Another drawback of the South Korean education system and society as a whole is that after all the studying to get into university there are often few good jobs for college graduates, especially ones that will bring positions of leadership in society. There are simply not enough positions to accommodate all graduates each year and many graduates are forced to accept lesser positions. Ambitious women especially are frustrated by traditional barriers of sex discrimination as well as the lack of positions. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Library of Congress, May 2005]

Once out of college "exam hell" begins once again as job applicants take rigorous, highly-competitive tests to get good jobs in good companies and government ministries.Good scores on the TOEIC English proficiency exam can often be a ticket to a good job. In the fall hundreds of thousands of young people prepare to take exams used to determine who will be considered for jobs at one of South Korea’s giant conglomerates — the chaebols.

The job market has been for recent university graduates for some time. In 1998, only a third of university graduates were able to find work. Bookstores in Korea have are full of study guides for people taking company aptitude tests, and books on getting a job in government.

High Unemployment Rates for South Korean Youth

Unemployment, youth ages 15-24: total: 10.2 percent; male: 10.6 percent; female: 10 percent (2018 est.); Compared with other countries in the world Korea ranks 124th. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Isabella Steger wrote in Quartz: “Youth unemployment hit an all-time high in February 2016 of 12.5 percent, compared to 11 percent in 2015 (February’s rate is traditionally higher than the rest of the year because many graduates flood the job market after graduating that month). In September that rate was 9.4 percent, compared to 3.6 percent for the national average, the highest September level since statistics were compiled in 1999. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, October 17, 2016]

“The figure is still far below the double-digit levels seen in the European Union, but in a country known for its grueling culture of academic achievement, the problem is all the more urgent. The problem is compounded by the fact that the country is flooded with college graduates — according to OECD figures, 69 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in South Korea have a college degree, the highest among OECD countries in 2015. A third of the nation’s jobless have an undergraduate degree.”

Impact of Too Many College Graduates in South Korea

According to The Economist: As more and more students cram into universities, the returns to higher education are falling. Because all Korean parents want their children to go to university, most do. An incredible 63 percent of Koreans aged 25-34 are college graduates — the highest rate in the OECD. Since 1995 there has been a staggering 30 percentage-point increase in the proportion of Koreans who enter university to pursue academic degrees, to 71 percent in 2009. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

This sounds great, but it is unlikely that such a high proportion of young Koreans will actually benefit from chasing an academic degree, as opposed to a vocational qualification. A survey in August found that, four months after leaving university, 40 percent of graduates had not yet found jobs.

Unemployment represents a poor return on what for most families is a huge financial sacrifice. Not only is college itself expensive; so is getting in. Parents will do anything to help their children pass the college entrance exam. Many send them to private crammers, known as hagwon, after school. Families in Seoul spend a whopping 16 percent of their income on private tuition.

Even South Korea’s Smartest Graduates Struggle to Find a Job

“Even graduates from Seoul National University are unable to find a job” is a common refrain used to describe the poor job market in 2016. Isabella Steger wrote in Quartz: “For recent university graduates like 24-year-old Moon Ye-won, the stakes are particularly high this year as she enters one of the worst job markets for young Koreans in recent memory. Moon graduated from the country’s top school, Seoul National University (SNU), in August 2015, a school arguably harder to get into than the top Ivy Leagues. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, October 17, 2016]

“Young Koreans are so frustrated that many have taken to calling the country “Hell Joseon,” using an ancient name for a Korean kingdom. Moon graduated with a double major in economics and Spanish. After doing an internship with a Korean company in Iran, she now works part-time at Starbucks, and is preparing job applications for eight companies — including Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and steelmaker POSCO — which include written essays and aptitude tests. It will be her second attempt to take the test for electronics maker LG. She said her friends joked that the reason she failed the exam was because she wrote that she would be straightforward with her boss in response to one of the questions.

