parents pray at gate during suneung or the college scholastic ability test.

The Suneung Day: Education Is the Only Salvation in This Life


Last Thursday South Korea held its annual ritual of suneung — the academic performance evaluation that serves as the main criterion for determining one’s chance at university admission in the upcoming year.

Suneung is a gruelling multi-subject exam that begins early in the morning and continues through the whole day over five sessions. This year more than 600,000 students sat through the ordeal. A fifth of them were repeat takers.

As usual, the event was marked by extensive news commentary, delayed commuting hours for smooth traffic, police escorts for late arrivals, and special promotions afterwards by companies to congratulate students on a job well-done.

The national importance of suneung betrays just how much anxiety education commands in this country. I commented some time ago on the repressively rigorous nature of South Korean education, which I argued bordered on child abuse in the amount of stress it inflicted on the nation’s young people. At that time I singled out parents, aided by the private education industry, as the key source of pressure on students.

While many South Korean parents unduly view children as a vehicle for collective success of the family unit, there are many others who subscribe to this model of education due to anxiety that their children may fall behind in the rat race. There is a widely accepted view that you may lose out if you do not do things the way you are supposed to do them, which is to say the way everyone else does them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and, of course, Psy are exceptions, which we know you or your child will never be.

Most South Korean parents do not want their child to take a chance at life, try a different course, and end up an object of scorn. So they will push him or her relentlessly to learn the same things everyone else learns until the fateful day of suneung. One clear result is that some 80% of high school graduates have gone on to attend university in the last decade, with 64 percent of South Korea’s 25-34 age group being in possession of university diplomas.

That itself has become a problem. Faced with too many overeducated young people and not enough white-collar positions to accommodate them all, the government has toyed with the idea of encouraging students to pursue other dreams besides entering a university, and even asked corporations to offer more jobs to high-school graduates. A nice proposal as it may be in theory, it does not work in a country that takes an exceptionally dim view of trades, labour, and low-level education.

The bias against manual work has been around Korea since before the modern era, with the literate class dominating the old court, high culture, and land-ownership. Those who worked with hands, even the most skilled artisans, wielded little power and were dismissed as useful but auxiliary beings.

If one looks around contemporary South Korea and sees how blue-collar and service workers are still treated — with total contempt — one can understand why as a parent you may be less than willing to tolerate a child’s ambition to become something other than a university-educated white-collar worker that is the norm of success here.

The ritual therefore repeats itself every year. Graduating seniors brace themselves for the moment they have spent their entire lives preparing for. Junior students, given a special holiday, come to exam sites to cheer their seniors. Parents and grandparents fervently pray at the gate. Some examinees fortunately get into schools of their choice; others have to decide whether to accept their failure or to try again next year by undergoing year-long seclusion and study, thus becoming jaesusaeng — remedial students.

One friend, who teaches at a virtually unknown university in a distant corner of the capital, recounts what he sees in his students: “They are here only because they need a university degree. They know that this school is too obscure to do them any good. But they come anyway because they can at least say they go to school in Seoul”.

Not being university-educated instills fear in this society: that lack disqualifies one from all conventionally desirable jobs. University education is not seen as a gateway to adulthood, a time for nurturing one’s talents and dreams in preparation for a meaningful life. In going to university, South Korean students simply move from one factory-like world into another, where they are even more vigorously moulded into clones, groomed for the same careers, and robbed of the best time of their life.

Conformism lies at the core of South Korea’s education. As an acquaintance put it, “South Koreans more or less look the same on paper by the time they graduate from university”. Even off paper they increasingly resemble one another given the prevalence of plastic surgery as another prerequisite for entering the job market.

Suneung is not the end of the hard years as it is sometimes promised to be, a liberation from hellish education. It is only the beginning of self-cultivation in the name of ‘spec’ building, which involves studying for the dreaded Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) — mandatory for most corporate job applications — and acquiring certificates attesting to your competence in myriad skills none of which may interest you all too much but will, together with your freshly printed university diploma, show prospective employers that you are a person of resilience, character, and exceptional talent.

The exam last Thursday was for many young South Koreans another step forward in this great game of survival. It was accompanied by cheers, fears, and, no doubt, tears in the end for some. Suneung is a South Korean rite of passage de rigueur, one that grants in the end a moment of respite for students, families, and society alike.

Until it begins all over again.

Images: Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.