Korea’s Murderous Education Culture

I read this post on The Marmot’s Hole today. It comes from this story from the Korea Times (I’m not really pleased about using this as a source on this blog, but at the moment I don’t have time to search for a better Korean source). Please read both.

Essentially the story is about a high school student who killed his mother because he felt he couldn’t get the high grades she expected from him. The story outlines ways she would punish him for – as she saw it – underachieving.

“According to police, Park kept telling her son that he must enter a top-class university and should rank first in nationwide exams. When he obtained lower scores than her expectations, she didn’t give him food or forced him to stay awake at night to study.”

There are a couple of things to take form this. One, the pressure on some Korean kids is immense to perform exceptionally in exams. But moreover, that some parents really don’t understand what they’re talking about. Not eating or sleeping is not a good way to improve intelligence or performance in anything, exams, sports, whatever.

Unfortunately, with the way the education system in Korea is set up, cramming and rote learning can often be good methods to get high marks in Korean exams. These methods don’t often allow for good long-term retention or varied application, so we could make the claim that the very nature of the exams and the learning process within the education system are as much a aprt of the problem as parents like this one.

There were also some interesting comments on the post at the Marmot’s Hole. Notably, these from The Korean:

“4000th in the country is hardly “quite good”. Three digits and we will talk.”

This is referring to the fact that student in question was actually ranked 4000th in the country on a test – putting him in the top 1% of all students. This wouldn’t have been good enough for his mother, so he changed his grade to 62nd to avoid corporal punishment. The Korean’s comment is, in my opinion, typical of one of the major issues. However one looks at it, top 1% is good. It’s better than that, it’s outstanding, it’s better than virtually everyone else he will ever meet in his life in Korea.

Basic child psychology states that demeaning this achievement is the last thing that should be done. Sure, anyone, at any time, can always do better. But good achievements deserve praise. Something more along the lines of, “wow, that’s fantastic. Just imagine what you’ll be able to do next time.”

Besides, if someone does their best, works as hard as they can, but still falls short of what some people would hope for them, their attitude and dedication deserves praise. If someone is slacking off, not putting their all into something, then their attitude deserves criticism.


“I have many criticisms of Korean education system, but its drive toward achievement is not one. Koreans constantly drive their children to be better than they are now, and that’s a good thing.”

Heartfelt and admirable sentiments. A drive towards achievement is indeed a good thing. But how should we measure achievement? In Korea, and in this case, it’s test scores. And almost to the complete exclusion of everything else. As we’ve seen, this kid was in the top 1%, and that must have taken a lot of hard work and dedication, not to mention sacrifice. And yet none of that is taken into account. Someone with that sense of hard work and focus could surely also succeed in many other fields, such as sports or music. But they’ll be judged on test results.

Which leads me on to the next, related, point; how do we judge “better” when it comes to people? Is my parents view of what would make me “better” the same as my own? Am I a better person, a better son, a better whatever if I get a higher grade on an exam? How else should I be judged?

Again, unfotunately, I feel that far too often in Korea, young kids are judged not simply on their own performance in exams, but even more they are judged against others. This is a country that actually has a rank of every student in the country. As another commenter, Yangachi Bastardo, said, “how can they differentiate between say the 935th best student and the 936th?” How can they, indeed? But to my mind more crucially, why do they? When the culture demands an absolute ranking of every student, of course things like dedication, other passions and achievements, personality and so on do not get considered. Not when a number can be put next to your name to show how good you are. And so this is what it comes down to here all too often – not even the subjective “how good are you” but the even more ridiculous “how good do you appear to be compared to everyone else?”

That’s why we have the 엄친아 phenomenon. For those who don’t know, it’s a contraction of 엄마 친구의 아들 – mum’s friend’s son. It’s used to represent a phenomena so widespread that all Koreans recognise this term and its menaing. That is, one’s mum constantly comparing her own children negatively against those of a friend. It often goes something along the lines of “Did you know my friend’s son Minsu got into Seoul University? You didn’t, though, did you?” But these comparisons can be made about anything.

Sometimes I think Korea can be so caught up in comparing things that it misses the true value in them.

And so, what of this so-called “education fever?” Clearly, it can be destructive, harmful and dangerous. Pressure to do better than everyone else on exams leads to suicides of schoolchildren, incredible levels of stress and anxiety, and a warped childhood spent in hagwons, pouring over books or staring at a computer screen. All in the name of being better than the next guy on some exam. And this is how the vast majority of Korean children’s accomplishments from birth to 18 are measured – comparing exam results with 엄친아’s.

There’s so much more to life, especially during childhood, so much mkkore to succeed in, and so many more barometers of this success, that personally I can’t help feeling that the majority of Korean schoolchildren are missing out. And The Korean may well disagree with me, he may well dislike me saying this, but I know I wouldn’t want my own children going through this system with this education culture.

Sure, encouraging oneself and also one’s children to strive for success is a very good thing. But I won’t be measuring my children’s success against that of the kid next door. I’ll want them to do the best they can for themself. I won’t want them to feel like their life isn’t worth living if they can’t be the best out of veryone in the country on any given test.

And so I say Korea needs to take a look at how it measures success, and what people want from their life and from their children. I think it will take people saying “actually, I don’t really want to go to Seoul University. I don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. What I want to do is … and this is they way I want to do it.” It will take people turning down the high-status jobs in favour of the ones that will make them happier, more fulfilled and give them a better quality of life. It will take a removal of these sorts of national systems of ranking everybody based on such narrow criteria and then saying “this is you, you are number 4,362.” It will take a widespread change of attitude to say tests aren’t what make the person.

Parents in Education – GEPIK Questionnaire

Today I saw a survey given to students in a GEPIK elementary school for their parents to fill out. The kids were told that they would be punished if their parents didn’t fill it out.

It’s a survey about what the parents think about me, the native English-speaking teacher at the school, and what they think about the projet of using people like me in general.

Before I get into any further discussion, here’s the survey:


원어민 영어보조교사 활용 수업의 효율성에 대한 설문조사
“A questionnaire about the usefulness of the  Native speaking English assistant teacher’s classes”
(For parents of students)

이 설문은 원어민 영어 선생님 활용에 대한 학부모 여러분의 의견을 조사하고자 하는 것입니다.
해당된다고 생각하는 항목에 ‘V’표시를 하시기 바랍니다.
“This questionnaire is to survey the views of you the parents of the students about the use of the native English-speaking teacher.
Please mark a ‘V’ in the articles that you agree with.”

And now the questions:

1. 귀 자녀는 어느 학교에 재학 중 입니까? What school are your children currently attending?
     1. 초등학교 Elementary school
     2. 중학교 Middle school
     3. 일반계 고등학교 Regular high school
     4. 전문계 고등학교 Vocational high school
     5. 특수목적 고등학교 Specialist high school

2. 귀 자녀가 재학 중인 학교에서 실시하는 원어민 선생님을 활용한 영어수업에 만족하십니까? Are you satisfied with the English language classes that utilise the native speaking teacher at the school your children currently attend?
     1. 한국인 영어교사가 혼자 할 때 보다 훨씬 좋다. It’s greatly better than when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     2. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때 보다 조금 나은 면이 있다. There are aspects that are a bit better than when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     3. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때나 별반 차이가 없다. There’s no real difference from when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     4. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때가 조금 더 나은 면이 있다. There are aspects that are a bit better when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     5. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때가 훨씬 좋다. It’s greatly better when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.

