Many Korean university students compare their university days with living in a country club. There are few tests or term papers, and for the first time in their lives they have the opportunity, time and freedom to date and party. One student at Yonsei University told the Daily Yomiuru, "Most of us spend our time drinking and working part-time jobs."

Many university students don't study very hard, and some don't study at all, but they still manage to pass. An effort by the Ministry of Education to reform the university education system and force students to study harder by making it easier for them flunk out was scuttled after strong opposition by students.

Universities typically have 32 weeks of classes per year divided into two semesters. The academic years begins in March or April. The first semester runs until July. The second semester runs from September through December or January. Summer vacation generally lasts for about 45 days during July and August. The winter break can last as long as 70 days from mid-December to late February. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Once a student gets into a good university he (but not necessarily she) has got it made. As is true with the old boy's network in the United States, one's prospects for getting into a good company and advancing to a high position are often based on the friends one makes at college. One student at Seoul National University told the Daily Yomiuru, "I thought I should enter a university with a good network of contacts that I can use after graduation. I have never heard of anyone at this university having difficulty finding a job. I am not worried about my future."

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Afternoons on college campuses sometimes resemble festivals with groups of students meeting to pursue their interests in a plethora of clubs and associations, teams practicing on the athletic fields, sophomore boys in ROTC drilling in uniform, music clubs practicing singing and playing instruments, couples strolling on the paths, and constant traffic in and out of the student union building and, to a lesser degree, the campus library. It is a highly social atmosphere and most students enjoy it to the fullest. Many students have part-time jobs on campus and some tutor younger children in their homes near the campus. Altogether it is one of the best times of a person's life. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Average annual tuition at South Korean universities is 6.67 million won (US$5,812), according to the Korean Council for University Education. [Source: Jee Heun Kahng, Reuters, December 8, 2015]

Getting Into University in South Korea

In the late 1980s, and still to a large degree today, the university a South Korean high school graduate attended was perhaps the single most important factor in determining his or her life chances. Thus, entrance into a prestigious institution was the focus of intense energy, dedication, and self-sacrifice. Prestigious institutions included the state-run Seoul National University, originally established by the Japanese as Seoul Imperial University in 1923, and a handful of private institutions such as Yonse University, Koryo University (more commonly called Korea University in English), and Ehwa Woman's University. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Colleges and universities vary in their reputations, and it is important to get into a top school and graduate with others who are similarly educated to move into the society's important professions and positions. High school students therefore bear the heavy burden of competing for freshman class slots at the very best national institutions. Their performance on the entrance exams determines whether or not they will be accepted. The competition provides useful motivation for most students but for some others it is too much and leads to a sense of failure and depression even before they get through secondary school.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

The university entrance exam is pretty much the sole criteria for getting into college: grades and extra curricular activities are ultimately not very important. The exams are multiple-choice achievement (not aptitude) tests presumably based on what they learned in 12 years of school. Only about half of all students pass the college entrance exam on their first try. Students that fail usually try again the next year after attending special prep schools.

Because college entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations, high school students face an "examination hell," a harsh regimen of endless cramming and rote memorization of facts (See Below). Unlike the Confucian civil service examinations of the Chosun Dynasty (also See Below), their modern reincarnation is a matter of importance not for an elite, but for the substantial portion of the population with middle-class aspirations. In the late 1980s, over one-third of college-age men and women (35.2 percent in 1989) succeeded in entering and attending institutions of higher education; those who failed faced dramatically reduced prospects for social and economic advancement. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: The Suneung (university entrance exam) “ isn’t the only way to get into university, but it is the most common and respected one. The alternative Susi process, not unlike the U.S. formula, usually requires “a good GPA, extracurricular activities (recognition, test scores, etc.), and either an interview [or] essay test,” explained Ye Dam. Dongyoung Shin, a 36-year-old who recently completed her masters at Yonsei, entered university through this non-traditional path, and said there’s a stigma associated with it; college acceptance via the Susi — and not the Suneung — is seen as the easy way in. [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

In the early 2000s, there was a scandal in which teachers were paid tens of thousands of dollars by parents to gain their children backdoor admission to some South Korea’s most prestigious universities. The scandal involved taking advantage of a special admission policy. In one case a teacher earned around US$500,000 in payments from 30 parents. Using forged certificates of graduation from overseas schools, the teacher was able to gain admittance of the students into South Korea best universities: Seoul National University, Yoneu University and Korea University.

