In addition to regular school many Korean children attend hagwons, profit-making prep and cram schools established mainly to help children prepare for the high school and college entrance exams. In one survey in the early 2000s, 90 percent of all the students interviewed at a primary school in Seoul said they took private lessons after school. Of these 58.6 percent said they took two to four hours of lessons a week and five percent said they took five to eight hours of lessons, mostly at hagwons..

The material students study in hagwons is often a year or more ahead of what they are studying in public school. Much of the instruction focuses on test-taking skills and taking practice exams. Some hagwons have security guards to make sure students don't leave early. Increasingly, online hagwons are replacing traditional building-situated cram schools.

The private education frenzy — focused mainly on hagwons — has been blamed for disrupting school education, crippling household budgets and causing psychological disorders among children. Low income families often feel obligated channel their money and limited resources into hagwons so their children aren't at a disadvantage against all the other students, many from richer families that can more easily afford it, taking hagwon classes.

Reeta Chakrabarti of the BBC wrote : “For South Korean teenagers a double shift of school, every week day, is just a way of life. South Korean parents spend thousands” of dollars “a year on after-school tuition, not a private tutor coming to the home once or twice a week, but private schooling on an industrial scale.There are just under 100,000 hagwons in South Korea and around three-quarters of children attend them. [Source: Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC News, December 2, 2013]

Amanda Ripley wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Viewed up close, the hagwon “system is both exciting and troubling. It promotes striving and innovation among students and teachers alike, and it has helped South Korea become an academic superpower. James Marshall Crotty wrote in Forbes: This after-school learning market has helped turn South Korea — a majority of whose citizens were illiterate sixty years ago — into the second top-performing country in the PISA global test of academic excellence (far outstripping the U.S.). Moreover,notes Ripley, South Korea's 93 percent high-school graduation rate dramatically outpaces that of the U.S. (a lowly 77 percent). [Source: James Marshall Crotty, Forbes, August 11, 2013; Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013]

Big Money Spent on Private Education

Private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in South Korea. Parents in South Korea spend around US$20 billion a year, or about 1.5 to two percent of the country's GDP, on private education and cram schools. in the past the percentage of private spending on education was higher — 2.8 percent of South Korea’s GDP in 2004, the highest among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1995, lessons provided by tutors and private schools accounted for 6.03 of the GDP of Korea (US$20 billion), one and a half times the national education budget. According to the South Korean education ministry, South Korean parents spent US$16.8 billion on extra tuition for their children in 2013 — equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of the national GDP. [Source: Reuters, January 25, 2010; AFP, November 24, 2014]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ “Koreans bear a tremendous financial burden for their education. However, a significant proportion of that goes to private education (kwaoe ), which is money not being contributed to the overall national educational developmental. One way of overcoming this waste might be to institute school-based initiatives for private education, so that some of the financial investment now going to kwaoe could be put towards improving school facilities, among other uses. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

““As of 1994, private education expenses amounted to 464 billion or 5.75 percent of GNP. If costs for kwa-oe (literally, "extracurricular") — private tutoring and other out of school supplementary education — are added, an additional 2.7 percent of GNP is spent by families with primary and secondary school students (KEDI 1996, 13). As of 2000, more than half (55 percent) the total households said that the kwa-oe was burdensome for their family budgets. The education reform of 1999 was perceived as encouraging even more private lessons. “Expenses for out of school education are the highest at elementary ages (OECD 43). Hardly any secondary school student has a paying job. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Big Money Spent on Hagwons

Of the money spent on private education in the 1990s, 32.5 percent was spent on elementary school students followed by 26.6 percent for middle school students, 24.9 percent for high school students, and 15.9 percent for pre-school students. At that time the average Korean family with two children spent 10 percent of its income on education. The majority of the money was spent on hagwon classes and tutoring. In contrast, American parents spend only 3 percent of their income on education for their children.

Many families spend US$10,000 a year on private lessons or much, much more. The parents of an 18-year-old high school student in Seoul in the early 2000s told the Korean Herald they spent US$7,500 a month on private education, with 80 percent of the money going to private tutoring in three core subjects — Korean, mathematics and English. Another Korean family, who spent US$5,000 a month on supplemental lessons for their son, decided it was less expensive to pay US$50,000 a year to send him to a U.S. high school to study.