2-1. 위 2번 문항에서 1, 2에 응답하셨다면, 그 이유는 무엇입니까? (해당되는 것을 모두 고르시오.) If you answered 1 or 2 to the above question 2, what is your reason? (Select all corresponding answers)
     1. 영어능력 향상 English ability has risen (presumably the ability of the child.)
     2. 외국인에 대한 두려움 극복 Conquering the fear of foreigners
     3. 외국문화에 대한 이해의 폭 증대 Increasing the breadth of understanding of foreign culture
     4. 영어에 대한 자신감 증진 Increase in confidence about the English language
     5. 영어에 대한 관심 고조 Increase in interest in the English language
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

2-2. 위 2번 문항에서 3, 4, 5에 응답하셨다면, 그 이유는 무엇입니까? (해당되는 것을 모두 고르시오.) If you answered 3, 4 or 5 to the above question 2, what is your reason? (Select all corresponding answers)
     1. 교사자격증 미소지 Does not have teaching qualifications (NOTE: This could also mean capability or character)
     2. 교수 능력 부족  Not enough teaching ability
     3. 우리말 구사능력 부족 Is not fluent enough in our language (Yup, that’s what is says)
     4. 한국문화에 대한 이해 부족 Does not have sufficient understanding of Korean culture (Again, this is what it says)
     5. 한국의 교육 상황에 대한 이해 부족 Does not have sufficient understanding of the situation of Korean education
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

3. 원어민 영어선생님을 활용한 영어수업을 통해 귀 자녀의 의사소통능력 향상에 도움이 된다고 생각하십니까? Do you think that your children’s comprehension/understanding  is helped through the English classes that utilise the native speaking English teacher?
     1. 매우 도움이 된다. It helps greatly.
     2. 도움이 된다. It helps.
     3. 잘 모르겠다. I don’t really know.
     4. 별로 도음이 되지 않는다. It doesn’t really help.
     5. 전혀 도움이 되지 않는다. It doesn’t help at all.

3-1. 위 3번 문항에서 1, 2에 응답하셨다면, 어떤 영역에서 도움이 되었다고 생각하십니까? If you answer 1 or 2 to the above question 3, in what area do you think it has helped?
     1. 듣기 Listening
     2. 말하기 Speaking
     3. 읽기 Reading
     4. 쓰기 Writing
     5. 모든 영역 All areas

3-2. 위 3번 문항에서 3, 4, 5에 응답하셨다면, 어떤 영역에서 도움이 되지 않았다고 생각하십니까? If you answer 1 or 2 to the above question 3, in what area do you think it has not helped?
     1. 듣기 Listening
     2. 말하기 Speaking
     3. 읽기 Reading
     4. 쓰기 Writing
     5. 모든 영역 All areas

4. 귀 자녀의 영어수업시간에 한국인 영어 선생님보다 원어민 선생님이 더 효과적일 것 같은 영어학습 활동은 무엇입니까? In what English language learning activities in your children’s English classes do you think the native speaking teacher will be more effective than the Korean English teacher?
     1. 영어 대화 연습 English conversation practice
     2. 영어 쓰기 English writing
     3. 영어 듣기 English listening
     4. 영어 연극 English plays (as in a play with acting)
     5. 영어 게임 English games
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

5. 귀 자녀의 정규수업 이외에 원어민 영어선생님과 어떤 활동에 참여하고 있습니까? Outside of your children’s regular classes, what activities do they participate in with the native speaking English teacher?
     1. 방과 후 영어 관련 수업  English related classes after hours
     2. 영어 동아리활동 English group/club activities
     3. 온라인 활용 학습 Online study
     4. 영어캠프 English camp
     5. 쉬는 시간 및 점심 시간에 대화 시간 Conversation time during breaks or lunch time
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

6. 귀 자녀의 학교에서 실시하고 있는 원어민 영어 선생님 활용 영어 수업이 사교육비 경감에 도움이 된다고 생각하십니까? Do you think that English classes the utilise the native speaking English teacher operating at the school help in reducing private education expenses?
     1. 매우 도움이 된다 It helps greatly
     2. 조금 도움이 된다 It helps a little
     3. 그저 그렇다 It’s the same
     4. 별로 도움이 되지 않는다 It doesn’t really help
     5. 전혀 도움이 되지 않는다 It doesn’t help at all

7. 귀 자녀의 영어 관련 사교육에 월 평균 얼마의 비용이 듭니까? On average, how much per month does your childs English private education cost?
     1. 해당 없음 Not applicable
     2. 10만원 미만 Under 100,000 Won
     3. 10만원 이상 ~ 20만원 미만 Between 100,000 and 200,000 Won
     4. 20만원 이상 ~ 30만원 미만 between 200,000 and 300,000 Won
     5. 20만원 이상 Over 300,000 Won

8. 앞으로 원어민 영어선생님의 활용 방안은 어떠해야 한다고 생각하십니까? In future, what do you think should be done regards the programme of using native speaking English teachers?
     1. 학급 수에 따라 뭔어민 영어선생님의 수를 더 늘린다. Increasing the number of native speaking English teachers according to the number of students per grade.
     2. 현행수준으로 유지한다. preserving the current numbers.
     3. 한국인 영어 선생님의 역량을 키우면서 원어민 영어선생님의 수를 점차 줄인다. Gradually decreasing the number of native speaking English teachers while raising the capability of Korean English teachers.
     4. 원어민 교사 제도를 폐지하고 대체 프로그램을 마련한다. Abolishing the native speaking teacher programme and prepare an alternative programme.
     5. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

9. 귀 자녀가 원어민 영어선생님과 수업을 하면서 만족하는 이유를 적어주세요. Please write down your reasons why you are satisfied with your childs classes with the native speaking English teacher.

10. 귀자녀가 원어민 영어선생님과 수업을 하면서 어려워하거나 불만족스러워하는 이유를 적어 주세요. Please write down the reasons why your children are dissatisfied or have struggled with their classes with the native speaking English teacher.

11. 원어민 영어선생님 활용 사업에 대한 의견이 있으면 적어 주세요. If you have any opinions about the scheme of utilising native speaking English teachers please write them.

설문에 응해 주셔서 감사합니다.
Thank you for answering our questionnaire.


So, that’s it.

Now, for my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Firstly, I think it’s ridiculous that parents are asked some of these questions. These are people who largely haven’t met me, they don’t know me or anything about me. They haven’t seen my classes. They don’t know how I teach. They don’t know what their children are like in class.

How is it possible that “is not fluent enough in our language” can be an answer for why classes that I do are no better or worse than the Korean english teacher on their own? Surely the reason me and thousands like me are here is that we are native speakers of English. Secondly, clearly I do speak reasonable Korean. But I’m banned from talking Korean in front of or to the students. Still, many of them do not know.

I don’t really want to get into too much of a rant about this. Suffice it to say that I think parents have far too much power in the Korean education system. For the reasons above, they just aren’t in a position to know what’s best with regards to education practices. And yet they get this detailed questionnaire to do. Is the purpose of it really to find ou what parents think about native speaking English teachers in order to act upon it? Or is it simply making a show of valuing their opinion and won’t actually be taken seriously?

If the results are considerably against or for native speaking English teachers, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the results appear in a newspaper somewhere.

It strikes me that schools in Korea, even public schools, are far too concerned with showing off to parents. There seems to be far too much focus on how to appear good in the eyes of parents than how to actually be good and effective educators. Too much time is wasted doing what parents say should be done than on what is pedagogically sound practice. Parents opinions of NESTs can be influenced by any number of outside sources; newspapers, the internet, gossip and rumour and so on. But how many actually have accurate knowledge or experience of the programmes that bring them here or the work they do? And who is it that the education office is asking for their opinion?

If this and other such surveys come back with a large number of parents saying they don’t want NSETs any more, will the policy-makers defy such a moniker and simply adopt that as policy?

I’ve heard far too often in my time working in a Korean school: “but the parents want…” “but the parents don’t like…” “but the parents say…” And what the parents want, they always seem to get, for better or worse.

Korean Students Abroad

I became inspired to write this post after reading this post from Brian in Jeollanamdo, and some of the comments on it, about the behaviour of Korean students in particular when they study abroad.