University Entrance Exam in South Korea

The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, also abbreviated Suneung) is the standardized test recognized by South Korean universities that South Korean students take to get into college. Administered by the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE), the test is held annually on the third Thursday in November. Although it was originally designed to assess the scholastic ability required for college, the CSAT is currently a national graduation test for high-school students. It determines which university a student can enter and thus plays an important role in South Korean education and society. The test has crediting for being efficient and rewarding merit, and good international results. About 600,000 people take the test every year. Most but not all are high school seniors. Each year about 20 percent of those taking the test and high-school graduates who failed to achieve their desired result the previous year. [Source: Wikipedia ]

According to AFP: “Success in the exam — which teenage South Koreans spend years preparing for — means a place in one of the elite colleges seen as key to a future career and even marriage prospects. For most of their school lives, South Korean students study late into the night — often at costly, private cram schools — to stay ahead in the rat race for admission to top universities. The pressure to score well in the exam has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world. One 18-year-old undergoing treatment for cancer insisted on leaving his hospital bed to take the test. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 17, 2016]

The test lasts from around 8:40am to 5:00pm. By comparison, the major college-entrance tests in the United States, the SATs and ACTs, take about four hours each. The students in Korea mark their answers in multiple-choice answer sheets with pens rather than number 2 pencils. During the crucial listening part of the exam, planes are ordered not to take off or land, and buses and trains were ordered to stop running so that the students will not be disturbed by their noise. Even the American military pitches in by cancelling all exercises until the tests are over. Anxious mothers stand outside the testing center all day.

the examination itself is regarded as fair. Everyone takes the same test, which relies on the multiple choice system to prevent subjective marking. Security is very tight. The hundreds of people involved in making the exam are sequestered for more than a month in a secret location, and are only allowed to leave once the test has been taken. [Source: AFP, November 24, 2014]

A new exam is put together every year by a group of 150 or so university professors, high school teachers and educators who were sequestered in a hotel with 5,000 books for 30 days while the exam is prepared. Armed guards and barbed wire are placed around the hotel, elevators and stairways are sealed, all the phone lines are cut except for an emergency hot line, and no people are allowed in or out of the building unless they have thoroughly searched. Even the Minister of Education is frisked and test preparers are not allowed to leave the hotel until after the test has been administered.


Importance of the South Korean University Entrance Exam

Each year about 600,000 students take South Korea’s university entrance exam. In the late 1990s almost 900,000 students took it. Only 15,000 or so get a score good enough to into one of the top three schools. According to The Economist: The day of the university exams “is the most important day in most South Koreans' lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea's best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

“Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society's fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam's importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn, ensures that Korea's educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries.

A poll by CLSA, a stockbroker, found that 100 percent of Korean parents want their children to go to university. Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: “The best result: on the university entrance exam “ is admission to one of the country’s top universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. Those who don’t do well, don’t pass, or aren’t satisfied with their score can retake the test — in one year. That’s after 12 years of education spent preparing to take it the first time, the last three of which involve hours of extra study time daily in a sprint toward the Suneung. [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

Whereas for most South Korean students, the Suneung is the determining factor for where they go to college, in the United States, SAT or ACT test scores make up a smaller portion of the admissions decision — and there are hundreds of universities and colleges moving away from considering the scores at all. Given the stakes, the preparation for and discussion surrounding the Suneung in South Korea can be, as Ye Dam Yi, a recent college graduate who works for a trade company in Seoul, described it, apocalyptic. “Most teachers emphasize that if we failed Suneung, the rest of our lives would be failure, because the test is the first (and last) step to our successful lives,” said Sina Kim, a 25-year-old currently looking for a job. The exam is seen as “the final goal and final determinant of our lives. We thought that if we successfully finish the test, then the bright future would automatically follow.”

