May 6, 2008 / 12:53 PM / 11 years ago

S.Korean cram school gulag is all books, dreams

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - In a village housing some of South Korea’s smartest test-takers there is no laughter or partying but anxious residents working round the clock for a once-a-year chance to snare their dream career.

A wall is covered with posters of cram schools at "Goshi Village" -- goshi meaning "higher exams" in Korean -- in Seoul May 5, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The 20,000 residents of “Goshi Village” — goshi meaning “higher exams” in Korean — shut themselves off from the rest of Seoul to study for some of the country’s toughest exams in the hopes of becoming a lawyer or a top-tier bureaucrat.

“I want to get out of this place. Everyone does. It’s absolutely miserable,” said Park Yunee, 26, who has been in and out of the village on the outskirts of Seoul for over three years.

“All the people here have forgotten how to smile. I guess you could say it feels like it’s raining even on days with the best weather. Everyone is pale from lack of sun.”

Goshi Village started as the home of a few cram schools for the civil service and bar exams. The country is littered with cram schools, most of which cater to school age children who are known for studying 14 to 16 hours a day to pass entrance exams for prestigious universities.

More cram schools followed and students started to move into the area to minimize commutes and maximize studying, creating an enclave of cram schools, cheap flats, bookstores, and other outlets catering to the students.

Goshi Village students, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are masters of entrance exams who typically have cleared every hurdle to gain entry into the top-level schools. They yearn to pass just one more exam, get a job, and quit cram schools for good.

Students typically live in cramped flats with just enough space for a bed and a desk. Dining halls offer a month’s worth of meals for about $150 where students eat nondescript food.

“Students don’t really talk about themselves. They’re all uptight about studying, so they don’t talk, and we don’t ask,” said an employee at one of the village’s restaurants.


There are three types of citizens in Goshi Village.

Firstly there are those studying for the civil service exam where only one in 46 will succeed this year.

Secondly are those trying to pass the exam for the Foreign Ministry where 35 of some 1,500 will get through.

Thirdly there are student trying to pass the bar exam with only about 1,000 of the more than 23,000 likely to get the required marks.

South Korea, like many Asian nations with a Confucian tradition, has put high importance on academic tests for success.

“Becoming a civil servant was traditionally considered the most important value in the Confucian world, something that is still reflected in this culture,” said Yonsei University sociology professor Kim Ho-ki.

Once a person enters the village, they usually stay for years. In many cases, it is only the fraction of a point that determines success or failure.

“You get the best information, you don’t need to waste time traveling, and it has the atmosphere in which you can focus on your studies,” said Park, who graduated from an elite Seoul university in Seoul and wants to be a diplomat.

Work in government has grown in appeal for younger South Koreans. They see private sector careers as chaotic whereas a government job is stable, prestigious and offers a career path.

The students often rely on money from families or spouses to keep them in books and pay for their tuition at cram schools.

Signboards of cram schools and restaurants are seen at "Goshi Village" -- goshi meaning "higher exams" in Korean -- in Seoul May 5, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“In foreign countries, whether you pass or fail is a private issue. But here, it’s different since your family and everyone around you knows you’re a test-taker,” said Kim.

Park will receive her test results in June and if she passes, she then faces the final round of the foreign ministry exam.

“I just want to make it through this time. There is not a single day in the year that I feel at ease,” said Park.

Editing by Jon Herskovitz

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