I’ve been a foreign student in Korea, and also in southern Africa, and I live with a Korean student in the Uk. From my experience there are a few factors which most often come into play here. The first is where the foreign student is from. If they’re from an unknown country where they’re studying, it’s a lot harder because people only see them as someone from that country. A German student has a much easier time in the UK, for example, than a Korean, because the British students know enough of Germany and Germans that they can just speak to them as they would anyone else. When it comes to speaking to Koreans, they don’t know much about Korea, and they don’t have much of a sense of the place, culture or people – through no fault of their own – and so this becomes the focus for whatever relationship they have. Korean students invariably get asked “Are you from North or South Korea? Do you eat dog?” This puts a strain on the foreign student, because they just want to make normal friends.

Another one is language, because everything is made easier when the native students can communicate freely. People often list this as a problem that distresses the foreign students, which of course it does, but it also makes native students less likely to invest in a relationship where conversation isn’t easy. Of course, culture and cultural differences are perhaps the hardest obstacles to overcome. And there are different levels to it. At first, the foreign student must understand the culture of the place where they study, and how it differs from their own, but after that they must learn to accept, and perhaps even follow those differences, and that is most definitely easier said than done. I’ll give an example to illustrate. A group of students are sitting in a pub, having a drink and chatting. The Korean friend of one of the students goes to join them. When he arrives, he waits ’til he has their attention, bows, introduces himself, says where he’s from and what he does. Sits down. Waits for someone to talk to him… There’s nothing hugely wrong with this, it would just appear awkward to the non-Korean students. It makes him actually less approachable, whereas in Korea such a little introduction would have completely the opposite effect. But events like these can build up, and can leave a foreign student feeling very isolated from the majority population, and also not really sure why. Maybe they think it’s just because of their English, but of course it’s not. And even for those who do understand, if they haven’t been in the culture for a very long time, they may have to be mentally regulating their own behaviour constantly to fit in, which will get frustrating for them.

I know I certainly felt like that when I first studied in Korea, and when meeting other Korean students. I was generally younger, and this made it even harder for me because I met more than a few people who thought it would be quite fun to have a 외국 동생, although for me this often meant I was expected to behave in a way which felt unnatural or uncomfortable towards someone who in my native country would be a friend of equal standing with me. We mustn’t forget that Koreans will experience the same when they go to study abroad. Time certainly improves these things, but I think in terms of friendships, in countries like the UK, America, etc we have very few strict unspoken rules regarding friendships and behaviour amongst friends. We don’t place much of a hierarchy on ourselves, we don’t start many of our conversations with the same few almost ritualistic phrases. We think nothing of being friends with someone 10 years different in age. But as we all know Korea is different. I’m not saying it’s better or worse at all, but in the same way that we may feel uncomfortable when we are thrust into a place where there are some guidelines regarding behaviour and relationships that seem more binding than our own, we may feel restricted – claustrophobic in our relationships, perhaps. But the opposite would therefore be true for Koreans in our environment, with more “free-flowing” relationships, and they may feel completely lost and unaware of their place in things – “western” social networks may feel very chaotic to some Koreans.

Also, in Brian’s post, there was a quote which said;

“In Malay, they are Asian, but in here, there are Whites, Blacks…I am just shrinking. In small community, Asian is not many, so Americans watch me, which makes me feeling bad. I wonder why they are watching me. I am daunted of myself.”

This is an important point. Korea is a fairly homogenous country. The CIA World Factbook (not my favourite resource but a convenient one) lists South Korea as “homogenous (except for about 20,000 Chinese).” The above quote was taken from a woman studying in America, which the same resource lists as being 79.96% white, 12.85% black. Now, obviously there are people from other countries in Korea, although it’s a transient population at the best of times, but typically, the majority of Koreans in Korea see very few if any non-Korean faces – certainly non-Asian. In America, according to CIA statistics (You hope they’d know be accurate) the vast vast majority are white or black. This student is not criticising that, she’s simply noting that she’s gone from being in a place where everyone looked to be of the same ethnicity and culture as her, to a place where she’s in a true minority, but also where the majority is also not perhaps as numerous as she would have expected. It’s a shock to her and it shows in the quote – she doesn’t really know what to make of it, and this makes her very uneasy, very self-conscious.

And as for Koreans not interacting with the native students when they study abroad, I think the biggest problem is their education. Not just that which they receive in school, but from their parents and the media as well. Among some Koreans there is a sense that they have a unique culture (as true of Korea as it is of anywhere else) that can only be understood by other Koreans. Add to this that some Koreans also think that Korean food is superior, as is Korean humour, and just general lifestyle, and you can see why some would seek to replicate this wherever they go. Some Koreans just feel it is too un-Korean to not drink soju with a group of Koreans, to eat the majority of your meals in a non-Korean fashion, forgoing rice, jjigae and soju, and so they stick together, feeding off the comfort of familiarity that is provided by being around each other.

Moreover, I think all people are naturally inclined to mix with people they have things in common with, who come from similar places. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the expat community in Korea, or lack of it. But then think, if you are an expat in Korea, do you not count among your best friends a single person who is a native speaker of your language, and from the same country, or at least a western country? On top of that, there is also this recent movement for expats in Korea to unite, and build a stronger, wider-encompassing community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this. All I’m trying to do is to offer up our own actions as a partial explanation for understanding some of the actions of Koreans in a similar situation to our own.

Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

So, we’ve reached the final post. The fact that it’s Part 3 just goes to show how completely over-optimistic I was thinking the whole series would just be one post. But I live and learn.

In the first two posts, then, I outlined the sorts of places and attractions that tourists visit in neighbouring countries, and why they’re so popular. I also explained how I think this knowledge can be applied in Korea, and what Korea specifically has to offer herself, in an attempt to find a way to develop tourism in the country, as the government seems so keen to do these days. In this final part I hope to bring that all together and decide how it should be promoted to achieve success as a tourist destination.

The first thing I would do, however, in order to prepare for this desired tourism surge, is to begin well in advance paying those who work in the tourism industry a lot more. There are various reasons for doing this. Firstly, tourism is not a “high status” industry in Korea. It’s much more desirable to work for Samsung – even if you just fetch the coffee. I’m sure a lot of this is to do with how difficult it is to get a job there, and also how much you get payed once you do. Raise the wages in the tourism industry and you increase its appeal to prospective employees and also its inherent status. Moreover, tourism companies would then be able to choose their employees from a wider range of hopefuls, allowing them to pick more intelligent and more capable staff. Another upside is that they would surely be able to employ staff who are better at speaking foreign languages, and I don’t just mean English, but speakers of other languages, who generally do not work outside of the business world in Korea, due to this being the only sphere that will pay out for their particular skills. More languages spoken better, and more capable staff, who are more enthusiastic about what they do will almost certainly lead to a better experience for tourists in Korea.


Step number two is more of an attitude change, and it’s something that most expats are familiar with, and I know has been discussed by Gord Sellar and subsequently on The Grand Narrative, here and here respectively. Basically, many Koreans feel that they have to portray Korea in a positive light to non-Koreans. The issue I have with this is simple; no they don’t have to, people will always prefer the truth, without spin or prejudice. And also, how can you know what someone else will think of as positive? From my personal point of view, someone obviously trying to convince me that something is good without leaving any room for another opinion, will never make me accept what that person is saying. By that logic, and making the leap that other people might also think like that, people will actually react negatively when Koreans forcefully try to present Korea and Korean things in an unnecessarily positive light. As I’ve said in the first two posts, I believe that there’s more than enough genuine positives in and about Korea that they can speak for themselves.

