Hell Joseon – 헬조선

Suneung - the day that sets the course of the lives of many young Koreans. An almost unbearable pressure to perform in the South Korean education system. How much longer?

11 mins read

Today, banks, stock markets, and almost all stores in South Korea open an hour later than usual. Air traffic is being diverted in the early afternoon, and planes are partially banned from taking off and landing. And the city of Seoul has put around 8,000 additional police personnel on standby for today. Korea is in a state of emergency. Every Thursday, in the 2nd or 3rd week of November, the annual Suneung 수능, an entrance exam for university, takes place. The exam lasts nine hours and includes subjects such as Korean, math, English, Korean history, social studies, and science. This year will decide whether 509,821 Koreans will get a place in one of the most coveted top universities (SKY = Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University). The chances, however, are very modest. Only about 1 percent make it into the elite universities.

A mother accompanies her son to the Suneung test. Support until the last minute. | Photographer Daniel Thomas Faller

The education system is very important in South Korea. More than 87 percent of students attend university after completing compulsory education. If you take a closer look at the Pisa rankings, you will find South Korea in 7th place (OECD, 2018). This is an astonishing achievement considering that over 60 years ago, most of the Korean population could neither read nor write. The pressure to perform begins when children start school. From this point on, the students are prepared for this important day, the Suneung. When educating their offspring, the most important thing for parents in Korea is that their children attend learning studios or are taught by private teachers (hagwons) in addition to regular school hours. Of course, this is very expensive. Parents pay up to USD 1,500 per child per month for their children’s studies. Therefore, it is not uncommon for parents to go into debt for their children. In South Korea, it is firmly believed that only those who have studied at one of the top universities have a chance of getting a well-paid job at one of the big companies, such as Samsung, Hyundai, or LG. But are they happier in the end?

From here on, there is no turning back. The candidates are ready for the nine-hour entrance exam. | Photographer Daniel Thomas Faller
Last check before the examination center – nervousness is visible. | Photographer Daniel Thomas Faller

The Suneung is tightly organized and always follows the same schedule. One month before the exam starts, 300 exam writers 수능 출제자 (high school teachers and university professors) are selected in secret. They then live in a place unknown to the outside world and are thus cut off from the outside world for a month. Agents of the National Intelligence Service cut off all lines of communication. Police officers guard the place. Once the exam papers are prepared, they are then printed in a guarded print company. On Monday of the exam week, the papers are then distributed throughout South Korea to various exam centers. The transport is always accompanied by the police and the material is guarded. Then, at 2 a.m. on the day of the exam, the “secret documents” are distributed to the 1,394 exam sites. The drivers who deliver the exam materials are locked up for a day after their service.

The downside of this tightly organized education system, however, also has its price. It’s no coincidence that South Korea ranks among the top countries in terms of suicide rates.

Daniel Thomas Faller

On Sungeun, students set out early in the morning for their exam sites. For security reasons, they are not told where they will be until the afternoon before the test. So that the roads and buses do not clog up the city in the morning, the working day does not start until an hour later on this day. Should a student still be late, he or she can dial the emergency number 112 or 119. He or she will then be driven to the examination site by the police or fire department with blue lights so that he or she does not miss this important appointment!

All traffic is coordinated so that no one is late for the entrance exam. | Photograher Daniel Thomas Faller

And how do the candidates experience one of the most important days in their lives? How did they feel before and after the exam? I met with three students who took the Sungeun a few years ago.

My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, I grew up that day, but it also makes me very sad that many students think that their lives and future depend only on that exam.

Jihye Park 박지혜

Jihye Park 박지혜 : The night before Suneung, I only slept for about three or four hours. Although I was lucky that my exam site is only three minutes away from where I live, I was worried that I wouldn’t wake up in time in the morning and thus miss the exam. On the day of the exam, like almost everyone else, I was pretty nervous. At that time, I couldn’t really believe that I was old enough to participate in the Seungeun. My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, I grew up this day, but it also makes me very sad that many students think that their life and future depend only on this exam. Seokmun Park 박석문 also had similar experiences: on the eve of the Suneung exam, I explored the place where I was to take the exam. There I “rehearsed” the whole exam in my mind, strengthening my determination to do well. When I think of Suneung, for me it is the result of 12 years of training. Especially in the last three years, I studied from nine to ten at night every day, which was very difficult and stressful. After completing the exam, I felt very liberated.

A difficult walk to the entrance exam, which decides the future. | Photographer Daniel Thomas Faller

Ju hee Yang 양주희 : I took the Suneung exam a total of three times. Many students take the exam again a year later to get an even better score. On the day of the exam, I was very stressed because I had already failed twice and had hardly slept at all. During the preparations, I had to plan every minute exactly. If I sometimes couldn’t keep to my tight schedule, I felt guilty and blamed myself. This was one of the moments when I listened to the healing songs of my online teacher during the lunch break. But after I passed the test the third time, I felt that I had matured. The test was very special to me. I worked hard toward it for several years. This time has left its mark on me.

The despair of not being able to cope with the pressure to perform and the pressure of society is too great.

Daniel Thomas Faller

The South Korean education system is probably unique in its kind. It is, therefore, no coincidence that many young South Koreans describe their attitude to life as the “hell of Korea”. The despair of not being able to cope with the pressure to perform and the pressure of society is too great. High unemployment and the education system are only part of the reason for their discontent.

In our multi-part series on the South Korean education system, we will write more about these topics in the coming months. From pre-school kindergarten to college graduation. What happens to children when they start school? How do they deal with the pressure of leadership and the high expectations of their parents and society? Who are the big winners, who are the losers? The downside of this tightly organized education system, however, also has its price. It is no coincidence that South Korea ranks among the top countries in terms of suicide rates.

Suneung is tightly organized. Only 2 days left until the entrance exam. | Photo by Jeong hee Yoon

Today, many young Koreans have matured again. They will sit tensely in front of the computer or television and study the answers to their exam questions. Then it will become clear whether you will be among the winners or losers of South Korean society in the future…

Part 2 on pre-kindergarten will follow in December 2021.

Daniel Thomas Faller

SEOUL | Korea

Daniel is the founder of Schauplatz Korea Magazine, editor-in-chief and creative director. He is a Swiss native and Korea lover based in Seoul. Daniel is interested in people’s stories and projects and passionate about visual art and photography. And he likes to be seduced by Makgeolli…

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