South Korean Hagwons and their success in international competitions

By Jongyeop Jeong, 12th Grade

This past June, 18-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim received the gold medal of the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, becoming the youngest musician in the tournament’s 60-year history to ever win first place. In the final stage, Lim performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30. His latter performance, which was described as exhilarating, received a thunderous ovation from the audience. The legendary conductor Marin Alsop, who was the jury chair of the competition, teary-eyed after the contest commented, “What a joy to be part of this inspiring and compelling performance. Yunchan is that rare artist who brings profound musicality and prodigious technique organically together. The fact that he is only 18 years old is truly awe-inspiring and gives me great hope for the future.”

Yunchan Lim performing at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition with conductor Marin Alsop

This is not the only time a Korean classical performer experienced such global attention. Among other world-renowned performers, there is Jae Hong Park, winner of the 63rd Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition (2021); Seong-jin Cho, winner of the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition; Ji Young Lim, winner of the Queen Elisabeth Violin 2015 competition. In an analysis that counted the total number of prize winners in the world’s top three classical competitions –Chopin, Queen Elizabeth, and Tchaikovsky– for the last 20 years, South Korea was found to be the second country with the highest number of participants who won a medal–36 in total. This is an extraordinary result when comparing South Korea’s brief classical history to that of Europe. 

Does this wave of triumph end with musical achievements? South Korean students have also brought remarkable results in international math competitions. During the 61st and 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), the Republic of Korea had the fourth and third-highest total scores, respectively. In the 63rd IMO, which was held this year in Norway, South Korea had the second-highest total score, with 3 out of 6 students having a perfect score of 42, winning three gold medals. Following this trend, we cannot ignore the possibility of Korea obtaining the highest score in the following IMO.

Korean students at the 62nd IMO

What is causing South Korea to obtain such brilliant outcomes in international competitions? How has a country whose voice was so trivial a few decades ago, with one of the poorest living conditions after the Korean War, gone through exponential economic growth and currently stands as one of the countries with the most meticulous technological maneuverability? Reasons such as their hardworking nature are mere misinterpretations of a cause-and-effect relationship. Those arguments are equivalent to saying that Europeans were able to prevail over African Americans due to the incomparable intellectual difference between the two races –which is preposterous because it lacks the explanation behind what made the Europeans “smarter.” Stating that “since they were smart, they won” is a circular argument that is absolutely nonsensical.

Considering this, we need to find what exactly made Koreans hardworking. I believe that the fundamental reason behind the modern achievements of South Korea lies in the citizen’s perspective on education. Naturally, this would shape the foundation of the nation’s education system, which is significantly influenced by Hagwons. There are three main historical factors that had significant contributions to the current education system of Korea:

  • The introduction of public education during the Japanese colonial era
  • The chaotic society after the Korean War
  • The education policy during the Park Chung-hee administration

Before diving into these, it would be helpful to learn about the education system in Joseon (1392-1897), the last dynastic kingdom of Korea. 

The concept of public education was unclear during the Joseon Dynasty. The national government office (Gwana) operated provincial schools known as Hyanggyo, but they were destined for elites, as were other educational institutions. Seodang was the only educational organization that had the most resemblance to public education; these were village schools in charge of elementary education that received government subsidies. Nevertheless, it was the norm for residents to pay separately for their schools, and there was severe gender discrimination, with the majority of girls being denied the opportunity to even attend. Due to this problem, people believed that there should be an increase in budget support for Seodang to promote compulsory education, but it didn’t happen due to the financial situation of Joseon at that time, and national public education remained an unachieved dream.

Seodang by Kim Hongdo. A Drawing from Danwon pungsokdo cheop.

Things started to shift when Japan conquered Korea in the early 20th century. Japan, as one of the most dominant empires of that era, had already developed its own public education system during the Meiji Restoration. The empire replaced the whole education system so that it resembled that of Japan. Seodangs were removed to build So-Haggyo (elementary schools that come from foreign countries), and the public education system officially became part of Joseon. However, Japan’s intention of bringing their system to Joseon was not to enhance their advancement; instead, they needed smarter slaves to work for exploitation. Consequently, Joseon’s public education system lacked many qualities compared to the invader’s homeland; advanced contents were omitted, and students’ human rights were not considered at all. Since Japan’s final objective was the incorporation of Joseon into the Empire of Japan, the school’s main job was to brainwash Korean youths about the loyalty that one must hold under the empire.

A picture of graduates of a So-Haggyo under the Japanese Empire

Nonetheless, since this type of education system never became compulsory, the attendance rate at school remained low. The media naturally promoted the literacy movement to increase this, but the fact that the campaign was not nationwide made it a difficult task. It was only at the end of the Japanese colonial era that the number of students started to rise, and additional So-Haggyo were constructed around the country. For this reason, right after liberation, the high prevalence of illiteracy quickly became a severe national issue. However, the citizens’ strong determination to start anew miraculously affected the country’s educational enthusiasm that, in 1948, only three years after Independence, illiteracy had been eradicated by half, and the enrollment rate in elementary schools had reached nearly 90%.

Alas, calamity struck again just two years later with the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953). The war utterly obliterated Korean society, which left chaos and a depressed economy behind. The government disintegrated, and everything was reduced to ashes. The only thing remaining was an absence of hope. Fortunately, the alliance with the United States served as a welcome oasis amid the dark situation of the country. They contributed to the development of a new educational curriculum while maintaining the structure of Korean education to teach students accordingly. The toughest period in Korean history, when everyone lived in poverty, was going on at the moment. However, this became the biggest incentive for people to pursue studying because the reward for hard work was mostly guaranteed as there were few specialists in the academic field. Citizens who understood the importance of education began to put everything they had into it.