What I’m really trying to say is, tourists should only be told that kimchi’s good for them if they ask. They never need to be told that any part of Korea is a Mecca or a hub. If any part of Korea, or Korea itself really does start to function as a genuine and noteworthy hub of something, non-Koreans will be able to see that for themselves and will pass it on to others. If they have it rammed down their throats – without even asking – they’re going to be very put off. I’m sure my readers will be able to think of other examples of this happening – what Roboseyo would call kimcheerleading. Those who encounter tourists, especially in a professional capacity, but preferably everyone, should just stick to the truth – be entertaining, be knowledgeable, be factual, but keep it relevant, if people believe in Korea – which they should – let her speak for herself. It will undoubtedly give people a much better impression. Also, when the discussion arises, emphasise (not too over-enthusiastically) Korea’s uniqueness, rather than feeling a need to compare every aspect of Korea with somewhere else as a means of justification. Nobody wants to see the Hawaii of Asia, they want to see what Korea has to offer, not how Korea wishes it was something else. Korea should not try and feed off the reflected legitimacy of other places when she’s perfectly capable of creating her own, with some time and the right attitude.


Mecca - Photo courtesy of SacredSites.com


Kwangju - Not Kimchi Mecca, please

Another attitude issue that may or may not be a major impacting factor on tourism is that, unfortunately, some Koreans don’t see foreigners – even tourists – as welcome in Korea. I know from personal experience that this isn’t the majority, but for someone spending maybe only a week in Korea, all it would take would be one person to potentially ruin the experience. If people pay money to go to your country, or if they live there, it is because they choose to. Because they like it, or are curious and want to discover more about it. There cannot possibly be anything wrong with that, and these people must be welcomed. I’m sure, with time, the remains of this “hermit kingdom mindset” will disappear, but the sooner the better, for all concerned.

2408834920088043206acDEwR_phA couple more of these general points about attitudes that should accompany a successful tourism industry. First of all, when Koreans travel, they often like to go where lots of other people are. They hike together, swarm along the beaches like locusts, camp together and so on, and they have great fun doing it – why not – but not everyone wants to travel/holiday in that way. A couple of foreigners with backpackers strolling into a remote countryside village may be having the time of their lives. I’m not really sure as to what extent Koreans understand that many people like to go somewhere quieter when they travel, and see things that are off the beaten track, so I don’t want to speculate too much – just enough to say that there’s no guarantee of success if you try and sell a Korean’s ideal break to a non-Korean. I guess the real lesson would be “know your market.”

Just briefly before I move on to actual marketing practice, The Customer Is Always Right. Tony Hellmann on his blog Jumping the Asymptote has a great post about consumer and service practice regarding this that I’d urge you to read if your interested in why I’m making this point. On top of that, tourists are trying to have fun – everyone should be willing to help make sure they do. It works out for everyone that way.

Now, marketing. Most obvious of all is to get into tourist brochures. Every country has their own travel agencies and tourist brochures that people check out. I’d imagine that maybe in some American, Canadian, New Zealander or Australian brochures you might sometimes be able to buy a holiday to Korea, or see Korea advertised (please correct me if I’m wrong), but in Europe, India, most of Russia, Africa, South America I’m sure, you can buy package holidays to Japan, China, Tailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong – just about anywhere in East Asia except Korea. I don’t think there’s ever been an advert for Korea in Europe. I can’t find any evidence for that, but I can’t find any evidence that there has, either, and I certainly don’t know anyone who’s seen one. You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. If Korea could manage to accomplish some of what I’v laid out in this series of posts, then they should be willing to spend big to get the name of Korea out there as a destination. The most basic principle of advertising is that if people know of it, some people are going to want it. I can imagine that part of the problem with this up until now has been that Korea wants to handle every aspect of its tourism itself, meaning they don’t want foreign companies bringing tourists into Korea, when Koreans believe they can do it with Korean companies. But the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone will want to fly with Korean Air, not everyone will want to book with a Korean tourism company, and not everyone will have heard enough about Korea to allow that to happen. There’s nothing wrong with selling Korea to foreign companies. The tourism companies that have the most business in Japan could surely help Korea’s tourism industry. Furthermore, linked with what I said above, you have to know your market. Non-Koreans should be the one’s to advertise Korea to non-Koreans, they’re far more likely to get it right.

I discussed this next point in the first two parts as well, but I see it as absolutely crucial. Korea needs to improve and expand its pop culture. There will be a post regarding the Korean Wave coming up soon that will discuss in more detail how this can be done, but as a general rule, Japanese pop culture – dramas, music, manga/manhwa, films etc – tends to be more original, non-generic and creative, in fact this is what drives it. Korean pop culture, on the other hand, is driven more by romance, melodrama, music, costumes and scenery, but most of all by star power. This means that much of what Korea produces is all very same-same. Japan, producing a wider variety of themes and ideas, was able to massively grow its pop culture exports because they were passively exported. That is to say, other countries saw them and liked them, and therefore bought them of their own accord – with various different cultures all able to see something that appealed within the Japanese pop culture whole. If Korea could improve the quality and variety of its pop culture exports, and instead of seeming to force them onto other countries, they could be seen as being passively exported, raising the profile and appeal of Korea and her pop culture. This is also the best way to transmit culture outside of the diaspora, as it must be acknowledged that without the large numbers of people of Korean ethnicity living abroad, Korean pop culture would have an absolutely negligible presence outside of East Asia.

And the final thing that the Korean government should do to increase tourism in Korea is to improve the education of young people, and improve the non-standard education that affects everyone else through media, politics and society. Brian in Jeollanam-do has a few posts about Korean school textbooks, one of which is here. The better Koreans can understand foreign visitors, the better the experience will be for those tourists. This should also lead to Koreans growing up better understanding the differences between non-Koreans, that they are not a singular group, or a few large groups encompassing the whole world outside of Korea, and also hopefully they may see more of the similarities between themselves and non-Koreans. Of course, this can’t be taken to mean all Koreans, but from experience I’m sure many who have lived in Korea will recognise the truth in some of what I’m saying. Furthermore, improved education about the world outside may cause Koreans to travel around it more, and not just to the few common destinations. A nation of tourists is better equipped to be a good host nation to other tourists.

And so there you have it, that is my take on the tourism industry in Korea, what problems it currently has, how they could possibly be solved, and how the industry could grow. I’m not an expert in tourism, neither am I an expert in marketing/advertising. I do think I know a reasonable amount about Korea, and about traveling, so this is really nothing more than my view about how Korea could better develop as a popular tourist destination, as it seems to me as though there is a keen desire to do just that among the Korean government. As always, it would be good to read your responses and comments to what I’ve written here, especially as this is such a big topic, and I know not everyone is going to agree with all I’ve said!

My Response: Gender in Modern Korea

I must start this post by saying that it is written in response to a very good post from The Grand Narrative by James Turnbull. It’s basic framework is taken directly from a far too lengthy comment I posted there, but I’ve since tried to make it a bit more substantial and post-worthy. I strongly recommend reading this post, and spending some time reading the rest of the blog, as it really is the best place to get information and discussion about sexuality, gender, feminism and other issues in Korea. Also, I won’t try and rehash anything that’s been said over there here, because I could never do it as well! Like I said, this is a response to a post.

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

My first remark is unfortunately about something James said that I disagree with. The main reference point for James’s article is a piece by So-hee Lee entitled ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture,’ taken from the book Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea. In discussing this essay, James remarks that

“in this section of the chapter I think Lee disproportionately blames Korean husbands seeing their wives as asexual, unattractive ajumma (아주마) for their sexless marriages.”

In reality, my personal view is that Lee’s comments are certainly accurate, and this definitely has been very important in shaping the sexual identity (or non-identity) of Korean women. I think the point James was trying to make is that women hold just as many stereotypes and preconceptions about themselves and their marriage, and so this is equally to blame as how their husbands view them. This is by no means inaccurate, but we should not discard just how different the attitudes of Korean husbands (particularly from the older generations) towards their wives are compared with the ones someone might be familiar with if they had never been to Korea. I’m not saying that, by dint of being Korean, these attitudes are wrong, just that there are differences. Of course, in these discussions it can be all too easy to make generalisations, so I must point out that I’m not referring to all Koreans (or even the majority), just an observable and noteworthy number.