Chaebol or Nothing: for South Korean Job Seekers

Isabella Steger wrote in Quartz: “Moon’s experience highlights a dilemma facing many young Koreans. Many dislike the chaebols for their disproportionate dominance of the Korean economy, and of everyday life. By one estimate, Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and SK make up almost half of the economy. Corruption remains a huge problem at the top levels of management in these companies. This year, Lotte Group’s chairman is being investigated for embezzlement, while its No. 2 executive committed suicide; Hanjin, one of the world’s biggest shipping companies, declared bankruptcy in August and its former chairwoman is being investigated for insider trading; and Samsung, arguably the most desirable of Korean employers, is grappling with an exploding-phone problem that increasingly looks like a poor management problem. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, October 17, 2016]

“Korea’s young jobseekers “are the product of an extremely unequal and unstable society that has concentrated all of its wealth and resources in the chaebol,” wrote Kim Dong-chun, a sociology professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.

“And as Korea’s economy weakens, these companies are cutting back too. According to one survey, almost half of 500 of Korea’s biggest companies, which typically conduct two rounds of hiring a year, said that they would reduce their hiring this year. “That’s the problem, when I write my essays I’m just thinking about what these companies did wrong, and then I can’t focus on writing my essays,” said Moon, who recently took an almost six-hour-long Hyundai test. “Those stories just kept coming to my mind.”

“Still, everyone wants a job at the same handful of companies — 200,000 people took Samsung’s test in 2014, competing for 14,000 jobs. After a lifetime of cram schools and testing, the pressure to get into a prestigious Korean company remains high, and is expected. Alternatives like working at a small or medium enterprise or a startup are scant, or simply discouraged.

““You will work overtime in every company anyway, so it’s better to stick with ones that actually pay you for overtime,” said Hong Seung-min, another recent SNU graduate whose dream job is to work at a design consultancy, though she will take the exams for Samsung and LG. One estimate by McKinsey in 2013 said that SMEs pay just 62 percent of what chaebols pay. “I don’t want Samsung and LG to do badly, because it’s my country and I want them to do well,” said Regina Yoo, the co-founder of a salad delivery startup in Seoul called FreshCode. “But they need to change. Korea needs new blood.”

High Youth Unemployment: a Political Issue in South Korea

Isabella Steger wrote in Quartz: “The problem has proved vexing for Korea’s government, and contributed to the ruling Saenuri party’s heavy losses in parliamentary elections in 2016. President Park Geun-hye — whose father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, was a strong proponent of chaebols — established a “Youth Hope Fund” in 2015 to ameliorate the problem, and personally donated money to the fund. But Park has continued to lean heavily on the chaebols for help, too, asking the country’s biggest companies to do their bit to help young Koreans, wrote Hyung-A Kim, an associate professor at Australian National University. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, October 17, 2016]

“Geoffrey Cain, author of an upcoming book about Samsung, said that Park has turned out to be “less friendly” to chaebols compared to her predecessor, the ultra-conservative president Lee Myung-bak. However, he is critical of the chaebols‘ continuing power to crowd out SMEs and startups. “Park has taken some moves to encourage startups and businesses, like setting up a US$1 billion government startup fund. It was a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of problems,” said Cain. “There’s concern that a lot of these chaebol-sponsored incubation centers are just doing this to pay lip service to what the government wants them to do.”

“But changing mindsets is as important as changing government policy. Jeffrey Lim, the head of Campus Seoul, Google’s first co-working and incubator space in Asia, said most young people in Korea still want to work for the big chaebols, but the mindset is slowly changing and many now think that it’s “cool” to work at a startup. Parents, however, are a different matter. One former Samsung employee who left to start his own company, surnamed Yoon, took the Samsung exam twice before passing it. “It wasn’t my dream job, but most people in college in Korea dream of working for Samsung,” said Yoon, who didn’t want to use his full name as he hopes to go back to Samsung if his startup fails. “In my parents’ mind, Samsung is the best place in Korea. They were shocked that I left.”

