Ken May

Dong chims and dried squid

Changes in Korean education

The classroom reeked of rotten fish. Mischievous children scampered under the table to chew on dried squid. My arms waved toward them in a flurry to whirl them out from their hiding place. Meanwhile, a young rascal clutched at my new tie with the syrupy fingers of melted candy. A second urchin climbed on my back for a pony ride, and a third swiped marker pens from my pocket so that she could draw human droppings on the whiteboard. The rest of the class frolicked around the room, either fighting with simulated Tae Kwon Do kicks or gambling by noisily slapping plastic Maple Stories figurines on the floor – the winner of the game took the other player’s toys. Needles to say, I was rather distracted.

It was a classic Hagwan moment. It was a time to wonder why I ever left my Thai college in the first place, and to yearn for the joyful ability to converse with adult students. As I bent over, pawing at children’s feet to pull them out from under the table, I overheard a child’s voice snickering from behind me. Glimpsing, from that special teacher’s eye that is located in the back of my head, I spied the prank that the little minx was planning. His hands were poised in the Thai Wai position, hands and palms pressed together at chin level, but the intended gesture wasn’t one of respect and reverence. The impish devil was positioning himself for an infamous dong chim strike. “Dong chim” is a Korean phrase that refers to splitting something apart by stabbing. The desired target of this childish prank is the underside of a vulnerable victim’s rear end. In other words, a dong chim strike attempts to part buttocks like the Biblical Red Sea. There was one split second to respond before the demented little bugger’s hands shot at me – action and reaction – my nemesis and I made our best move …..

Education in Korea has rapidly changed in recent years. Up until the end of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) Korean education was heavily influenced by Chinese practice. Only a few privileged children were allowed to enter elementary school to study Confucianism, Chinese language, and literature. At age 15-16 elitist students attended secondary school. Graduation entitled them to sit for a crucial lower level civil service examination. The final test score determined the future life and vocation of the student. The highest grade allowed one to sit for an enrollment exam at the prestigious Songgyun’gwan National University. The next tiers were accepted at four lower level colleges located in Seoul (haktang), district institutions (hyanggyo), or at local village schools known as sodangs. Educational rights were reserved for a hereditary aristocracy known as the yangban. Women were not allowed to attend school although some were privately taught at home by family members. Lower classes were, for the most part, denied education. A rare few were allowed training in technical fields and foreign languages – which the yangban viewed as beneath them. Some lower classes were also admitted into the military if they could prove their skills. Those not belonging to the aristocracy formed a small but emerging middle class known as Chungin. The classroom facilities were minimal: students sat on the floor obediently while they were sternly lectured by a teacher. Education involved memorization of manuscripts with little opportunity for creative thought. Discipline was strict and physical punishment common.

A small educational renaissance, known as Silhak, reluctantly spread across Korean which stressed practical learning instead of the staunch teaching style of Confucianism. However, more significantly, western nations successfully pressured their way into to Korea. In 1882, Korea signed its first diplomatic treaty with the United States. Soon afterward, western missionaries filtered into the isolated Hermit Kingdom. A modern school was established in Wonsan in 1883, two missionary schools for boys were created in 1885 by American religious zealots, and the first girls school was developed in 1886 by an American female missionary – later to evolve into the highly regarded Ewha University. These schools brought Christianity to the Korean population, and for the first time commoners and women were allowed access to education.

The intervention of westerners disrupted Korean social order. Confucian ideals stressed the importance of gender separation and class differences, but as Christianity took root old customs were placed into question. The hereditary privileges of the yangban class were threatened. Suddenly, education was provided by religious missionaries and western trade created wealth among commoners. There were many attempts by Korean elites to restrict the spread of Christianity and to halt merchant activity by foreign nations. Korea tried to maintain its isolationist policy. The endeavor to protect its traditional lifestyle was bound to fail. In the same period the British aggressively moved toward China, Russians crept beyond Korea’s northern border, and the French and Americans competed for influence within the country. Korea was thrust against its will into the modern age. The Yi dynasty would finally come to its end, along with the former educational system, after Japan invaded and occupied Korea.

Japan formally annexed Korea by treaty in 1910 and independence would not come until 1945. In the meantime, colonial Japan threw out the old examination system, shifted study topics away from Confucianism, and disregarded old class distinctions. Japan controlled all newspapers, arrested pro-Korean teachers, and shut down schools. Education became a tool to spread propaganda and surpass Korean nationalism. Misbehavior in a classroom was punished severely. The goal was to produce loyal and obedient subjects. Many Koreans refused to learn the Japanese language as a form of passive resistance, but the reality was that the old elitist education system that favored the yangban class had come to an end. In 1919, a Japanese Governor-General, Saito Makoto, arrived in Seoul to pursue reforms. He planned to increase the number of primary and secondary schools in Korea, as well as make schools more accessible to girls. On arrival Korean nationalists (and religious leaders) tried to assassinate him at the Seoul rail station. Undaunted, Saito Makoto established the new Education Ordinance in 1920 which allowed the reopening of several colleges. Under his jurisdiction the number of students greatly increased, both male and female, and a few private schools were permitted. However, college enrollment still favored Japanese students and restricted Korean access to those most loyal to the colonists. Japan ruled Korea ruthlessly and this fact remains a source of resentment, but one indirect outcome of colonization was that education became available to commoners from both genders. The academic genie was out of the bottle, the fire of knowledge had been stolen, and Pandora bust open the jar that encased education.