I’ve brought this up with many Koreans, male and female, and the general consensus seems to be that husbands, especially of that older generation, would feel in some way guilty if they thought of their wives as sexual beings. The reason for that is that they view it somewhat like incest. The wife is a part of the family, no different to any other member. I’m sure some people would be very quick to ascribe this to Confucianism, but I’m not sure I can, largely because there is nothing prescribed within the Confucian canon about this. Although certainly in the Confucian tradition the husband is supposed to take the “higher” position in the hierarchy, he is also responsible for ensuring that those “lower” than him are well provided for and content. Now, that could be argued to mean that a husband should view his wife as a sexual being if only to ensure her needs are met. Also, my own opinion is that many husbands who are guilty of viewing their wives as sexless ajummas actually do this because they are a mother figure to them as well. The wife bears their children, and then raises them, becoming a mother, but in many ways she does the same for her husband within the home, almost as if she was mothering him, and this is perhaps why a husband would consider it incestuous. On the other hand, in defense of James’s point of view, it can be said that in a male-dominated society, where a woman’s prospects were limited (still mostly referring to older generations – the “traditionals”), her sense of achievement came from performing her “womanly” roles well, and this often meant forgoing self-grooming, manners and a sexually desirable “delicate” image. In effect, she turned herself into an ajumma (아줌마).

Fierce Ajumma

If you study a chart of Confucian familial relationships, there is one very interesting feature that is markedly different from what a similar familial chart would look like in non-Confucian societies (think family tree with titles instead of names). Unfortunately I won’t be able to draw one here, but basically, your parents are called your parents, but their siblings are also referred to as parents – 큰 아버지 (Big father) instead of older uncle etc etc., and the same pattern follows for every generation, a cousin is a brother/sister 4 “measures” distant (4 촌). Therefore, to a married woman, her husbands parents fit into the hierarchy at the same level as her own parents and their generation, and she would even call her husbands parents “mother” and “father” – this is still standard practice for speaking to parents-in-law in Korea, and I’m sure many people will have witnessed it. In effect, this system forces her to fit into the hierarchy on a generational level with her husband, a connection almost equivalent to being his sibling. So it is a bit complicated but still possible to actually explain why sex within a marriage after the kids have been born is considered by some to be incestuous and doesn’t really happen. This explanation, unlike the first one I gave, is clearly a result of a Confucian influence.

But my basic point remains as: I do think it has been very relevant that husbands see their wives as asexual/sexless ajummas, although the wives do see themselves as this as well. They may not feel happy about it in the end, or very fulfilled, but it’s self-perpetuating to some extent, and down to their husbands for the rest.

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon - Ironically, definite Ajumma

I was also very interested to see this description of the “missy” term by Lee that James picked up on in his post: “a married woman who still looks like a single woman.” I’m not sure in “western” countries whether you would find people who thought that married and single women look noticeably different. It’s also curious that she said they look different, not that they dress differently, as of course, the married ajumma does look different typically as a person – change in haircut, gait, behaviour are all well-known (and often ridiculed) features of ajummas. I think it’s a signal of so many things that women effectively turn themselves into ajummas at a certain age or after marriage. The biggest issue of course is that the younger generations are fiercely against becoming ajummas, and perhaps the generations before them were as well – if you’re feeling really brave maybe you could ask one, but I’m not going to try! The deciding factor to me seems to be the men – and of course the level of gender inequality/equality. If the men are not open to accepting the sexuality of women in full, both before and after marriage, and before and after having children, then the women stand very little chance of casting off the shackles of sexlessness. Anything towards this end that is to be achieved would have to be achieved solely by the individual women, but to read more about that see James’s post as well as a post by Gord Sellar about Korean women in a consumer society here.


There is also a quote from Lee briefly discussing the “weakening of Korean familism.” I don’t want to stick too closely here to what Lee actually says about this, because James has analysed that in full anyway, but the phrasing does interest me. This idea that Korea has a strong and highly developed sense of familism is, while surely true, drummed into every Korean. Many talk about it proudly, saying things like “In Korean culture family is very important.” But the issue I want to raise is this; in what culture is family not important? Certainly in Korea there are very set actions that family members are expected to perform and so on, and they are important and highly conspicuous, to be sure. These actions are explicit and sometimes representative of hierarchical responsibilities and sentiments. Taking your parents to go shopping on a Saturday morning when you have other things you should be doing means you’re filial and love/respect your parents. Cooking for your husband’s parents means you’re a good wife to him and a filial daughter-in-law. When Koreans talk about “weakening of Korean familism” I don’t think the issue is really that family is becoming less important to Koreans – they just have to express their “familism” (is that really a word??) in different ways, eg. small gestures replacing large ones, saying how you feel instead of performing a set action that is supposed to prove it, acknowledging that you feel what you actually feel, rather than displaying that you feel what you think you should be feeling. I think that young Koreans have adapted in this way the best, but that perhaps leads to a larger generation gap in people’s perceptions of things like “family.”  A son from younger generations may find it hard living with his parents, harder still for his wife. He will naturally try and display his affection for his parents, but the affection they expect is demonstrated by him living with them. It is in individual cases like this where we will be able to really register the change in Korean “familism.” Does the family find a way to adapt to the new pressures and concerns of modern life and find new ways of expressing how they feel that can coexist with that, or will the older values remain unchanged through the will of the parents? And, if change does occur, has that weakened Korean familism or has it just changed, adapted, developed?

Korean Family

That’s about all I have to say in response to James’s post, and it roughly deals with gender issues post-marriage, and how female sexuality in Korea has and continues to change. I do, however, want to add something about female sexuality in Korea pre-marriage, specifically the sexuality of teenagers.

There is another excellent post about this subject by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling that has all the background research you could possibly want to get a better understanding of the topic and the situation. He also has good posts about teenage prostitution in Korea here and here. What I have to say is short, and a brief internet search will reveal far more detailed statistics and analysis. South Korea has an incredibly high number of teenage girls selling sex, and not just 18 and 19 year olds, rather the concentration seems to be around 14/15, with girls as young as 12 taking part in what are known as “compensated dates” (원조교제, wonjo kyoje/gyoje in Korean). What is perhaps more troubling is that the majority of customers or clients for these young girls are not hormonal pubescent young boys who don’t have the self-confidence to try the “regular way,” rather they are older adult men in their 20s and 30s, sometimes older. It seems that men from all walks of life are “compensating” young girls for sexual services. Once again, don’t be fooled into thinking this represents all or even a majority, but it is still a considerable number. The posts at Gusts of Popular Feeling that I linked to, among other sources, have all the relevant statistics.

So why do men seek out young girls in this manner? My personal view is that in an indirect way these girls are victims, even if they enter into these activities willingly, so I’m not pleased about tarnishing them with this brush, but in essence they are prostitutes. It is also worth pointing out, however, that this is entirely illegal, and not condoned by the Korean government or by society in general, and you only need to search Korean portal/news sites to find evidence of this.

The reason I’ve included this in this post is because many men, once they view their wives as sexless ajummas, for reasons mentioned above or otherwise, some will inevitably seek out other women for sex. Korea has a huge prostitution and sex industry as a whole, and anyone who has the experience of living in Korea will be able to tell you that adultery, especially by men, is quite common. We’re familiar in the “west” with the idea of men seeking out a “younger model,” and this seems to be similar to that on the part of the men. Also, young women – and virgins, or women with virginal qualities – have been held in higher esteem in many East Asian cultures up to a later date than in “western” ones, as evidenced by the greater amounts of what westerners would probably consider to be child pornography. In considering this, we must not make the mistake of trying to impose decidedly western morals or concepts on a different culture or society. Don’t forget, there was a time when, even in the most advanced “western” countries, girls were considered to be of marriageable age from their first period, and youthful features were most highly prized. Also, in societies were women are freer to express their sexuality, and where men are more accepting of this, sexual experience becomes a more desirable characteristic – just think about the term “MILF.” I don’t personally think there’s enough of an attraction towards this sexual experience among Korean men for an equivalent term referring to Ajummas to come into common vernacular. Besides, it would be too hard to pronounce… In Korea, features associated with youth are definitely the most highly prized – although this in itself does not lead directly to seeking out minors, and by no means excuses it.

For me, the real issue is sex education. Anyone who has worked in a Korean school will know that Koreans receive the absolute minimum of sex education, and what they do receive is of a very low standard. It was even worse for the older generations. And, again especially the older generations, what they lacked from their school in terms of sex education was not made up for by their parents. I’ve heard stories even today where grandmothers would be too embarrassed to talk about pregnancy. This means that the offending men likely had very little moral or scientific/factual education about sex. They would know it was required to produce children, and within marriage. But when there’s so much prostitution around them, and they’re disinclined to have sex with their wives after having children, how are they going to satisfy desires and curiosity.

Sex Ed

On top of this, women of a similar age to these men are not presented in a sexual way in Korea. Very few “dress to impress,” and there is certainly little to no sexualisation of Korean women over their early 30s. In fact, the most sexualised women in the media are teenage girls and very young women. The Wondergirls were even used in an advertising campaign against teenage prostitution. How they failed to see that this would cause more harm than good is beyond me. All it could have done was link the idea of a sexualised (albeit artificially) schoolgirl with the idea of paying for sex. In a country where it’s illegal to view pornography on the internet, but there are pictures of the Wondergirls seemingly everywhere you look, it seems to me as though this must create a desire among some older men.

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

As for the young girls involved, I think their reasons are similar, foremost among them again being lack of decent sex education, either at school or at home. Firstly, in a matter as important as this, impressionable young people need guidance as to what is and isn’t morally, legally and socially acceptable and why. Also, if young people have boundaries, even though they may overstep them, it will generally not be by too far, but knowing where the boundaries are remains important. If nobody discusses it with them, they have no fixed idea of where the boundaries are. Also, they are quite simply hormonal adolescents, and they are naturally curious. Their education should also fulfill a larger part of their curiosity. The cases of gang rape by schoolchildren when they later said they were emulating pornography shows that if their education doesn’t satisfy some of their curiosity, they will find other ways to do so – it’s natural. It would be much better for their curiosity to be satisfied by proper education than by pornography.

Lastly, the societal expectation of young girls (and really older unmarried women as well) is that they are “pure” and devoid of sexuality. However, as mentioned before, their role models in the media are highly sexualised. They aren’t shown as having no time for anything but studying, their spots are hidden, and they can aspire to be with rich, doting men. They are also symbols of consumerism, where status is apparently granted by what you own. Compensated dating makes the girls richer than they could ever be doing legitimate work, and enables them to keep up with the latest fashion trends. In fact, the statistics from Gusts of Popular Feeling show that the majority of girls who take part in these dates do so for the money. On top of that, there’s the factor of curiosity, the sense of being wanted, feeling pretty and being doted upon. It would also have a sense of the risque. Also, in the same way as the rate of suicide, I wonder if perhaps this phenomenon has a snowballing effect – these young people, and older ones too – see it around them and it becomes subconsciously more acceptable to them.

This post has grown greatly from what it started off as, but I’m very keen to read what anyone else has to add or comment on. I know there’s a variety of topics, but it seems like there could be so much for further discussion contained within all this, so please do comment.

The Contemporary Korean Education System and Confucianism

Before I begin this post proper, I’d just like to give a quick bit of background information as to its genesis. I wrote the original form of this piece as an essay, trying to explain how much the contemporary education system in Korea is still influenced by traditional Confucian concepts and values, and how much is now derived from ‘modern’ ‘western’ theory and practice. I’ve obviously modified the essay from its original form to what you see here, but I apologise for its length, and if I haven’t edited it very well; it’s the first time I’ve attempted to do this! I can’t provide links for every point I make as one would do with citations in an academic piece, but I will provide a shortened list of references at the end for anyone who wants to do some further reading on the topic.


I have to start with briefly mentioning Korea’s long and deep history of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and Confucian values. For half a millennium, the entire country was structured according to the fundamental Confucian principles for government, society and family as well as the role of the individual within these units during the Chosŏn dynasty, from 1392 until 1910. The effect of this on the subconscious of the Korean people was profound, and even today Korea is considered to be the most Confucian nation of the world, more so even than China.


The Dosan Seowon traditional Confucian academy founded by Toegye Yi Hwang (W5000 note)

The Dosan Seowon traditional Confucian academy founded by Toegye Yi Hwang (W5000 note)



When one understands this, it becomes clear that even today, many facets of Korean society and government – and of course family life – are in line with Confucian principles and methods, simply in a more updated form to function in the Twenty-first Century. The educational system is no different. Education was a vital and fundamental part of the Confucian ideal for a state. In fact, in a Confucian state scholars were the most highly respected class of people. To achieve success in the civil service examinations in these countries, one had to first spend a great amount of time in rigorous study and ‘self-cultivation,’ a popular theme in Confucian thought. As this was the path to a bright future, one can see how a culture of respect for education, and admiration for the educated came about in Korea. This was the subconscious attitude that was present – and in many respects still is – when South Korea’s present educational system was formed.

However, it is naturally a difficult task to ask whether the influence of a man who lived around two and a half millennia ago can be conclusively proven to exist in the educational system of Korea today. Bearing this in mind, then, what I will now try to investigate is whether any concepts or principles introduced or attributed to Confucian philosophy can be seen and identified within this educational system today.

Structurally, the Korean educational system is very rigid and closed. It takes the form of a vertical hierarchy, as any institution would in a Confucian-influenced setting. This said, in name and very superficially the Korean system is actually modelled on the American system. The similarity is, however, very superficial, with the American system being much more decentralised and open. Furthermore, the interpersonal relationships within the two systems are very different, as well as methods of teaching and studying, although this will be discussed in more detail below. At the head of the Korean system is the Ministry of Education, whose main function is policy making and evaluation. Therefore this body governs the behaviour of all institutions in the country. This type of vertical structuring is very reminiscent of Confucian ministries, and the effect is thereby echoed within the educational institutions themselves.

A typical school or higher education institution in South Korea will have a similar vertical hierarchy, usually with a single male at the very top. Typical educators in Korea consider that this role requires an authoritarian leader, according to J. Lee (2001). Such authoritarian leadership means that there is little discourse between the staff of the institutions regarding policies or important matters. The figurehead will typically only require his staff to obey and respect him for the perceived smooth running of the institution. These administrators also, as I’m sure any English teachers in Korea will testify, encourage their subordinates to “devote” themselves to their institution, and by extension its head.

Lee also explains the hierarchy in more detail, saying

… sitting positions are usually based on rank determined by status, age, and gender.”

Such a system is clearly not derived from ‘modern’ or ‘western’ concepts, and just as clearly demonstrates a Confucian style hierarchical body.

As mentioned above, the highest level administrators of Korean schools and educational institutes are typically authoritarian men. This again reflects the feeling of male superiority found in Confucian texts and traditions. But it is not just in the case of the highest administrators where this is seen within the educational system in South Korea. In fact, it appears that it is prevalent on all levels.

The OECD reveals that in 1999 in South Korea from a total of 354 higher education institutes employing 55718 teaching staff, 8505 were women, and 47213 were men. Moreover, J. Lee states

female faculty members are generally discriminated or disadvantaged in personnel or school administration by the majority of male administrators.”

As Confucianism has always been favourable towards men, it can be assumed that it is more likely that men will transmit Confucian sentiments onto others. Thus, this analysis clearly leads one to consider that most Koreans, whilst perhaps not openly indoctrinated in Confucian philosophy any more, are surrounded by a system run entirely according to a Confucian modus operandi, and so it is highly likely that such attitudes will be transmitted at the very least in part.



