied,, with nearly 10 percent of them saying they had considered suicide. Almost 140 South Korean school students killed themselves in 2012, mostly as the result of family problems, exam stress and bullying. [Source: BBC, February 7, 2014]

According to Suicide is the most common cause of death in the age group 15-24 in South Korea. This can partially be attributed to the severity of the issue of bullying in South Korea’s schools. According to 2012 National School Violence Survey conducted on 5540 students by the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence, 12 percent have reported being bullied. Of the bullied students, 49.3 percent (as compared to 33.5 in 2011) have stated that the “emotional pain due to bullying was beyond tolerable.” [Source:, October 23,2016]

In 2011, a South Korean child by the name Seung-min has committed suicide by throwing himself off of his room’s window after consistent incidents of brutal bullying that followed him from school to his own house. In his suicide note, the child describes being “beaten and robbed by boys in his class, burned with lighters and having electrical wire tied around his neck as a leash.” Apparently, the bullies have also followed him home and would beat him and physically bully him while his parents are still outside.

Senug-min’s mother tells also of how another child (a girl) from the same school as her son’s has committed suicide only 5 months before he killed himself. Nothing was done by the school to ensure the tragedy doesn’t reoccur, and so it happened again. The school has since then changed the principal, and the bullies have been prosecuted, but no new policies were put in place, nothing to protect the next victim from the next bully.

The number of students who had reported considering suicide due to school violence has increased from 31.4 percent in 2011, to 44.7 percent in 2012. If that says anything, it’s that the emotional toll bullying takes on South Korean students is growing exponentially. According to the South Korean Ministry of Education, verbal abuse came in first place with 35.3 percent, followed by outcasting with 16.5 percent. Both types of bullying obviously target causing maximum emotional damage to the bullying victim, which clearly explains the deep psychological wounds school students suffer through due to bullying in South Korea, deep enough to prompt dropping out of school, and, often too, suicide.

New Forms of Bullying in South Korea

New forms of school bullying — including attackers extorting clothes, cyber bullying and forced online game subscriptions — emerged in the late 2000s and early 2010s as technology developed and people became more affluent around that time. Lee Woo-young wrote in the Korea Herald: In December 2011, “a 13-year-old middle school student was robbed of his US$400 down jacket on a cold day by his school seniors, according to police in Busan. A group of high school students in Incheon were booked without detention last Friday for threatening to steal their classmate’s US$700 jacket. Winter jackets made by North Face have caught on among secondary school students in Korea, with many seen wearing them.Easily attracted by popular brands, students deem North Face clothing a status symbol, thus making jackets with the brand logo a target of robbery or school violence. “One of my students’ North Face jacket was stolen when he wasn’t in the classroom. I tried to make whoever did it confess, but no one came forward,” said a middle school teacher in Gyeonggi Province, asking for anonymity. [Source: Lee Woo-young, Korea Herald, January 16, 2012]

“Another new form of school violence is cyber bullying, especially the use of mobile devices and applications, which enable bullies to harass their victims 24 hours a day. In recent cases, bullies forced their classmates to subscribe to expensive unlimited access rates and make them share access. They also took humiliating pictures of their victims and distributed them to other students via mobile messengers.

According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll on the awareness of cyber bullying in 2012 only 35 percent of South Korean parents were aware of cyber bullying and 27 percent said they knew at least one child in their communities who had been harmed by cyber bullying. South Korea is ranked 16th out of 24 countries in terms of parental awareness of cyber bullying, while India and Indonesia came in first and second, according to the report.

“Also, online games have played a part in recent school violence suicides. Some of the latest victims were forced to play online games by bullies who wanted to get extra points in the virtual world. Experts say that new trends in school violence are closely related to larger social problems. “Students involved in school bullying are becoming younger, and most of them are from wealthy families with affluent parents,” Woo Ji-hyang, a counselor at Seoul Culture High School, told The Korea Herald.

“Two or three years ago, bullies and victims began to come from these wealthy families, with one or both parents working white-collar jobs, she said, adding that poverty is not the main motive of bullying. A major problem of an economically developed society, she said, was a sense of alienation or isolation.

Parents of a middle school boy who killed himself after being harassed by school bullies in the southeastern city of Daegu last month are teachers. “Parents and children rarely talk even when they are at home together, they are just busy doing their own stuff with their own laptops,” Woo said in a recent lecture to the Education Ministry on school violence.

“As students begin to be bullied at a younger age, as young as elementary school these days, psychological damage inflicted on victims is becoming more severe. According to her, cases of Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic disorder characterized by social awkwardness and restricted, repetitive behavior and interests, are increasing, and many of these students fall victim to harassment. An anonymous teacher said that she sometimes spots school violence, but she feels helpless. “We can’t pay attention to every student in classroom, not to mention after-school hours.’

