I once referred to the 7 sins as a way to categories countries, as a bit of a joke.  I used Greed and Gluttony to describe U.SA., Pride and Sloth for Europe, But I used Envy for Korea.

Before I continue, I would like you to read following articles in succession.


Class Struggle

The Logic of Stupid Poor people

If you ever have the chance, I would also recommend reading Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton.

When you have read all of that, you will understand that the third article explains the education problem in Korea far better than the two articles before that.  It also explains why the problem is so tenacious.

The heavy undercurrent of Envy and Insecurity running deep within the culture of South Korea has a historical background.  About ten years ago I happened to be walking in a museum and saw a display of a procession.  I inquired about the meaning of it, and the explanation was that a young man had passed the state exam and came back to his hometown as a bureaucrat.  He would have the whole town under his administration.  Already in the history of Korea Education meant Social Mobility.

Another event, at around the same period, indicated the importance of Social Status.  I fell sick and I wanted to go to the hospital.  Everyone dressed up as if we were going to a party.  I was a bit miffed.  I was explained that in the past the parents had to go to emergency and were dressed in their pajama’s.  They hardly got any service, and their general treatment was very bad. Since then, they would always dress up and show off their wealth before going to the hospital.

This is South Korea.  People are treated according to their show of wealth.  This is why the pressure of parents on their children to become financially successful is so tough.  This is why Exams in Korea are so important.  This is why a top score on the test is better than actually acquiring the required skills to perform the job.  This is why people live on the sharp edge of their spending capacity, to eek out every little advantage they can.  This is why suicide rate is so high.  etc …..

We often think “why do Korean hagwons do what is obviously not beneficial for the kids or the country?”.  It’s because we are looking at the wrong benefit.  The goal in life of every parent is to give their children the best chance in life.  In Korea it means showing people that you are better through status symbols and perfect exam scores.

I think it will take at least another generation before this fundamental problem is resolved.  When Koreans will increase their confidence in their own abilities and feel comfortable with their achievements.

One more issue is that Koreans don’t trust their government.  Which is a healthy attitude … but in Korea it is founded in the experience that, up until now, every single president, and practically all politicians have had their careers smeared with corruption (white border crimes).  They believe that the government is trying to perpetuate the existing inequality in favor of their own offspring.  That the hagwon industry is the only way for middle class people to break through the limitations of the perceived low quality in public education.  They see wads of cash being wasted on stupid populist projects with very little to show for.  They see tax rates go up, with very little in return.  One of the reasons why President Park won is because the youth have become detached from political life and didn’t even bother to vote.  Whereas the older generation still holds on to their hard won freedom and democracy and voted for what they understood.

Change comes from younger generations committing themselves to make a better place for themselves.  At the moment, I see very few of them having any interest in politics.  They are so immersed in getting the perfect score that the rest of the world doesn’t matter anymore.