Another fundamental concept of Confucian thought is that of filial piety and respect for elders. Sung explains that;

In the traditional Confucian notion, the aged are people who must be respected. Filial piety inherently entails a ‘respect-the-old’ ideology.”

Typically, the concept of filial piety in Confucian thinking refers most specifically to the respect a child has for their parents, and the care they show for them. Accompanying this, however, is the idea that similar respect and displays of respect must be shown to all who are elder. Thus we begin to see the reason behind the aforementioned complex seating arrangements in a school staff room, for example. Younger members of staff will demonstrate the required respect by referring to elder members of staff using honourific titles. This pattern is also carried over into the relationships between teachers and pupils. The teachers also expect unquestioning obedience from their students. Within the classroom, the teacher takes on the role of the parent in a two-layer hierarchy, and the students are effectively in the role of children. Pupils are expected to show gratitude to their teachers. Independent discussion and thought around the topic are discouraged, with almost all lessons being conducted by rote learning in Korea (Again, some of you will surely know most this already). This is a distinct contrast to the western approach, and also further amplifies the effects of a Confucian hierarchy within the classroom, whereby the students do only as instructed, viewing the teacher as an infallible figure.

Evidently, the contemporary Korean education system does indeed reflect many traditional Confucian concepts. Of course, Korea has undergone many drastic upheavals and changes since it was officially run as a Confucian state, such as the colonization by Japan, the Korean War, military authoritarian rule, the switch to full democracy and the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Events such as these have had a marked effect on the culture of Korea and on its people. One thing some scholars refer to is that in South Korea now there is a sweeping trend towards materialism and cornucopian trends (OECD, 2000, 48; Chua, 2000, 15).

This is naturally far-removed from the Confucian ideals traditionally held. On the other hand, fashion and other materialistic pursuits are typically followed en masse by young Koreans, perhaps even more so than in some Western nations. This example of the many acting as one within the country is a feature of a Confucian state. It is my view, therefore, that such following of trends en masse is in reality a development of a Confucian element as a result of some of the events in Korea’s modern history, and is not a complete deviation from Confucian traditions.  The OECD states that

higher education merely becomes a tool for socio-economic enhancement.”

That is to say, in contemporary South Korea, the clear love of and desire for education is not always out of respect for education itself, but rather because education is seen as the easiest path to material gain.

There are other examples of traditional Confucian concepts that have also been distorted as a result of the rapid developments in Korean history. In the same way that the aforementioned factor does not fall squarely into the traditional Confucian respect for education, but is rather a distortion of this feature, the authoritarian style of leader within educational institutes also does not always converge precisely with the traditional Confucian ideal leader. J. Lee explains that the traditional Confucian-influenced ruler is one who shows benevolence towards those lower in the hierarchy than themselves, and commands respect by dint of being morally righteous and virtuous.


The Confucian leader must be the most suitable to lead, and do so with compassion, and according to a strict moral code. In this way, it is natural that a leader earns their authority. Leaders within the Korean educational system also command great authority, demand respect, and operate in a highly authoritarian way, whilst also refraining from opening channels of discourse with other staff or students regarding important issues and policy.

The issue here is that contemporary leaders of South Korean educational institutions maintain a Confucian style strict top-down hierarchy and operate in a very authoritarian manner, yet do not always show the benevolence or reciprocated morality that should be required in a traditional Confucian archetypal structure. Clearly this, too, is an example of not a reflection of traditional Confucian concepts, but rather a refraction of them. Moreover, the absolute dominance of rote learning within Korean education now means that there is less time than ever for teachers to encourage positive moral values, something that was traditionally of fundamental importance within Confucian philosophy.

In answer to the titular question, then, it is evident that certain traditional Confucian concepts and values are reflected in the contemporary educational system of South Korea. Prominent among these are a strict hierarchy, seen both in the structuring of the educational system itself and also within each educational institute. As has been seen, this hierarchy is based on the traditional Confucian concepts of the superiority of age and the dominance of men. Devotion to the group to which one belongs is also stressed, as is a certain “educational adoration.” The students do not look to question the actions of their teachers or the subject matter of their classes, compounded by rote learning that submerges more ‘western’ trends towards individual thought and opinion.

These Confucian elements are not only reflected in the contemporary educational system but are in actual fact enforced and encouraged. On the other hand, others are being eroded, replaced or augmented by what may be referred to as ‘western’ or ‘modern’ concepts. It could be said that using education for material gain falls into this category, as the rise in materialistic views in South Korea is often attributed to Westernization (Chua, 2000). The South Korean government also operates a policy whereby all are supposed to have equal and fair access to education. While in practice this has been proven not to be the case – with students studying in certain locations or certain subjects being discriminated when they want to advance into higher education and employment – it is a concept that was not held by the traditional Confucian thinker (Kwak, 2004, 15). In fact, the hagwon, or private tutoring institute, rose to popularity as the general population viewed the traditional Confucian schools as too elitist. So while this is not necessarily an imported western concept, it is also historically not aligned with the traditional Confucian system.

In structural terms, the South Korean education system is based on the American one, although in practice it is more centralized and in correspondence with the traditional Confucian model for any such public ministry or system. The value and role of universities in Korea is also outwardly similar, but in reality somewhat different.

In South Korea, being a university graduate is considered a requisite for a successful life, whereas a more western view would be that anyone can achieve success, despite not attaining at the highest level in all areas – such as standard education. However, study and teaching methods at university in Korea show little difference with those prior to higher education, and this is one of the contributing factors to the relatively low international opinion of Korean universities (Jambor, 2009). Rote learning remains abundant, and little prestige is placed on developing as an individual – both a Confucian and ‘western’ ideal – or on what the student actually does while at university. In the case of South Korea, the achievement is all in attending the ‘right university,’ something which is decided by a single exam at the end of high school. In contrast, western nations tend to place the highest amount of significance on a person’s most recent and highest level qualification – such as a degree. In Korea the examination at the end of high school fulfills this role, with the function of the universities being in name and to more clearly mark out class distinctions.

Looking at this issue as a whole it is incontrovertible that the contemporary Korean educational system reflects some Confucian concepts, but this is to be expected considering that the society as a whole is similarly influenced by Confucianism. What is more useful from an analytical point of view is that other Confucian concepts seem to have been altered slightly in arriving at the modern South Korean system, despite outwardly appearing to be quintessential Confucianism in practice.

An example of this would be the role of leaders of schools, and teachers, whose authority is to be taken unquestioningly, regardless of their moral aptitude for their roles, which was something originally stressed within Confucianism. Another would be a prevailing respect and profound desire for education, yet no longer for education’s sake, but rather for material gain. Finally, some few traditional Confucian concepts, like the cultivation of the self in regards to the student, seem to have disappeared from the Korean educational system entirely, replaced by rote learning and studying to the exclusion of all else until one has completed the university entrance examination. It is my view that certain ‘western’ concepts, such as universal education – primarily a concept of Comenius, often regarded as the founder of modern education – are of great benefit to the Korean educational system, whereas the effect of an increasingly materialistic society on the perceived function of education and the monetary outlay of parents to provide it for their children despite a lack of benefits aside from examination success have a distinctly negative impact.



This list contains all references made in the text. Also, all facts and figures and the like came from these sources below. I know there’s a lot, but it’s really only for anyone wanting to get to the very bottom of this issue.

Bray, Mark (2007), The Shadow Education System: Private Tutoring and its Implications for Planners, UNESCO: International Institute for Educational Planning.

 Chua, Beng Huat (2000), Consumption in Asia: Lifestyles and Identities, Routledge

 Deuchler, Martina (1992), The Confucian transformation of Korea: a study of society and ideology, Harvard University Asia Center.