College Student Activism and the "Conscience of Society"

Student activism has a long and honorable history in Korea. Students in Chosun Dynasty secondary schools often became involved in the intense factional struggles of the scholarofficial class. Students played a major role in Korea's independence movement, particularly the March 1, 1919, countrywide demonstrations that were harshly suppressed by the Japanese military police. Students protested against the Rhee and Park regimes during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Observers noted, however, that while student activists in the past generally embraced liberal and democratic values, the new generation of militants in the 1980s were far more radical. Most participants have adopted some version of the minjung ideology that was heavily influenced by Marxism, Western "dependence theory," and Christian "liberation theology," but was also animated by strong feelings of popular nationalism and xenophobia. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The most militant university students, perhaps about 5 percent of the total enrollment at Seoul National University and comparable figures at other institutions in the capital during the late 1980s, were organized into small circles or cells rarely containing more than fifty members. Police estimated that there were seventy-two such organizations of varying orientation.*

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Students play an interesting role in Korea's national life. Centuries ago, new graduates of the royal academy were regarded as moral models by virtue of their years studying the Confucian classics and qualified to rule wisely over the people. In modern Korea, university students have also commanded respect for their hard work and potential as future leaders. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

“In 1960, they were in the forefront of a mass movement protesting a corrupt presidential election and actually forced a change in the government in what is often referred to as the "Student Revolution." The movement involved clashes with police in which 189 demonstrators, most of them high school and university students, were killed, making them martyrs in the cause of democratic development. The martyrdom of students in the cause of democracy was enhanced twenty years later when the South Korean army attacked citizens of the city of Kwangju, in southwestern Korea, who were demonstrating against the illegal seizure of power by General Chun Doo-hwan. No one knows how many were killed in the Kwangju massacre of May 1980, but even the government admits that more than 200 citizens died and many of them were students at Kwangju's two universities. The cemetery containing their graves is a now a national shrine, as is the cemetery in Seoul commemorating the Student Revolution of 1960.

“Since the 1950s in South Korea it is students who have taken to the streets to articulate grievances against powerful political leaders and unpopular government policies. Although South Korea has always aspired to be a democratic country with freedom of expression, the government has usually been a partial dictatorship that punished dissent and criticism. The ostensible reason for this was the fact that there was an ongoing military confrontation with North Korea and the South could not afford to be disunited in the face of the North Korean threat. As a result of this stance, however, laws were enacted that punished any kind of criticism, even when it was legitimate, and denied the people their constitutionally guaranteed freedom to speak, associate, publish, and hold a variety of political opinions.

“Students were the one group in society that was in a position to face the government and make public demands for change. This was because they could act as individuals essentially responsible for only themselves and did not have to censor their own actions in order to keep their homes or businesses or to ensure the safety of their families. They were also in a better position than anyone else in society to meet, develop ideas, and plan mass actions in secret. At a time when newspapers were censored, religious leaders were watched and intimidated, and opposition political party members were often put in jail, it was the nation's students who risked their own freedom to gather on campus and march out into the streets bearing signs and slogans criticizing the government. When they did so they broke the law and had to endure police attacks, tear gas, beatings, and even imprisonment, in order to say what everyone in the country was thinking. The government punished the demonstrators by threatening their parents and even drafting young male students into the army where they were sometimes beaten and occasionally killed in basic training.

Students During the 1980s Demonstrations That Brought Democracy to South Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Rallies by university students were an essential part of the breakthrough that occurred in 1987-88 and that ended decades of military rule and started a series of truly democratic reforms. The rallies were a reaction to the government's decision to appoint another general as president for the next five years. In this instance the students were joined by housewives, workers, shopkeepers, and office workers who poured into the streets to swell the demonstrations. This was a dramatic turn of events because a passive alliance had developed between the Korean government, the business community, and the middle class that was enjoying an unprecedented standard of living even under military rule. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

“During the 1980s, even when the government was at its most dictatorial, Korean citizens in general seemed willing to tolerate curbs on their political freedom in exchange for rising incomes. In addition, the fact that Seoul had been chosen to host the 1988 Summer Olympics put a damper on people's willingness to protest openly. The government made much of the fact that Korea needed to appear to be a safe and congenial place in order to attract athletes and spectators to the 1988 Olympics. However, the outrageous political abuses of the Chun Doo-hwan regime broke the silence of this majority and inspired crowds exceeding 100,000 people to spill into the streets of Seoul to demand a democratic presidential election. The Chun regime was forced to choose between a bloody crackdown like the one in 1980 and a change in the election procedure. With the world press watching and television crews on the scene to document conditions in Korea, the government backed down. There was a democratic election in December 1987, and over the ensuing five years South Koreans were enabled to enjoy greater freedom than they had ever known. Both of the presidents who were freely elected in 1992 and 1997 were famous former opposition leaders whom successive military rulers had thrown in jail for demanding democracy in the 1970s and 1980s. Though the change came about because of pressure from across Korean society, without students in the forefront between 1960 and 1990 it is unlikely that it would have happened at all.

