Commentary

You’ll Never Guess What South Korea Frowns Upon

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
Washington Post on May 28, 2000. Copyright 2000, The Washington Post Co.>
Although I generally consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen, I don’t mind admitting that I engaged in illegal work in South Korea for the better part of six years. My clients were more than willing to pay under the table for the illicit services I provided. And, for the right price, I was more than happy to render that service: teaching their children English.

I was one of the lucky ones who managed to evade the investigators often referred to as the “language police.” During the ’90s, when I was teaching in South Korea, its government made a stand against teachers engaged in private tutoring, expelling many non-Koreans. Those teachers had become caught up in a battle over the high value Koreans place on education and the equally potent cultural force of egalitarianism.

It’s not only foreigners teaching English who have come under attack. For 20 years South Korea’s government has been waging war on any education that occurs outside the public school system. The government has investigated and fined parents and teachers—and even jailed a few. And in 1998, the president of prestigious Seoul National University resigned his post after it was revealed that his wife had arranged private tutoring in a wide range of subjects for their daughter’s university entrance exam.

A far cry from the widespread support for after-school tutoring and summer courses that many American parents schedule for their kids, that Draconian approach was the brainchild of Korea’s military leader, Chun Doo Hwan, who took power in 1980 and almost immediately banned private teaching (known as kwawoe). Chun’s goals were to equalize educational opportunities for the poor and to relieve parents of the burden of paying for education. The ban lived on until last month, when the Constitutional Court, Korea’s highest court, ruled that it is unconstitutional because it “infringes upon the basic rights of the people to educate their children.”

But the forces against kwawoe aren’t giving up just yet. The government is promising to punish anyone who charges too much for private education—although it has never made clear how much is too much. The Korean Ministry of Education, local tax offices, local police agencies and policymakers have vowed to renew the practice of releasing the names of teachers and professors who engage in expensive tutoring, and to redouble their efforts to audit the taxes of wealthy parents. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung himself recently ordered the Ministry of Education to “work cooperatively with agencies such as the National Tax Office to trace the finances of anyone who is overcharging for private tutoring. It should also look into possible tax evasion or failure to accurately report income.”

I started teaching in South Korea in early 1993. During my six years there I taught full-time at two universities and at the training centers of two companies. On the side, I also tutored numerous students, children and adults. My favorite class was with a group of about 30 junior high school students who attended a language institute in Kuro-kongdan, in the southeastern part of Seoul. The classroom was cramped, barely large enough for a dozen students. But the parents made it clear that they wanted the students to be there, regardless of the setting. And, after a long day of studying, the students were still eager to “play English” with me for more than an hour in the evening. I knew I was putting myself at risk every time they paid me (a little more than $100 in cash, in an envelope, for the whole class). And I knew that I had done a good job when the parents stopped by, as they often did, to give me extra money or food.

The parents made it clear to me how important they believed it was for their children to become proficient in English. And I’m sure they expressed similarly strong feelings to the Korean tutors who reinforced their children’s math, science, history and music skills. Education wasn’t for its own sake, one of my neighbors told me. He wanted to be sure that his son, who then was in elementary school, could get into a good college and get a good job.

Although this drive to get ahead shapes the lives of schoolchildren, egalitarianism runs more deeply in Korean society than most Americans understand. Korean friends of mine told me, for example, that when they attended school in the ’70s and ’80s, students were not allowed to bring “pure” rice in their lunch boxes. They had to mix the rice with a cheaper variety because some kids could not afford quality rice. Teachers would open lunch boxes to check and punish students who brought the incriminating rice.

In addition, kids wearing expensive clothing were singled out and publicly scolded in the classroom. The reason, my friends told me, is that the teachers didn’t want the poorer kids to feel bad. That same impulse probably explains the harsh criticism I used to hear being leveled at teenagers driving around in fancy cars.

These conflicting forces collide in the evolving debate over kwawoe. The Korean government has occasionally relaxed its grip on the practice over the years. In 1989, private tutoring by college students became permissible.