In 1996, according to one survey, parents spent US$25 billion on private education, double the government education budget. In one survey, 77.5 percent of all parents said they suffered some degree of economic hardship paying for private education classes and many said they had to take bank loans or get second jobs to pay for them. There have been reports of mothers working as prostitutes to pay for the children’s hagwon classes. A member of a housewife prostitution ring told police, she sold sex "in order to earn money to pay for the private lessons of my two sons."

Hagwon Culture

Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: “Hagwons include richly decorated franchises, mom-and-pop establishments with six chairs, celebrity-taught online lessons and illegal after-midnight tutoring centers. The average Korean family spent nearly 20 percent of its income on private tutoring, according to a 2007 report by the Hyundai Research Institute, a think tank. Kim Hee-Jeong lives in Mok-dong, an affluent Seoul neighborhood, and spends about US$1,000 a month for 20 hours a week of private lessons for her third-grade son in English, math and science, not including his football, in-line skating, piano, violin and Chinese classes. Kim worries that he will burn out from being “much too busy from a young age.” But he is far ahead of his public school lessons, she said, and classes are too big for personal attention. [Source: Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, April 3, 2011]

Amanda Ripley wrote in Time Magazine: “Cramming is deeply embedded in Asia, where top grades — and often nothing else — have long been prized as essential for professional success. Before toothbrushes or printing presses, there were civil service exams that could make or break you. Chinese families have been hiring test-prep tutors since the 7th century. Modern-day South Korea has taken this competition to new extremes. In 2010, 74 percent of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction, sometimes called shadow education, at an average cost of US$2,600 per student for the year. There are more private instructors in South Korea than there are schoolteachers, and the most popular of them make millions of dollars a year from online and in-person classes. When Singapore's Education Minister was asked last year about his nation's reliance on private tutoring, he found one reason for hope: "We're not as bad as the Koreans."

“In Seoul, legions of students who fail to get into top universities spend the entire year after high school attending hagwons to improve their scores on university admissions exams. And they must compete even to do this. At the prestigious Daesung Institute, admission is based (diabolically enough) on students' test scores. Only 14 percent of applicants are accepted. After a year of 14-hour days, about 70 percent gain entry to one of the nation's top three universities.

“Koreans have lamented their relative inefficiency for years, and the government has repeatedly tried to humanize the education system — simplifying admissions tests, capping hagwon tuition, even going so far as to ban hagwons altogether during the 1980s, when the country was under a dictatorship. But after each attempt, the hagwons come back stronger. That's because the incentives remain unchanged. South Korean kids gorge themselves on studying for one reason: to get into one of the country's top universities. The slots are too few — and the reward for getting in too great. "Where you attend university haunts you for the rest of your life," says Lee Beom, a former cram-school instructor who now works on reform in the Seoul metropolitan office of education.”

Still, the Education Ministry can point to one recent victory in this long fight: spending on private instruction decreased 3.5 percent in 2010, the first drop since the government began tracking the figure in 2007.

Cram Schools That Get South Koreans Into Ivy League Schools

Reporting from Seoul, Sam Dillon wrote in the New York Times: “It is 10:30 p.m. and students at the elite Daewon prep school here are cramming in a study hall that ends a 15-hour school day. A window is propped open so the evening chill can keep them awake. One teenager studies standing upright at his desk to keep from dozing. This spring, as in previous years, all but a few of the 133 graduates from Daewon Foreign Language High School who applied to selective American universities won admission. It is a success rate that American parents may well envy, especially now, as many students are swallowing rejection from favorite universities at the close of an insanely selective college application season. [Source: Sam Dillon, New York Times, April 27, 2008]

“Daewon has one major Korean rival, the Minjok Leadership Academy, three hours’ drive east of Seoul, which also has a spectacular record of admission to Ivy League colleges. Harvard, Yale and Princeton have a total of 103 Korean undergraduates; 34 graduated from Daewon or Minjok. How do they do it? Their formula is relatively simple. They take South Korea’s top-scoring middle school students, put those who aspire to an American university in English-language classes, taught by Korean and highly paid American and other foreign teachers, emphasize composition and other skills crucial to success on the SATs and college admissions essays, and — especially this — urge them on to unceasing study.