Yonsei Professor Hurt by Explosive Device in Office

Yonsei University was particularly known for activism. Leaders of “demos” wore traditional clothes to emphasize their loyalty to Korean values. Ordinary students join in and the when the group was large enough, it moved off campus and challenged police. Political activity remains ailive there. In 2017, a professor at Yonsei was injured after opening a concealed explosive device brought to his office in Seoul. [Source: Associated Press, June 13, 2017]

Associated Press reported: “The crudely made device was made with explosive powder, four batteries and dozens of bolts that were packed inside a vacuum bottle, and it exploded after the professor opened the bottle inside his office, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Agency. The victim is a professor in the mechanical engineering department.

The professor found the bottle inside a box that was inside a shopping bag hung on his office door, but police have yet to find the sender. The professor had burns in his hands, chest and necks, but his injuries weren't considered life threatening. “It seems that the device didn't go off as planned as it just burned the explosive powder without dispersing the bolts,” said a police official who didn't want to be named, citing office rules.

“Police are examining the device and security video, and are also trying to determine whether the attack targeted a random individual or was based on a personal grudge. A Yonsei University official said the professor, whose name wasn't released by police, enjoyed a good reputation among peers and students. “It's up to the police to find out, but we don't know of any reason that would make him a target of an attack,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss a case under investigation by police. “He wasn't injured seriously, but he will be hospitalized.”

Student Loans and Debt in South Korea

Student loans from the government rose nearly three-fold from 2010 to 2014 due to tuition increases. Yonhap reported: “Outstanding government-funded student loans came to 10.7 trillion won (US$9.8 billion) as of the end of last year, 2.9 times higher than 3.7 trillion won in 2010, the Korea Higher Education Research Institute said, citing figures from the Korea Student Aid Foundation, a quasi-government organization in charge of handling government loans for students, among other duties. [Source: Yonhap, February 6, 2015]

“The number of student borrowers increased from 700,000 in 2010 to 1.52 million last year, when their per-capita borrowing averaged 7.04 million won. According to data, one in three users of a loan program in which repayment is required to start after the student lands a job, was found to have never started paying off the loan. As of the end of December, delinquent borrowers totaled 44,620, according to the institute. “The level of student loans will only rise unless the problem of the nation’s high college tuition, which is the second highest among OECD countries behind the United States, is settled,” the research institute said in a release. “Student loans could lead to a jump in the number of young people suffering from unemployment and pressure to pay off debts,” it pointed out.

Around the same time, Jhoo Dong-chan wrote in the Korea Times: “Only three out of 10 college graduates manage to earn enough money to pay back the government student loan, the Deundeun Student Loan, according to the Korean Student Aid Foundation (KOSAF). The Deundeun Student Loan program, introduced in 2010, is an income-contingent loan that enables borrowers to pay back their loans after graduating and landing a job. According to the KOSAF and the National Tax Service (NTS), a total of 924,500 people have received the student loan as of May. Of them, about 313,200 people were employed last year and supposed to start paying back the loan. But only 28.2 percent of them, or 88,500, managed to earn more than 18.56 million won annually, the minimum living cost for a four-member family. [Source: Jhoo Dong-chan, Korea Times, July 23, 2015]

“Under the loan system, a borrower does not have to pay the principal or interest until he or she has income above that level. In other words, more than 70 percent of those who got the loan landed low-income jobs, unable to repay their loans. If a borrower does not repay the loan due to having low income for three years after landing a job, the NTS carries out a property investigation for them. If the annual salary exceeds the minimum living cost, the NTS would collect 20 percent of the person's monthly pay. "It is hard to find a college graduate who gets a job right after graduation," said a convenience store clerk, Park, who is also under the loan program. "Instead, they do part-time jobs at places like convenience stores or Internet cafes, and their annual salary is less than 18 million won."

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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