After independence was won Korea enacted the Education law in 1949 to make elementary level education compulsory for children aged 6-11. Provincial universities were established. However, the Korean War (1950-1953) abruptly put an end to this progress. Korea was partitioned into two halves at its 38th parallel. In the north all private schools were abolished and education became a means to train youth in communist ideology. South Korea established its educational system after the United States – which contributed large funds for development. In 1968, the Charter for National Education defined the following three goals: 1) to construct a spiritual base to regenerate the nation; 2) to create a new image of Korean people; and 3) to promote knowledge of national history. In the 1970s, South Koreans adopted a standard school uniform that was comprised of a beanie cap, a blue vest, white shirt, blue short pants, and white ankle socks. Nearly all students had began to attend secondary school, as resources were developed, and private schools became commonplace. A system of examinations was reinstalled, so family expenditure on private cram schools rapidly increased to improve a child’s placement into better schools. The precursor to the modern Korean-style hagwon was born.

In 1980, the military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988), took office in a bloody coup after President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the director of the Korean CIA. The military leader made drastic alterations to the Korean constitution, which angered university students (who hold a solid tradition of political protest) and an organized rebellion burst out in Kwangju. The Chun Doo-hwan administration promptly massacred up to 2,000 student who demonstrated for democratic reforms. The troops used to pulverize the Kwangju rebellion were under the command of General Rho Tae-woo (who eventually replaced Chun Doo-hwan as president). One democratic rights leader, Kim Dae-jung, was sentenced to death for his role in the uprising. Chun Doo-hwan next turned against the private learning schools. He believed that he would build popular support for his coup-inspired government, if he appealed to the commoners who complained that hagwons were only affordable for affluent families.

Chun Doo-hwan outlawed cramming schools and private tuition. Students could get dismissed from a school if they hired a private tutor, and teachers could get fired or arrested if they taught pupils on the side. Even some foreign nationals were expunged from South Korea for the crime of private teaching. Exactly one century after westerners first opened private schools in Korea, their modern counterparts were pressured into shutting down. Despite these Draconian measures the anti-hagwon policy was bound to fail. The illegal nature of private schools actually drove up the price of risky private lessons so that only the rich could afford them. Public pressure made government officials cave in, and by 1989 the private schools were re-approved. Hagwons were back on the table after one decade of “official” absence. Both Chun Doo-hwan and Rho Tae-woo were eventually indicted for corruption charges in the mid-1990s and sentenced to imprisonment. Ironically, they were pardoned in a mood for reconciliation by President Kim Dae-jung – the former democratic leader who had once been sentenced to death by these military dictatorships.

The 1990s was a new era of democracy and unity. Hagwans began to prosper as students struggled to achieve high marks on a crucial high school examination. The future life and vocation of a student is determined by the final score. Pressure is so great that suicide is commonplace among those sitting for exam. Local folklore dictates that this crucial examination always occurs on the coldest day of the year. Parents often enroll children into private schools at a young age to get a head start. These private learning schools prepare students for a curriculum of math, social science, Korean language, Chinese calligraphy, and English (the later is now taught in government schools from grade three). The globalization of the English language made it important to demonstrate English skills on the exam. The dilemma is that the English portion of the test is in multiple choice questions, so Koreans are less focused on speaking and writing skills. Students are trained in test taking rather than practical English for practical communication. Thus, a great demand was created to bring foreign nationals into the former Hermit Kingdom for teaching. The 1990s became the great boom period for private learning schools in South Korea.

It is often argued that only affluent families can afford hagwon tuition, so economic class is still an dividing variable, but even middle class families are willing to make the financial sacrifice to benefit their child’s future. Perhaps the greatest change in education is the mass enrollment of females. A large percentage of hagwon students are girls. Likewise, high schools are available to all women, although gender segregation is still normal practice. The majority of high schools separate girls from boys. For both genders uniforms are standard apparel. Luckily, the beanie caps have been discarded and student wear is much more – well – rewarding to the eye. The literacy rate in South Korea is now at 98%, which is one of the highest in the industrialized world. Private learning schools became an intrinsic component of Korean culture and family life. By 2003, it was estimated that there were nearly 25,000 hagwons in Korea – and this statistic doesn’t even include the non-official schools, home teaching, or the private tutors that abound.

The surging population of western teachers in South Korea have an impact on education. We make a difference in the lives of students. English adds a global perspective for Korean youth. The ungrateful kids are lucky to have this opportunity to study at a hagwon considering Korea’s problematic history. Still, as an experienced teacher I know better than to trust a young student that is laughing while crouched behind me. As I bent over, I gleamed the smiling Korean ragamuffin in position for a dong chim strike, and I thought about my contributions to Korean education.

… I made my move. I whipped around with one hand and clutched at his fingers in mid-strike. I slowly bent his tiny phalanges to the side so that the student rolled onto his back on the ground. I silently paused for dramatic effect. While the amused children watched in anticipation, I rolled up a worn copy of the Let’s Go text book series and lightly smacked him across the head like he was a naughty puppy. The class burst out laughing, which made the mischievous child start to cry. With this action, I tricked the young whippersnappers into crawling out from under the table to enjoy the show. While they were preoccupied with laughter I snatched the squid from their hands quicker than the strike of a cobra. I lectured the stunned youth, “If you don’t do your work book, you will never see your squid again”. To prove that I meant business, I tossed one skinny tentacle into my mouth. As I tantalized them by slowly chewing the dried flesh I taunted, “Your squid in mine. Now open your books”. The next sound was a flutter of flipping pages and the pattering of palms to pencils. The golden silence that followed was only broken by the sound of students speaking in English syntax.


A most enjoyable and enlightening story. Well written. Thank you.

By Ray Phoenix, California (10th April 2019)

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