“Both schools seem to be rethinking their grueling regimen, at least a bit. Minjok, a boarding school, has turned off dormitory surveillance cameras previously used to ensure that students did not doze in late-night study sessions. Daewon is ending its school day earlier for freshmen. Its founder, Lee Won-hee, worried in an interview that while Daewon was turning out high-scoring students, it might be falling short in educating them as responsible citizens. “American schools may do a better job at that,” Dr. Lee said.

“Both schools reserve admission for highly motivated students; the application process resembles that at many American colleges, where students are judged on their grade-point averages, as well as their performance on special tests and in interviews. “Even my worst students are great,” said Joseph Foster, a Williams College graduate who teaches writing at Daewon. “They’re professionals; if I teach them, they’ll learn it. I get e-mails at 2 a.m. I’ll respond and go to bed. When I get up, I’ll find a follow-up question mailed at 5 a.m.”

Eric Cho, Daewon’s college counselor. scrolled through the class of 2008’s academic records. Their average combined SAT score was 2203 out of 2400. By comparison, the average combined score at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire boarding school, is 2085. Sixty-seven Daewon graduates had perfect 800 math scores. . Daewon parents tend to be wealthy doctors, lawyers or university professors.

South Korea’s academic year starts in March, so the 2008 class of Daewon’s Global Leadership Program, which prepares students for study at foreign universities, graduated in February.” In 2008, m”Daewon and Minjok graduates are heading to universities like Stanford, Chicago, Duke and seven of the eight Ivy League universities — but not to Harvard. Instead, Harvard accepted four Korean students from three other prep schools. “That was certainly not any statement” about the Daewon and Minjok schools, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. “We’re alert to getting kids from schools where we haven’t had them before, but we’d never reject an applicant simply because he or she came from a school with a history of sending students to Harvard.”

Lifestyle of Students at South Korean Ivy League Cram Schools

Sam Dillon wrote in the New York Times: “The schools are highly rigorous. Both supplement South Korea’s required, lecture-based national curriculum with Western-style discussion classes. Their academic year is more than a month longer than at American high schools. Daewon, which costs about US$5,000 per year to attend, requires two foreign languages besides English. Minjok, where tuition, board and other expenses top US$15,000, offers Advanced Placement courses and research projects. [Source: Sam Dillon, New York Times, April 27, 2008]

“And, oh yes. Both schools suppress teenage romance as a waste of time. “What are you doing holding hands?” a Daewon administrator scolded an adolescent couple recently, according to his aides. “You should be studying!” Students do not seem to complain. Park Yeshong, one of Kim Hyun-kyung’s classmates, said attractions tended to fade during hundreds of hours of close-quarters study. “We know each other too well to fall in love,” she said. Many American educators would kill to have such disciplined pupils.

“The schedule at the Minjok academy, on a rural campus of tile-roofed buildings in forested hills, appears even more daunting. Students rise at 6 for martial arts, and thereafter, wearing full-sleeved, gray-and-black robes, plunge into a day of relentless study that ends just before midnight, when they may sleep. But most keep cramming until 2 a.m., when dorm lights are switched off, said Gang Min-ho, a senior. Even then some students turn on lanterns and keep going, Mr. Gang said. “Basically we lead very tired lives,” he said.

“Students sometimes report for classes so exhausted that Alexander Ganse, a German who teaches European history, said he asked, “Did you go to bed at all last night? “But we’re not only nerds!” interrupted Choi Jung-yun, who grew up in San Diego. Minjok students play sports, take part in many clubs and even have a rock band, she said. Ambassador Vershbow, who plays the drums, confirmed that with photographs that showed him jamming with Minjok’s rockers during a visit to the school last year. There are other hints of slackening. A banner once hung on a Minjok building. “This school is a paradise for those who want to study and a hell for those who do not,” it read. But it was taken down after faculty members deemed it too harsh, said Son Eun-ju, director of counseling.

Student at South Korean Ivy League Cram School

Sam Dillon wrote in the New York Times: “Kim Hyun-kyung, who has accumulated nearly perfect scores on her SATs, is multitasking to prepare for physics, chemistry and history exams. “I can’t let myself waste even a second,” said Ms. Kim, who dreams of attending Harvard, Yale or another brand-name American college. And she has a good shot. [Source: Sam Dillon, New York Times, April 27, 2008]

“Kim Hyun-kyung, 17, scored perfect 800s on the SAT verbal and math tests, and 790 in writing. She is scheduled to take nine Advanced Placement tests next month, in calculus, physics, chemistry, European history and five other subjects. One challenge: she has taken none of these courses. Instead, she is teaching herself in between classes at Daewon, buying and devouring textbooks.

