At South Korean cram school, a singular focus
By Choe Sang-Hun
Published: June 25, 2008
YONGIN, South Korea: As the sun dipped behind pine hills surrounding this rural campus on a recent Monday, Chung Il Wook and his wife arrived in a car with their 18-year-old daughter, Min Ju. They hugged her before the blushing teenager hurried into the school building, dragging a suitcase behind her.
Inside, Min Ju joined a raucous crowd of 300 teenage boys and girls returning from their two-night leave and lining up to have their bags checked by their teachers.
Here, the students are denied everyday teenage items in South Korea. No cellphones, no fashion magazines, no TV, no Internet, no game machines.
Dating, going to concerts, wearing earrings, getting manicures, or simply acting their age - all these are suspended because they are deemed distracting for an overriding goal. Instead, the students cram from 6:30 a.m. to past midnight, seven days a week, in a campus kilometers away from the nearest public transportation, to clear one hurdle that can determine their future - the national college entrance exam.
"Min Ju, do your best! Fighting!" Chung shouted at his daughter's back before she disappeared into the building. Min Jun turned around, and raising a clenched fist, shouted back, "Fighting!"
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At South Korean cram school, a singular focus
South Koreans compare their obsessive desire to get their children enrolled in top-notch universities to "a war." Nowhere is that zeal better illustrated than in boarding cram schools like Jongro Yongin Campus, located in a sparsely populated suburb of Yongin, 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, south of Seoul.
Here, most of the students are "jaesoo sang," or "study-again students," who did not get into the university of their choice and are cramming again for the exam next year. Some try again, and again, for three years in a row after graduating from high school.
The school is so cut off from the outside, the curriculum is so tightly regulated and the distractions so few that students say there is no option but to study.
"Sending Min Ju here was not an ideal, but an inevitable choice," said Chung, a 50-year-old accountant near Seoul. "In our country, college entrance exams determine 70 to 80 percent of a person's future. It's a sad reality. But you have to acknowledge it; otherwise you hurt your children's future."
School background looms large in the life of a South Korean. What university people attend in their 20s can determine their position and salary in their 50s. Top-tier schools like Seoul National, Yonsei and Korea Universities hardly register in the global lists of top schools, but at home, their diplomas pass as a status symbol, a badge of pride both for the students and their parents. On exam day, mothers pray at churches or outside the exam halls.
The life of a South Korean student, from kindergarten to high school, is shaped largely by the quest of doing well in standardized examinations to enter a choice university. That system is often credited with fueling the nation's economic success but is also widely criticized.
When massive anti-government protests shook South Korea in recent weeks, first over President Lee Myung Bak's agreement to import U.S. beef and later over his other policies, many of the demonstrators were teenagers protesting the pressure-cooker conditions at school. Among students between 10 and 19, suicide is the second most common cause of death after traffic accidents.
Lee's trouble started when people accused him of filling many top government posts with people who have ties with his alma mater, Korea University. Still, when he replaced his entire presidential staff this month, all but one of his 10 senior secretaries were graduates from the nation's three best-known universities. When the news media report government appointments, they always highlight the officials' school backgrounds.
It is no surprise that most students in this cram school say they enrolled voluntarily.
"I first felt ashamed. I asked myself what I was doing in a place like this when all my friends were having a good time in college," said Chung Yong Seok, 19, who is trying again for Korea University after failing to win admission last year. "But I consider a year in this place as an investment for a better future."
Woo Ji Woon, Chung's dormitory roommate, also 19, said he came here for the same reasons that would normally dissuade other youths: its isolation and relentless routine, which he said creates "an environment where you have no choice but to study - there is nothing else to do."
"Students here are in the same situation," he said. "We all have tasted failure - so we can understand and sympathize with each other."
More than one-fifth of 600,000 South Korean students entering colleges each year are "jaesoo saeng." They study alone or attend private institutes. Those who believe commuting is a waste of time head for one of the 50 boarding cram schools like Jongro, most of them proliferating in areas around Seoul.
Jongro opened last year. Its four-story main building houses classrooms and dormitories, with eight beds per room. In the spring, pine pollen drifts downhill like yellow mist. In summer, cicadas drench the campus air with hypnotic chirps.
At 6:30 a.m, whistles pierced the dormitory as teachers strode down the hallways, shouting "Wake up!" Amid cuckoo melodies and pop music, students climbed down from their beds and shuffled into a roll-call formation.
After a brief exercise in the playground, breakfast, coffee and brushing teeth, they reported to their classrooms by 7:30, 30 pupils per class. In the back of each classroom there are a few music stands, for students who want to study standing to keep from dozing.
"I snatch a nap between classes and during the lunch break," said Chung, the student. Other boys wolf down their food and race out to play soccer or basketball during the one-hour lunch break.
Another roll call comes at 12:30 a.m., when students can go to bed, unless they want to cram more, until 2:00 a.m.
The routine relaxes a little on Saturday and Sunday, when students are allowed to sleep an additional hour and given two hours of free time when they can watch television or a movie, do laundry, sleep - or study.
Jongro gives students an optional two-night leave every three weeks.
Romance is strictly forbidden. In the hallways and classrooms are notices listing prohibited acts: conversations between boys and girls that are not related to studying, exchanging romantic memos, or physical contact like hugging and hooking arms. Punishment includes several days of cleaning the classroom or the restroom and even expulsion from the school.
"We girls hear which girls boys consider pretty," said Park Eom Ji, 19. "But we don't use much cosmetics, we don't dye our hair, we don't wear conspicuous clothes. We frown upon such things as disruptive. We know what we are here for."
Kim Sung Woo, 32, a graduate of a boarding cram school who now teaches at Jongro, remembered the even more spartan regimen of old cram schools. In his day, students jumped walls topped with barbed wires at night, lured by neon signs in the distance, and corporal punishment for disruptive students was common.
Such a practice is gone amid parental complaints. 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 cram schools, up to 40 percent of the students drop out.
"It's a big financial burden for me," said Park Hong Ki, 50, referring to the 2 million won, or $1,936, a month that he has to spend on his son at Jongro.
The percentage of South Koreans' private spending on education, 2.8 percent of their nation's gross domestic product in 2004, is the highest among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Students wrote pep-talk notes on pieces of colored, sticky paper and kept them on their desks. "I may shed tears of sadness today, but tomorrow I will shed tears of happiness," one said. Another common note said: "Think about the sacrifices your parents make to send you here."