Military discipline for "soldiers" on Korea exam's front line

Mon Nov 5, 2012 2:43am EST
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By Ju-min Park and Jane Chung

GWANGJU (Reuters) - Conversations between men and women are forbidden at the school on the outskirts of Seoul, where security cameras watch the students' every move. There is no access to television, the Internet, mobile phones or MP3 players.

Welcome to the monastic life of a boarding school for students dedicated to spending nine months preparing to retake South Korea's college entrance exams, in the hopes of a place at the best college and a job for life at a top corporation.

"During study hours it's difficult to go to the bathroom even if I want to. Waking up early in the morning is also hard," said Um Hee-joon, 20, over a spartan lunch of pork cutlet.

This year, the life-defining tests are on November 8.

South Korea's exam hell is an annual event so full of pressure that many students are driven to despair, with some even taking their own lives. More than 50 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 19 who are suicidal have given "academic performance and college entrance" as a reason, says the national Statistics Korea.

Pity even more the hundreds of thousands of students, around 20 percent of the total, who take the exams twice or more. They aren't delinquents, but simply failed to meet their own or their parents' expectations the first time around and are living through another year of hell.

Some 140,000 of the test takers signed up for this year's entrance exam on Thursday, 21 percent of the total, have already graduated from high school, according to government data.

But in some Seoul districts where middle-class parents drive their offspring even harder, such graduates account for more than 50 percent of test takers, education experts say.   Continued...

A student retaking the college entrance exams this year attends class at Deung Yong Moon Boarding School in Kwangju, some 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Seoul October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji