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South Korea


Korea has long retained a Confucian notion that man is perfectible through education. With the traditional class system's obsolescence, educational attainment has become the principal measure of a person's worth. The government plays a central role in terms of educational policy and research and their implementation, although recent educational reforms have emphasized the need for more autonomy for individual schools or regions. Under democratic ideals, the traditionally neglected population with disabilities has also been getting increased attention from government and society. Koreans have achieved remarkable progress in making education available to all, and the literacy rate quickly reached almost 100 percent. Koreans are among the most educated people of the world.

Having achieved the urgent initial goal of equity in educational opportunities, the Korean government and people have set for themselves a new aim of global competitiveness in the information-oriented twenty-first century. Research and development have been promoted, especially in science and technology, while the gifted and talented in other areas—including the humanities and the fine and performing arts—have also been given special encouragement. Applied research, with close cooperation between academic researchers and industry, as well as basic research, were promoted. Koreans have joined the ranks of the advanced nations in information technology despite the severe financial crisis of 1997 from which Korea has not completely recovered.

International Programs: The rapid ascendance of northeast Asia has given each country of the region a more distinct image. Korea is increasingly regarded as a key area of East Asia both historically and at present. As Korea's international visibility has increased, Korean studies has emerged as an academic field. Foreigners traveling to study in Korea have mushroomed. In 1971, 7,632 students from 42 foreign countries studied in Korea; by 1999, there were 154,219 from 71 countries. Of these 96,778 were from North America, 36,552 from other Asia-Pacific countries, 20,577 from Europe, 174 from South America, and 138 from Africa (MOE).

The government has also provided scholarships for foreign students and overseas Koreans to study in Korea for advanced degrees or to attend a short term language and culture study tour program. It also affords various conveniences to foreigners engaged in education and research activities in Korea. Between 1977 and 1999, a total of 607 foreign students studied in Korea under Korean government scholarships.

The Fulbright grant program in Korea began in 1950, and the bilateral Korean-American Educational Commission (KAEC) was established in 1963. It is the only program funded and sponsored by both the Korean and U.S. governments. Fulbright grants support the exchange of more than 100 students, researchers, and teachers annually. The U.S. Education Center informs Korean students and scholars of educational opportunities in the United States. It also provides various official testing services to students who want to study abroad and helps U.S. institutions seeking to meet students or learn about institutions in Korea.

A fairly new international exchange program involves youth. In 1988, during the Korea-Japan summit conference, a Korea-Japan youth exchange agreement was signed. A Korea-America youth exchange agreement was signed in 1993 during a summit meeting between the Korean and U.S. presidents in the United States, as proposed by the governor of California.

Korea and Japan have exchanged 150 university students and teachers annually since 1990. From 1999, other Korean university and secondary school students were sent to Japanese universities of engineering. Four hundred seventy secondary students were to be sent to Japan each year over a decade. One hundred university students were sent to Japanese universities of engineering in 1999, and the number was to be increased annually until reaching 1,000 in 2010. To promote better understanding and goodwill between Koreans and African-Americans, the Korean government has invited 50 to 70 African-American students annually since 1994 for 4-week programs on Korean culture and society. Korea-Japan exchange students are responsible for their own airfares, while the host country provides room and board and their programs of study. The Korean government has provided all expenses for the African-America students. Between 1990 and 1996, some 1,042 Korean students went to Japan on this program, while 1,101 Japanese students have gone to Korea. Fifty-three African-American students were invited into this program in 1994, 68 in 1995, 40 in 1996, 36 in 1997, and 31 in 1998 (MOE).

Korean studies has emerged as a new, steadily developing academic field of study abroad. As of 1996, some 100 institutions of higher learning in the United States offered Korean-language programs as part of their regular academic curriculum (Sohn 70).

Heritage Education: To help overseas Koreans—emigrants, dependents of diplomats, and other short term foreign residents—cultivate a sense of identity and learn about their cultural roots, the Korean government established "Korean Schools," where Korean language, culture, and history are taught. As of 2000, there were 23 Korean Schools in 14 countries with more than 5,000 students taught by 660 teachers. In addition to these schools, there are various "Saturday schools" often called han'gûl schools (Korean Language Schools), which are established mostly by independent volunteer groups including religious organizations. As of 2000, there were 1,664 Saturday schools in 95 countries with 96,784 students taught by 10,531 teachers (KEDI 2000).

The National Institute for International Education Development (NIIED), originally established as part of the Seoul National University Korean Heritage Education Center in March 1962, came under the jurisdiction of the MOE by presidential decree in 1992. NIIED's many programs support international exchanges, including scholarships for students from newly developing countries. As of 2000, approximately 85 percent of overseas Koreans who study the Korean language with NIIED's 9 month program are given scholarships. Of students taking a 3 month language program, 60 percent receive scholarships. As of 2001, overseas Koreans from Japan, China, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Russia, Kazakstan, Germany, Bolivia, Suriname, Denmark, Chile, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and Ecuador have taken this course. NIIED also provides language programs for Koreans living abroad and foreigners studying Korean on the Internet, called "Kosnet."

Needs for Changes—Future: Koreans, both intellectual leaders and ordinary citizens, have shown disparate reactions to the ambitious scope and dizzying speed of recent educational reforms. The current debate centers on the theme of equity versus the need for elite education for national competitiveness, which has created a new ruling class. Some extreme measures were taken to eliminate elite education by abolishing the severely stratified secondary school structure. Students competed fiercely to get into top-ranked schools, whose admission depended uniquely on entrance examinations. Now that education has become egalitarian, some have fretted about the lack of elite education; there have been only limited attempts to address this perception. While the former elite education through select high schools emphasized general liberal arts training, the new elite education seems to be bent on highly specialized skill acquisition, although interdisciplinary work seems to be encouraged to some extent. Many also fear that, outside the few select schools and programs, the general school system will suffer from low morale among both teachers and students, reduced funds, and a general drop in quality in those institutions not chosen for such privileges.

The eager Korean government has been listening to proposals for education reforms from both domestic and international sources. Some frequently discussed suggestions concern decentralization of higher educational institutions, school autonomy, escape from exam-oriented education, the need for educating the whole person, and promoting creative thinking in education, as well as the need for practical education that includes technological savoir-faire for global competitiveness. All these issues seem, in fact, related, and various attempts at meeting the current challenges seem reasonable.

However, the Korean education system suffers from a thorny structural problem—the excessive weight it carries in Korean society. Extreme reliance on educational attainment as the sole or primary criterion of a person's worth must be repudiated. Next, education reformers must consider measures for promoting a new standard of personal qualifications. As long as there is no major change in perception, children growing up in such an atmosphere cannot avoid concentrating on means of getting themselves to the next distinguished diplomas and certifications. Abolishing the examinations altogether does not seem to be a solution either. In such a competitive environment, if the admission process were completely based on overall records, recommendation letters, and personal essays, then the possibility of subjective assessment and the lack of safeguards against corruption could be major threats to fair evaluation.

Promoting creative thinking is, of course, crucial and frequently presented as a problem in Korean education. Traditional thinking in Korea, as was often the case in most traditional liberal studies, emphasized "achievement" of creativity based on instilling the basics with a heavy reliance on the classics. The mantra of "creativity" should not be misunderstood as eliminating the rigor and formal nature of Korean educational tradition, which some Western educators envy. Often Korean educational methods have been accused of depending mainly on rote memory, but it is crucial for Koreans not to abandon these methods altogether, just because some learning appears to be less than a creative activity.

The new trend for specialization at a precollege level may be viewed as early preparation for expertise. However, broad and balanced curricula at all levels of primary and secondary schools are desirable to provide solid, basic education at formative ages and, more important, to make it possible for students to find their own talents and preferences, rather than choosing a field by its reputation or some other perception.

One of the crucial problems has to do with dispiritedness among teachers with their class sizes, workloads and, worst of all, examination-oriented schooling. Teacher morale should be restored by strengthening professional preparation and by offering teachers better working conditions, which are commensurate with traditional respect for teachers. In-service training should be provided and innovative teaching materials and methods encouraged and rewarded. Teachers' unions, which have recently become officially recognized, will contribute to ameliorating the situation.

Despite a huge improvement in the higher education gender gap, women still tend to concentrate in traditionally female fields. Girls from poor families tend to be forced into vocational schools, which is much less true for boys from the same economic milieu. Political and economic leadership positions are still dominated by men. Express measures to help change the mentality of the society in this regard are needed.

Koreans bear a tremendous financial burden for their education. However, a significant proportion of that goes to private education (kwaoe), which is money not being contributed to the overall national educational developmental. One way of overcoming this waste might be to institute school-based initiatives for private education, so that some of the financial investment now going to kwaoe could be put towards improving school facilities, among other uses.

Current reforms, including educational reform, aim at granting maximum autonomy to local governments and schools. However, the involvement of the central government in setting general standards in education policy, curriculum, and implementation is not necessarily bad. What is highly desirable, though, is that actual educators play a key role as both advisers and participants in planning and as part of an evaluation mechanism.

Finally, to correct structural problems, it will be necessary to institute some kind of affirmative action for those whose excellence is apparent without their necessarily having obtained advanced degrees. In a very un-Korean way, leadership positions might be filled based, not on educational attainment, but on other general criteria, such as experience, community service, innovative openness of mind, and a person's well-rounded character.


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—Young-Key Kim-Renaud

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