Reliance on Degrees and Reservations About Foreign-Trained Students in South Korea

Su-hyun Lee, New York Times: “In South Korea, degrees from top universities at home and abroad, especially in the United States, have a profound impact on everything from one's career to marriage prospects. And South Korean corporations rely heavily on diplomas to assess job applicants, though they have rarely bothered to check their authenticity. Although some companies conduct aptitude tests to detect the best job candidates, the reliance on academic degrees persists. Joo Tae-san, the chief executive of Maxmovie, an online movie and performance ticketing company, said he had no choice. ''There is no other way to verify a person's competence,'' he said. ''Calling former employers or professors for comments and recommendation letters isn't helpful because they will either not comment or only praise the person.'' [Source: Su-hyun Lee, New York Times, September 1, 2007]

It used to that a foreign degree — especially from a prestigious or at least well-known U.S. university — was a ticket to a good job in South Korea but that is not necessarily the case anymore. Many Korean employers prefer local-educated workers.Kyna Rubin wrote in the International Educator: “University of Illinois alumna Hwang, now living in Seoul with her parents while job hunting, says that students who studied in the United States “tend to be unable to understand Korean culture as deeply” as those who remained home for college. Further, Korean employers perceive returnees from abroad as being more expensive hires because of the costly tuition they shelled out for their U.S. education, she says. Many big Korean companies prefer local students “because they are just as smart” as foreign-trained workers and are less likely to change jobs, she says. [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator, March-April, 2014]

“Many local schools offer job placement assistance and training for the Korean work environment. For instance, home-bred students learn about Korean corporate culture, training that their U.S.-educated counterparts lack, according to Shim. “Many students who have never studied abroad are able to communicate proficiently in English and some employers believe that locally educated students adjust better to the Korean work environment.” Like most East Asian families, Koreans cherish local networking as a means to professional success. Parents often fret that studying overseas will prevent their children from developing personal networks that will benefit their futures, according to the Korea Joongang Daily. Does Hwang feel that study abroad might have penalized her job prospects? “For the short term, it could have,” she says. “But I believe what I’ve experienced during study abroad will eventually benefit me.”

TOEIC Scores So Important, South Korean Job Seekers Go to Great Lengths to Cheat on Them

Good scores on the TOEIC English proficiency exam can often be a ticket to a good job in South Korea. Today Korean universities require high TOEFL scores to graduate. And an “English divide” determines monetary success, Sunshik Min, who runs a large company specializing in English-language education and has a doctorate in business administration from Harvard, told International Educator . “If you speak English, your income is higher than if you don’t, and if your English is good, your starting salary is higher.” [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator, March-April, 2014]

This is so much so that some job seekers go to great lengths to cheat on them. 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 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.

Cheating to Get Ahead in South Korea

Cheating and lying about credentials to get a job is a problem in South Korea. Su-hyun Lee, wrote in the New York Times: “More people are cheating to gain an advantage in a fierce job market” and “more are getting caught, particularly as people started posting anonymous tips about credentials fraud on Web sites and online bulletin boards. [Source: Su-hyun Lee, New York Times, September 1, 2007]

“Cheating has always existed but experts say it has almost certainly increased over the past decade as South Korean companies, squeezed between high-tech Japan and low-cost China, have cut back on hiring. ''Before the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, there were enough jobs for everyone,'' said Lim Min-wook, a manager at Saramin, one of the country's leading recruiting companies. ''Graduates from first-tier schools landed top jobs and second-tier school graduates got the next best jobs and so on. But nowadays, there aren't many jobs, period.''

Phony Resumes and Fake Academic Credentials in South Korea

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post in 2007: “An epidemic of phony academic credentials has broken out in South Korea, a nation where calibrations of human worth are obsessively tied to college achievement. assorted academicians and a revered Buddhist monk have been exposed as long-time résumé inflaters. In most cases, they have confessed their sins and asked for public absolution. The state prosecutor's office has launched a nationwide investigation into fabricated degrees, plagiarized doctoral theses and forged test certificates. It has asked tipsters to call in with information. "Even if you are accomplished in Korea, people are constantly asking about your college degrees," said Whang Sang Min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. "You have constant pressure to fake it." [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, September 4, 2007]

“Many of the fakers who have been outed are prosperous and middle-age. Until their lies became public, they held solid perches in the Korean establishment. They invented academic achievements three decades ago, when this prosperous nation — now the world's 11th largest economy — was still recovering from the economic and cultural devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War. It was a time when traditional social structures had largely collapsed, when a college credential had become the preeminent measure of individual worth and when it was terribly hard to get into a good university. "Unless you finished college, you were not really a decent human being in this society," said Whang, who has a doctorate in psychology from Harvard and studies South Korean popular culture. "For actors and for singers, it was the same. If you had a degree, people appreciated your acting and singing more." “Whang said a sizeable number of ambitious and talented Koreans who failed to get into the right university wrote fiction in résumé form in order to grab a secure rung in this credentials-crazed culture. For many years, no one checked them out.