So she is busy. She rises at 6 a.m. and heads for her school bus at 6:50. Arriving at Daewon, she grabs a broom to help classmates clean her classroom. Between 8 and noon, she hears Korean instructors teach supply and demand in economics, Korean soils in geography and classical poets in Korean literature.

At lunch she joins other raucous students, all, like her, wearing blue blazers, in a chow line serving beans and rice, fried dumpling and pickled turnip, which she eats with girlfriends. Boys, who sit elsewhere, wolf their food and race to a dirt lot for a 10-minute pickup soccer game before afternoon classes.

Kim Hyun-kyung joins other girls at a hallway sink to brush her teeth before reporting to French literature, French culture and English grammar classes, taught by Korean instructors. At 3:20, her English language classes begin. This day, they include English literature, taught by Mani Tadayon, a polyglot graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who was born in Iran, and government and politics, taught by Hugh Quigley, a former Wall Street lawyer.

Evening study hall begins at 7:45. She piles up textbooks on an adjoining desk, where they glare at her like a to-do list. Classmates sling backpacks over seats, prop a window open and start cramming. Three hours later, the floor is littered with empty juice cartons and water bottles. One girl has nodded out, head on desk. At 10:50 a tone sounds, and Ms. Kim heads for a bus that will wend its way through Seoul’s towering high-rise canyons to her home, south of the Han River. “I feel proud that I’ve endured another day,” she said.

Problems with the Hagwon System

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: Hagwons “are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. 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. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later. Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education. This “investment” in education is what has been used to explain South Koreans’ spectacular scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, increasingly the standard by which students from all over the world are compared to one another. [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014]

Amanda Ripley wrote in the Wall Street Journal: the hagwaon system “creates a bidding war for education, delivering the best services to the richest families, to say nothing of its psychological toll on students. Under this system, students essentially go to school twice — once during the day and then again at night at the tutoring academies. It is a relentless grind. Students are the customers. To recruit students, hagwons advertise their results aggressively. They post their graduates’ test scores and university acceptance figures online and outside their entrances on giant posters. It was startling to see such openness; in the U.S., despite our fetish for standardized testing, the results remain confusing and hard to interpret for parents. [Source: Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013]

“Once students enroll, the hagwon embeds itself in families’ lives. Parents get text messages when their children arrive at the academies each afternoon; then they get another message relaying students’ progress. Two to three times a month, teachers call home with feedback. Every few months, the head of the hagwon telephones, too. In South Korea, if parents aren’t engaged, that is considered a failure of the educators, not the family.

Korean Couples Put Off Having Kids Because Education is “Too Much”

The high cost of child-rearing — particularly education expenses — sometimes deters adults from having children. Jun Kwanwoo of AFP wrote: Education-obsessed South Koreans traditionally spend small fortunes on private schools or private tuition to give their offspring an edge in a competitive society. Children sometimes file wearily out of cram schools after midnight and parents often endure family separation so their children can study overseas. Household spending on education reached an all-time high of 39.8 trillion won (US$29.5 billion) in 2008, up 7.7 percent from a year earlier despite the economic downturn. This is a country where it’s really uncomfortable to marry and raise children given the shocking cost of education, one woman said. “My friends all say that if you cannot afford to give your kids a really good education, just don’t get pregnant. Otherwise pregnancy would be a sin.” [Source: Jun Kwanwoo, AFP, April 18, 2009]

South Korea’s birth rates are about the lowest levels in the world, which some attributing it at least partly to the expense and stress of the Korean educational system. Low birth rates have helped transform South Korea into one of the most rapidly aging places on earth, which could slow economic growth and create job shortages in the future.

According to The Economist: The direct costs of raising children who can pass that all-important exam are also hefty. Sending one child to a US$1,000-a-month hagwon is hard enough. Paying for three is murder. Parents engage in an educational arms race. Those with only one child can afford higher fees, so they bid up the price of the best hagwon. This gives other parents yet another incentive to have fewer children. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

Kim Si-re and Choi Sun-young wrote in the Joongang Daily: “With the lowest birth rate in history, young people in the country are saying it is "too expensive" to have a baby. Park Min-su, a 32-year-old corporate employee, has been married for three years. He does not have a child because he "cannot afford it." His family has been pressuring Mr. Park to have a baby, since he is the only son and the eldest grandson in his family and traditionally responsible for carrying on the family link by producing a child. However, Mr. Park and his wife are firmly saying "no" to having a baby. [Source: Kim Si-re, Choi Sun-young, Joongang Daily, September 15, 2004]

“In JoongAng Ilbo's survey of 679 men and women who are married, about 50 percent said that they are not having a baby for financial reasons. The cost of education and childrearing was too burdensome, said 70 percent of the participants.

South Korean Tutor Makes US$4 Million A Year

Some Korean tutors earns million of dollars a year through teaching via paid Internet video in the hagwons. Amanda Ripley wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Kim Ki-hoon earns US$4 million a year in South Korea, where he is known as a rock-star teacher — a combination of words not typically heard in the rest of the world. Mr. Kim has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country's private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills — and he is in high demand. [Source: By Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013]

“Kim Ki-Hoon, who teaches in a private after-school academy, earns most of his money from students who watch his lectures online. ‘The harder I work, the more I make,’ he says. ‘I like that.’ Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of US$4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date)…

James Marshall Crotty wrote in Forbes: “Kim Ki-Hoon is a contributor to, and beneficiary of, South Korea's high-tech, free-market approach to education. As “Mr. Kim” himself notes, “The harder I work, the more I make.”. Of course, it doesn't hurt that South Korean parents are willing to pay the extra Won to insure that their charges have access to South Korea's best and brightest tutoring talent. According to Edutech Associates, South Korean "parents with school-age children spend close to 25 percent of their income on education and all parents spend a large portion of their income on supplementary educational materials." That means big business for hagwons, South Korea's primary supplemental education providers. [Source: Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, James Marshall Crotty, Forbes, August 11, 2013]

“It is a true meritocracy, where the best and the brightest – or at least the most popular and passionately engaged — end up being paid the most. Moreover, to maintain high standards of accountability and performance, a representative hagwon fires about 10 percent of its tutors every year. In the U.S., about 2 percent of public school teachers are fired for poor performance every year. The downside is that hagwon tutors receive no benefits and no guaranteed salary. The result is that for every Mr. Kim, there is thousands of hagwon tutors who make far less than their traditional brick-and-mortar peers do. It is a zero-sum system that would be written off as patently ruthless if it wasn’t so spectacularly popular.

Notes Ripley, a 2010 survey of 6600 students at 116 South Korean high schools found that South Korean students gave their hagwon tutors far higher marks than their regular schoolteachers, and regularly regarded their hagwon tutors as “better prepared, more devoted to teaching, and more respectful of students’ opinions.” In addition, hagwon tutors are far more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional pedagogies, mainly because their pay hinges on the positive reviews that flow from improved student achievement.”

Hagwon ‘Prisons’: Boarding Cram Schools

In the late 2000s, there were about 50 boarding cram schools in Seoul. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Jongro opened in 2007. “Its four-story main building houses classrooms and dormitories, with eight beds per room. The school day begins at 6:30am, when whistles pierce the quiet and teachers stride the hallways, shouting: “Wake up!” After exercise and breakfast, they are in their classrooms by 7:30am, 30 pupils per class. Each room includes a few music stands, for students who stand to keep from dozing. A final roll call comes at 12:30am, after which students may go to bed, unless they opt to cram more, until 2am. Students write themselves pep notes on pieces of colored sticky paper and keep them on their desks. “I may shed tears of sadness today, but tomorrow I will shed tears of happiness,” one said. Another admonished: “Think about the sacrifices your parents make to send you here.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 16, 2008]

“The routine relaxes on Saturday and Sunday, when students have an extra hour to sleep and two hours of free time. Every three weeks the students may leave the campus for two nights. The curriculum has no room for romance. Notices in hallways and classrooms forbid any conversation between boys and girls that is unrelated to study; exchanging romantic notes; hugging, hooking arms or other physical contact. Punishment includes several days of cleaning a classroom or restroom or even expulsion. “We girls hear which girls boys consider pretty,” Park Eom-ji, 19, said. “But we don’t use much cosmetics, we don’t dye our hair, we don’t wear conspicuous clothes.” “We know what we are here for,” she said.

“South Korean parents are notably willing to sacrifice for their children’s futures. More than 80 percent of high school graduates go to college. “It’s a big financial burden for me,” said Park Hong-ki, 50, referring to the US$1,936 a month that he pays to have his son at Jongro. Kim Sung-woo, 32, who teaches at Jongro, remembered the even more spartan regimen of the cram school that he attended. In his day, he said, students desperate for a break slipped off campus at night by climbing walls topped with barbed wire. Corporal punishment was common. Things are no longer that tough — too many parents complained. Still, “this place — metaphorically speaking — is a prison,” said Kim Kap-jung, a deputy headmaster at Jongro. “The students come under tremendous pressure when the exam date approaches and their score doesn’t improve. Girls weep during counseling and boys run away and don’t return.” In some schools, as many as 40 percent of the students drop out.

Cracking Down on Hagwons

Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: At the headquarters of one of the world’s highest-performing education systems, officials are policing after-hours study haunts with names like Kid’s College and Math Camp. They field tips from a watchdog Web site that reports tutors who charge too much or work past a 10 p.m. curfew, and forward them to investigators who comb streets in neon-lit neighborhoods where students still in school uniforms remain at their desks deep into the night. [Source: Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, April 3, 2011]

“The crackdown on South Korea’s “cram schools” is part of President Lee Myung-bak’s effort to wrest control back from a frenzied private tutoring industry that enrolls three-quarters of Korean students, the highest rate in the world. He hopes to restore confidence in the country’s education system and reduce the financial and emotional burden on families. The government has tried repeatedly, with little success, to regulate private tutoring, including an outright ban in the 1980s which was gradually overturned. Cram-school spending dipped slightly in 2010; the Education Ministry is crediting its new policies.

“The cornerstone of the reforms is an ambitious, long-term shift away from a test-dominated college admission system. The Education Ministry has begun funding admissions officers at top universities and training them in a U.S.-style process that also considers talents, creativity and independent learning. There are also some high-profile local efforts underway, including a 10 p.m. cram-school curfew in Seoul. To help enforce the regulations, the Education Ministry set up a watchdog center, offering cash rewards to tipsters.

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: A private education industry run amok must be better regulated to put children’s welfare first. Although successive presidents have made attempts to rein in the cram schools, including mandating a 10 p.m. closure, many hagwon owners flout the regulations by operating out of residential buildings or blacking out windows so that light cannot be seen from outside. And some parents hire private tutors to get around the rule. [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014]

According to The Economist: The government is trying to reduce the leg-up that private tuition gives to the children of the well-off. Since 2008 local authorities have been allowed to limit hagwon hours and fees. Freelance snoops, known as hagparazzi, visit hagwon with hidden cameras to catch them charging too much or breaking a local curfew. The hagparazzi are rewarded with a share of any fines imposed on errant educational establishments. Yet still the hagwon proliferate. By the government's count, there are nearly 100,000. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

Ajummas Working as Hagparazzi Bounty Hunters

AFP reported: At first glance, middle-aged Seoul housewife Jennifer Chung hardly looks like a bounty hunter tracking down lawbreakers, but every morning, after sending her two sons and husband off to school and work, she sets out in search of local scofflaws — such as cram-school teachers, restaurateurs or owners of beauty salons. “Some of them charge parents more than state-set tuition limits, don’t disclose on the menu the origin of food they serve or give skincare treatments which only doctors are allowed to perform,” 54-year-old Chung said. “These are all against the law … I need evidence to report them to the authorities,” she said, sporting a high-definition camcorder hidden in her purse with the lens peeking through a tiny hole. [Source: AFP, February 30, 2011]

“On a typical undercover mission, Chung poses as a regular customer, videotapes conversations or scenes at offending establishments and sends the videos to authorities. Each time she collects cash rewards from various departments which add up to more than two million won (US$1,700) a month. Chung is far from alone. Many South Koreans, especially middle-aged women, have joined a growing number of “paparazzi” snoopers. They cash in by videotaping minor lawbreaking by fellow citizens, instead of the lives of the rich and famous. With the government continually expanding such rewards, schools for snoopers are thriving. They teach pupils how to stalk their prey and get them on film, and even how to play the innocent to dodge suspicion. “This has become a pretty lucrative industry now … some people are doing this as a full-time job,” said Moon Seung-ok, founder of Mismiz, a paparazzi school in Seoul.