Teens Jailed for Bullying Suicide South Korean

In February 2012, two South Korean 15-year-olds were sentenced to at least 3 years in prison for bullying classmate that committed suicide in December 2011. The two students were named in the classmate's suicide note and admitted bullying a school classmate until he committed suicide. [Source: Paula Hancocks, CNN, February 20, 2012]

Paula Hancocks of CNN wrote: The two teens “were sentenced to terms of three years and three and a half years. The Daegu District Court said the teens' prison terms could be reduced by a year, depending on their behavior while in prison, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. Beginning in April 2011, the two forced the victim to play online games on their behalf, took the game winnings and beat him frequently, according to the court. The teens also admitted to taking food from the victim's home, pushing his head into the sink and forcing him to eat biscuits off the ground, the court said.The victim killed himself by jumping off a building last December, naming his assailants in a suicide note. [Source: Paula Hancocks, CNN, February 20, 2012]

“The incident sent shock waves across the country and led to police and prosecutors cracking down on school bullying. While neither of the plaintiffs have a criminal record, the court said in a statement, prison terms were issued because of the outcome and seriousness of the crime and high public criticism. The parents of the bullied student, who are both schoolteachers, filed suit earlier this month against the school, its head teacher and principal, and the parents of both convicted middle school students, Yonhap said. “

Foreign Students Often Bullied in South Korea

Lee Woo-young wrote in the Korea Herald: “Students from multicultural families are at a higher risk of being bullied at school as they are likely to have a hard time mingling with their peers due to language problems and racial discrimination. Four out of five foreign teenagers in Seoul are out of school largely because of discrimination and bullying, coupled with study problems, according to a recent city survey. [Source: Lee Woo-young, Korea Herald, January 9, 2012]

“It hasn’t been long since the government started to protect the education rights for students from multicultural families, but it does little for that of undocumented children. An 11-year-old boy born to a Bangladeshi father and a Korean mother was beaten by his classmates who reportedly hated him for no reason, a local media outlet said. He had been so abused until recently that he suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder and sometimes feels the urge to kill himself.

“A 2010 survey of about 186 students from multicultural families conducted by the National Human Rights Commission found that about 41.9 percent said they had been taunted by classmates because of their different accents when speaking Korean. Of them, 36.6 percent said their peers looked down on them based on their mother countries, and 25.3 percent said they were insulted for their appearance, including skin color. Twenty-one percent were told to leave the country, and 15.1 percent were beaten by peers. Many multicultural students who have been bullied at school said they wished to quit school, with 26.7 percent of students citing taunts and discrimination as the main reason.

Currently, Korea has about 1.2 million foreign residents who account for two percent of the total population as of last July, according to statistics from the Justice Ministry. With the increase in the number of foreign immigrants, the number of their children has risen as well. From 2008 to 2009, the number of multicultural students surged by 53.9 percent to 107,689. Many of them are of elementary school age. Some come to Korea in their adolescent years, but find it difficult to avoid discrimination and bullying in the classroom, as well as to adjust to their new school life here.

Experts say that foreign or multicultural teenagers, regardless of their legal or illegal status, should be guaranteed the same education rights as Korean nationals. They also point out that the current multicultural policy by the government is drawn up only for legal immigrants, neglecting the illegal ones. As a result, children without documents are left out of the social safety net and are excluded from education.

Considering the school problems faced by foreign children, the Education Ministry has included them in their policy range and tried to establish alternative schools to help these students adjust to the regular school system since 2010. But children of illegal immigrants are hardly protected in the system. “The government should help them receive language education for their studies and future careers, and the education should be suitable to their age,” said Jang Myung-seon of the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family, who recently led a research project on foreign teenagers.

South Korea 'Bullying Insurance'

In February 2014, BBC reported: “One of South Korea's biggest insurance firms has offered the country's first policy against bullying.” Hyundai Marine and Fire Insurance” said it would introduce the new scheme in 2014. “It will also insure against three other "social evils" — domestic violence, sexual assault and food contamination. [Source: BBC, February 7, 2014]

“There have been several high profile cases of bullying in South Korea in recent years, some of them linked to adolescent suicides. In the event of a successful claim, payments will go towards counselling and medical bills. The policies will be sold to institutions, not individuals. Until now, the company says, it has been difficult for victims to get compensation, even when complaints have been widely reported against perpetrators. The new insurance policies are linked to a campaign launched by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, to root out the four social problems.

“Analysts say that South Korea's rapid economic rise has led to new social pressures, along with high rates of depression and suicide. Hyundai Insurance says it does not expect to make a profit from the new scheme. "This is for the public good" a spokesman said, "and we're expecting a lot of claims". Monthly premiums would be a maximum of 20,000 won (US$18; £11), but the FSC said it would raise joint funds with municipalities to pay premiums for those unable to afford them.

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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