Middle and high school students also were permitted to take extracurricular courses at authorized private educational institutions (hagwon in Korean), beginning in 1991. In 1996, when the government decided to allow private tutoring by Korean graduate students, though, it also announced a crackdown that resulted in numerous English-speaking “cowboy” and “backpack” tutors being kicked out of the country. Despite the new court ruling, the government clearly remains uncomfortable with the idea of private schooling.

The two reasons President Kim gave for his continued dislike of kwawoe echo those of Chun: “The lower-income classes will feel unable to cope with this, and parents will bear larger economic burdens.” And while many Korean parents complain about the amount they spend on private education, they also compete fiercely to find good private tutors for their children. One woman caught working part-time as a prostitute a few years ago reportedly told the police that she needed the extra money to pay for private classes for her children. A parent told me that she couldn’t pull her children out of private classes because she knew other parents would not do so.

The spending frenzy on kwawoe started in the 1970s—during Korea’s economic boom—and immediately led to conflicts between the kwawoe-haves and the kwawoe-have-nots. In 1996, Korean parents spent $25 billion on private education—50 percent more than the government’s education budget. A Korean family today typically spends 15 to 30 percent of its budget on private education.

Korean parents are prepared to invest this sort of money because they are just as unhappy with their school systems as Americans are with their own. Despite Korean students’ high scores on international tests, some parents say the Ministry of Education changes its policies too often; others argue that students lack the ability to think creatively because of the emphasis on testing and rote memorization; and many feel that the children’s 18-hour days are simply too long. Every year students across Asia prepare for “exam hell”—the annual one-day entrance exam in November that determines which students will enter the elite colleges. Students are told from a young age: Sleep five hours, fail. Sleep four hours, pass. Suicides and nervous breakdowns increase just before and after the exam.

Like water running down a hill, past every obstacle in its path, Korean parents have maneuvered around the law for two decades. Now that the ban on private schooling has been lifted, they will probably seek out private education with renewed enthusiasm, even though the Korean government still seems determined to limit the practice. According to the Korea Herald, one of two large English-language daily papers, research conducted in 1980 found that 13 percent of elementary school students, 15 percent of middle school students and 26 percent of high school students took private lessons. By 1997, the percentage of students taking private lessons had increased to 70 percent in the elementary schools and 50 percent in the middle and high schools.

In a country where education is so highly valued, it was inevitable that the laws against kwawoe would be about as effective as 55-mph speed limits on American highways. The new relaxation of the laws has prompted some rethinking. “The fear is that some families may choose to pull their kids out of the public education system altogether,” D. Peter Kim, a reporter with the Korea-based Yonhap News Agency told me, “and just hire tutors to prepare them for college, given the many problems of the public education system. Thus the very legitimacy of Korean public education may fall into question.”

Many parents say they would be willing to pay for better public education, but instead they vote with their checkbooks in the private market. “I would pay higher taxes if the government comes up with ways to improve public education,” says Chin Sun-Mi, who sent her 15-year-old daughter to England to study. “It costs just as much to put them through hagwon and arrange private lessons, and there is much less psychological stress on the child.”

Korean parents are so unimpressed with the education their country has to offer that many of the nation’s most able youngsters have been abandoning the system and the country. According to the Ministry of Education, more than 150,000 Koreans studied abroad in 1998, including 10,738 elementary and secondary school students. The ministry estimates that the latter number exceeded 12,000 in 1999, many of whom are in the United States.

Unhappy with what the government is providing for them, Korean parents have been taking matters into their own hands—and they will surely continue to do so. The result is that the Korean government is at odds with its own citizens, trying to educate its students while balancing inequalities, attempting to save public education while stamping out any perceived threats to it. The Constitutional Court got it right: The law did infringe “upon the basic rights of parents to educate their children.” But the government’s new approach is equally troubling. By putting the burden on parents to avoid tutoring that is “expensive,” the government is asking parents to tie their own hands—and to handicap their children’s educational opportunities in the process.

Casey Lartigue, who is now at the Cato Institute, returned from teaching in South Korea two years ago.