“The most common targets in the education-obsessed nation are cram-school owners who overcharge parents or run late-night classes, breaking state rules aimed at curbing spending on private education and pressure on kids. “Cram schools are everywhere, and housewives can easily act like ordinary parents asking for quotes for tuition,” Moon said. The education ministry said it had paid 3.4 billion won in rewards since the system was adopted in July 2009, with one person alone raking in nearly 300 million won by making more than 920 reports.

“A cat-and-mouse game has developed between snoopers and their increasingly wary prey. Chung often sneaks into a cram school in the evening and hides in a toilet for hours, until teachers have locked the door from inside to try to keep out the snoopers. Janitors often catch me in the toilet. I tell them I had sudden diarrhea and urgently needed to go to the bathroom,” Chung said. Critics say snoopers are squeezing mom-and-pop businesses trying to survive in tough times. Cho Young-hwan, spokesman for South Korea’s cram school association, called them “merciless predators” who forced many small cram schools to shut down.

“Many schools are pressured to run late-night classes because parents demand that their kids study until late, he said. “These professional bounty hunters are turning a place of children’s education into a playground for their profiteering,” Cho said. Oh Chang-soo, a law professor at Jeju National University, called the situation worrying. He said the rewards had become “a cash cow for bounty hunters” and did not encourage a healthy civic spirit or genuine sense of justice. “These paparazzi ... set up a trap and eagerly wait until someone violates a rule. A practice like this will only fan mistrust among members of society,” Oh said.

Hagwon Raids

Amanda Ripley wrote in Time Magazine: On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission is as simple as it is counterintuitive: to find children who are studying after 10 p.m. And stop them. The raid starts in a leisurely way. We have tea, and I am offered a rice cracker. Cha Byoung-chul, a midlevel bureaucrat at Seoul's Gangnam district office of education, is the leader of this patrol. I ask him about his recent busts, and he tells me about the night he found 10 teenage boys and girls on a cram-school roof at about 11 p.m. "There was no place to hide," Cha recalls. In the darkness, he tried to reassure the students. "I told them, 'It's the hagwon that's in violation, not you. You can go home.'" [Source: Amanda Ripley, Time, September 25, 2011]

Cha smokes a cigarette in the parking lot. Like any man trying to undo centuries of tradition, he is in no hurry. "We don't leave at 10 p.m. sharp," he explains. "We want to give them 20 minutes or so. That way, there are no excuses." Finally, we pile into a silver Kia Sorento and head into Daechi-dong, one of Seoul's busiest hagwon districts. The streets are thronged with parents picking up their children. The inspectors walk down the sidewalk, staring up at the floors where hagwons are located — above the Dunkin' Donuts and the Kraze Burgers — looking for telltale slivers of light behind drawn shades.

At about 11 p.m., they turn down a small side street, following a tip-off. They enter a shabby building and climb the stairs, stepping over an empty chip bag. On the second floor, the unit's female member knocks on the door. "Hello? Hello!" she calls loudly. A muted voice calls back from within, "Just a minute!" The inspectors glance at one another. "Just a minute" is not the right answer. Cha sends one of his colleagues downstairs to block the elevator. The raid begins.

This is technically not a hagwon but an after-hours self-study library — at least in theory. Self-study libraries are allowed to stay open past 10 p.m. But the inspectors suspect this is a camouflaged hagwon. The students are studying from the same work sheets, and there are a handful of adults who appear to be teachers. One of them denies any wrongdoing. "We are just doing our own work here," she says indignantly. "We don't teach." Cha, the squad leader, shakes his head. "I've allowed your excuses before, but we're getting too many tips about this place," he says. "It's an open secret in this community that you've been operating illegally." Afterward, the squad makes a few more stops at other self-study libraries. It finds nothing suspicious. At about midnight, Cha lights a cigarette on a corner and chats with his colleagues. Then they head home for the night, having temporarily liberated 40 teenagers out of 4 million.

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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