''Before, we struggled more with fake luxury goods,'' said Moon Moo-il, a public prosecutor who is leading a nationwide crackdown on document forgery and misrepresentation at the prosecutor general's office. ''Now that we have entered the knowledge-based society, we have to deal with an overflow of fake knowledge.'' [Source: Su-hyun Lee, New York Times, September 1, 2007]

Su-hyun Lee wrote in the New York Times: “In an intensely competitive country that has long put a premium on impressive degrees, suspicions that academic records had been falsified have circulated for years. But the tissue of untruths began to disintegrate in July, when reports emerged that Shin Jeong-ah, an art history professor at Dongguk University, the top Buddhist university in Korea, had misrepresented her past. Ms. Shin, who claimed to have a Ph.D. from Yale and other degrees from the University of Kansas, had risen quickly in the art world. At 35, she was appointed co-director of the Kwangju Biennale, one of the biggest and most acclaimed art events in East Asia.

“The nationwide focus on academic fraud became so intense that it prompted Kim Ock-rang, the owner of a performing arts space, to avoid friends out of fear that her own lies about her academic record would be found out, she said in a television interview after her confession. Eventually, she resigned from her professorship at Dankook University in Seoul, after admitting that she had purchased her degree from a diploma mill in California.”

People Accused of Faking Their Academic Credentials in South Korea

"When I was young and was making my living singing commercial jingles, I lied and for the next 30 years that lie has been troubling my conscience," confessed Yoon Suk Hwa, 51, a famed and versatile actress who has been called South Korea's Meryl Streep. In an online statement, Yoon said that she faked it to enhance her career. She said she falsely stated on a résumé that she attended the prestigious Ewha Womans University. The lie took on a life of its own after she became well known. She was invited to speak at the university's chapel, where she recounted her supposed college memories. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, September 4, 2007]

“Not everyone who has been accused of faking credentials has admitted a mistake and asked for forgiveness. Most notable among the unrepentant is Shin Jeong Ah, 35, an art history professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. She was a rising star in Seoul society and the youngest-ever artistic director of a major arts festival. She had a doctoral degree from Yale and bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kansas on her résumé. Yale, however, told the Associated Press that she never attended the university. Kansas said she attended, but did not earn a degree. Prosecutors want to investigate her on charges of forgery, according to press reports. Shin, though, reportedly left the country in July and her whereabouts are unknown.

Su-hyun Lee wrote in the New York Times: “Her troubles began when a member of her university's board of directors questioned her academic record, and then brought it to the attention of the news media. It turned out that she had attended the University of Kansas but had not graduated, and that she had never attended Yale. The university fired Ms. Shin, who lost her other positions and left for the United States. [Source: Su-hyun Lee, New York Times, September 1, 2007

“Questions arose about other prominent figures' academic degrees. Some came forward to confess. Among the dozen or so confirmed cheaters was Lee Chang-ha, an architect regularly featured on television. He was forced to give up his teaching job at Kimcheon Science College after saying he had received a degree from the department of fine arts at New Bridge University in Los Angeles. But New Bridge has no fine arts department.

Despite the weight assigned to academic degrees, South Korean companies have never systematically verified them, a task more difficult with foreign degrees. This was underscored by the case of Lee Ji-young, the host of a popular English-learning radio program for seven years. The public network Korea Broadcasting System hired her without checking her background, which she said included degrees from the University of Brighton, in England. But she pushed things a little too far. After landing the radio job, she kept playing up her fabricated academic background in interviews and a book. Her luck ran out when an anonymous caller tipped off reporters. Ms. Lee was forced to resign. In a farewell message posted on her radio show's Web site, she explained that she had come to Seoul from her rural hometown and that she had tried but failed to enter college. Lying worked, but proved difficult to undo. ''I wanted to stop,'' she said, ''but a long time had passed.''

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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