 Jambor, Paul (2009), “Why South Korean Universities Have Low International Rankings”, Journal of Academic Leadership: The Online Journal 7(1): available at: http://www.academicleadership.org/emprical_research/606.shtml

 Kwak, Byong-Sun (2004), “Struggle against Private Lessons in Korean Education Context”, available at: http://iediis4.ied.edu.hk/pcc2004/F-K/PaperOnPrivateLessons.pdf

 Lee, Jeong-Kyu (2000), “The Administrative Structure and Systems of Korean Higher Education”, OECD Journal of the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education 12(1): 43-51. – I would recommend this as the best source for anyone wanting to get a grasp of the basics of the the Korean education system in practice.

 Lee, Jeong-Kyu (2001), “Confucian Thought Affecting Leadership And Organizational Culture Of Korean Higher Education”, Radical Pedagogy 3(1).

 Lee, Sunhwa & Brinton, Mary C. (1996), “Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea”, Sociology of Education 69(3): 177-192.

 Li, Defeng (1998), “”It’s Always More Difficult Than You Plan and Imagine”: Teachers’ Perceived Difficulties in Introducing the Communicative Approach in South Korea”, TESOL Quarterly 32(4): 677-703.

 Park, Insook Han & Cho, Lee-Jay (1995), “Confucianism and the Korean Family”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies 26: available at: http://www.questia.com/read/5000358792?title=Confucianism%20and%20the%20Korean%20Family

 Republic of Korea Ministry of Education Science and Technology website, available at: http://english.mest.go.kr/

 Robertson, Paul (2002), “The Pervading Influence of Neo- Confucianism on the Korean Education System”, Asian EFL Journal 4(2): available at: http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/june2002.conf.php

 Rozman, Gilbert (2002), “Can Confucianism Survive in an Age of Universalism and Globalization?”, Pacific Affairs 75(1): 11-37.

 Sorensen, Clark W. (1994), “Success and Education in South Korea”, Comparative Education Review 38(1): 10-35.

Sung, Kyu-taik (1995), “Measures and Dimensions of Filial Piety in Korea”, The Gentologist 35(2): 240-247.

Hello, annyŏng – The First Post

Welcome to Asadal Thought, a blog about all that is Korean Studies, by a Korean Studies student. If you would like to know more about the aims of this blog, or about me, please visit my About page –> I would also be very interested to see if any Koreans find their way here, and what they think about what I discuss. I do speak Korean, so please do comment or leave messages!

Unfortunately I’ve been inspired to begin this blog after deliberating for some time during the penultimate week of my penultimate year of my degree. More worryingly, in the final week I’m required to give two presentations, one about the economic implications of reunification of the two Koreas, and one on any topic of my choice related to contemporary Korean society, which is where this post comes in. One thing more contemporary (albeit not exactly academic) than just about anything else is the success in recent times of a crucial figure in South Korea’s history:

Park Ji-sung.

Yes, my first ever post on a blog about Korean Studies themes will be about a footballer.


Since he moved to Manchester United in 2005, Park has become the first Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals, has won three English Premier League titles as of this afternoon, two League Cups, the Club World Cup and the Champions League. But this was of course not the great moment that it should have been. He should have been the first Asian player in history to play in the final of the European cup, let alone win it. But he was left out of the squad for the final, denied the chance for this unprecedented glory. The revelation of the team selection for that match came as a huge shock, considering the part Park had played in the quarter and semi-finals, and it was later revealed that manager Alex Ferguson apologised to Park, saying it was one of the most difficult decisions of his managerial career.

I was living in Seoul at the time, and I remember staying up well into the early hours of the morning to watch the final, and I was as shocked as everyone else seemed to be. It was particularly devastating for Koreans, who had been waiting to see one of their own lift the greatest trophy in club football for the first time. It was supposed to be a moment of immense national pride for Korea, but instead Park had to sit it out in a suit, and watch as his squad-mates went up to lift the trophy.

Koreans seem to act as one when it comes to success on the international stage, whether it be sporting success, business success or even being known for being good at maths. They crave success and they have a marked desire for the rest of the world to notice them. I can recall various instances of Korean friends asking me whether or not British people knew that Park Ji-sung is Korean, and that we didn’t think he Japanese. Same question relating to Samsung. And Hyundai. And do they know about the Korean War? And Ban Ki-Moon?

Korea has spent the last half a century driving for economic success, modernisation and globalisation. They resented being weaker than their neighbours as well as the Western powers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, and so they begun this trend. I think that there is a need for validation of all the work they have put in as a nation, as well as a natural desire to be considered by other countries as powerful and important. Koreans have had this instilled in them from an early age for years. The country’s military triumphs of the past are all well known, as are they great figures from history, their success in business, and they are all sources of great pride for the Korean people. They have received very little recognition, however, for sporting success. When Park Ji-sung moved to Manchester United, one of the top teams in the world, it seemed like this barren spell in the international sporting arena was going to come to a glorious end.

Park is a talented, hard working and very professional football player. Alex Ferguson clearly appreciates him, as do the Manchester United fans. It is foolish to question the selection policy of the most successful manager in English football history, despite what a good season Park had last year. This year, if anything, he has been even better. He shone against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, and even scored a goal today that was wrongly disallowed. He deserves to be named among the squad for the final this year, and it will rightly be a very proud moment for Koreans and for the man himself.

Park has earned the right to be considered a sporting hero in Korea. In my opinion, he is not only very good, and successful, but he is also one of the best sporting role models that Koreans have. The Beijing Olympics provided some new success stories for Korean sportspeople, most notably the baseball team, now ranked 2nd in the world, female weightlifter Jang Mi-ran and swimmer Park Taehwan, all of whom won gold medals. Yet despite their success, none are as prominent in the Korean mind as Park Ji-sung. In my opinion the best way to analyse him as a positive role model is to compare him with Kim Yu-na.

Kim is undoubtedly a fine athlete, having reached the very top of her sport at a very young age. You only have to watch this video to see that:

But for some reason the Korean media constantly demand her to be more than a top sportsperson. She has to be an entertainer, a singer, a dancer, attractive, sexy and clean-cut. Evidently, she is a very good looking young woman, and attractive young women in Korea tend to have their careers and to some extent their lives dominated by that characteristic. The same is happening to Kim, and it is entirely irrelevant to what she does and who she is. She’s marketed through her appearance, and by being something of a jack-of-all-trades on TV shows, see this video:

If only more focus could be placed on her sporting prowess and achievements, and not just the whole isn’t this amazing, a girl who does well at sports and she’s pretty, isn’t she talented! I can’t imagine that all the tv appearances and over-exposure will do her skating career much good, but the Korean media seem more preoccupied with making her fit the template of the Korean star than anything else. I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is; what would have happened to her if she was ugly? Take the weightlifter I mentioned previously, for example, Jang Mi-ran. She lifts in the 75+ kg category, and is not the most conventionally attractive woman. However, she is perhaps even more successful and dominant in her own sport than Kim Yu-na is in hers. If you were to type both their names into Korean Google in Korean, Jang Mi-ran (장미란) comes up with 427,000 results, whereas Kim Yu-na (김연아) produces 13,800,000. Enough said.

A Park Ji-sung search produces slightly less results than Kim Yu-na, at 7,240,000, but this is still considerable. Firstly, because he is not known for his good looks. He is also not marketed in this way. He is not known for any misdemeanors, self-promotion or theatrics. He gets on with his job, performs very well, and comes across as a nice guy, who is always professional. He has spoken of overcoming the difficulties of being a flat footed footballer, and his dedication to training from a young, following his heart, rather than pressure to only focus on study.

As I’m sure James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative would agree, it is a great shame that such a talented woman as Kim Yu-na is becoming almost more renowned for her looks and various other talents (Being good looking might as well be a talent if you listen to some Koreans) rather than for what she is truly good at, and it is disappointing to me that the media continue to portray her this way. I haven’t embedded the video because I think that the comments on YouTube prove that the media has drastically altered her image and what she stands for, and it’s quite sad that they (and she) feel that she should be branded in this way.

Park is exactly the sort of sporting hero Korea needs, and I for one sincerely hope that he will feature in the final later this month.