Aftermath of the Korean war

Education began to have a completely different function at this time than it had before liberation. Prior to Japan’s annexation, the main goals of education were to acquire modern culture in order to keep up with the rapidly evolving situation of contemporary society and to run schools for the benefit of the entire nation. After the Korean War, however, the rise in social status achieved via education became education’s main objective. In a nutshell, education for the community changed to education for individuals.

In the early 1960s, as individuals were adjusting to the new curriculum provided by the United States, another problem emerged: the disparity of opportunity based on test performance. One had to pass an exam to enroll in middle and high school, and those who failed were denied the opportunity to get a high-quality education. Park Chung-hee, president at the time, sought to weaken the inequality academic factionalism brought to students. That is, he tried to reduce the impact of personal connections that gave advantages to students over another. His policy standardized middle and high schools to be accessible to everyone. The education community accepted the policy without much opposition since it was when the upper grades of elementary school were suffering from excessive overwork to enter middle school, a major social concern at the time, and there was a need for a widespread secondary education. This removed the hierarchy between schools in a non-standardized environment, lowering the prestige of high-ranking schools.

The critical consequence of secondary school standardization and the middle school testing-free system was the beginning of a university-entrance-oriented education. Every student’s motivation for studying has become to enter a well-recognized university. This was largely caused by the high educational enthusiasm of the citizens and the purpose of education, in which status advancement was over self-development. Before the policy, because of the relatively low level of competitiveness, students who could attend middle and high schools were a step ahead of the competition and had guaranteed access to a well-recognized university. After the policy was implemented, however, students were forced to attend schools close to their homes, neutralizing everyone’s starting point and requiring them to focus entirely on the entrance exam, Sunung, that would grant them access to college. 

This was when Korea’s intense zeal for learning started to take on a new shape, namely private education. Due to the equal treatment of all schools, private education for students became a necessity rather than an option. This kind of education was not in high demand when schools were ranked, since universities chose students only by glancing at their school’s name. However, the impact of that system rapidly grew as students’ focus shifted from getting into prestigious secondary schools to acing the Sunung. In other words, the cost-effectiveness of private education was increased.

Hagwons became the core of private education in Korea. More and more Hagwons were constructed as the demand for private education peaked in order to fulfill students’ ambitions to enroll in a prestigious university. A by-product of this was a higher academically average society. People felt that universities were what mattered the most, and families assumed that if their children attended reputable institutions, a prosperous future was certain. Society’s view of a family became a factory that entered kids into college. Thus, most parents were willing to support them with everything they had if it meant their kids could enter a famous university. Also, the relative grading system of the Sunung played a significant role in promoting Hagwons. In this system, a student’s highest grade becomes the maximum grade that others can reach. For example, if the max grade of a test out of 100 was 95, then 95 naturally becomes the maximum score for everyone. But, the problem is if everyone gets a 95, students who get a lower score than that, even a 94, will be considered a bad score. This created an extremely competitive atmosphere for young people, where a difference of a single point determined their fate. Even elementary students were now exposed to these Hagwons to prepare for an exam that they would take a decade later.

Different Hagwons packed up in an apartment (Modern Korea)

According to Clark W. Sorensen, director of the Korea Studies Program and Center for Korea Studies at the University of Washington, South Korean students have achieved the highest mean scores in science and math in the International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP) administered by the Educational Testing Service to 13 years old in 19 countries in the early 20th century. Hagwons must have played a crucial role in this study because, as mentioned previously, even little kids in Korea get rigorous education. He noted in his article, Success and Education in South Korea, “It is not immediately apparent why children in South Korea should be so successful in science and math. Neither subject is a traditional strength of East Asian countries, and educated Koreans often respond to questions about South Korean students’ mastery of math by noting that none of the world’s famous mathematicians have been East Asian.” The critical point to take up from this quote is the last sentence. Is there someone that comes to mind when asked who the Asian Newton is? Probably not. Asians are strong in applying things that already exist academically and musically, but not as good at creating new things. I firmly believe that the reason behind this is the prevalence of systematic educational curricula that private institutions provide in East Asian countries, which consist mainly of “cramming” rather than critical thinking. In a way, Asian studying methods degrade one’s creativity in exchange for intelligence.

Getting back to the point, this was how the first Hagwons took its form in Korea: to train students to take the admission test. This is why they are referred to as cram schools in western countries. Later on, Hagwons further expanded its role in arts, technologies, and even sports, to aid students who were not going to take the studying path. (Fun fact, most studying students’ parents enrolled their kids in these entertainment Hagwons too because they wanted their kids to be good at everything). 

As they started to get a reputation, such as which one sent the most students into a dream college, the “good” Hagwons moved to the capital, Gangnam, in Seoul. This made every citizen interested in their kids’ future move to Seoul. The result was a megacity where most of the population was concentrated in the capital. This is currently a major problem in Korea as it raises the prices of apartments, but young people cannot afford it, leaving them over-dependent on their parents. Moreover, as most people got educated, the atmosphere of a society that only wants elites formed. Nobody wanted to work in the field, such as a waste picker or manual laborer. Korea now began to take the shape of an unbalanced elite-biased society. But its benefits were clear. Students within a systematic curriculum had a solid foundation to suit the tastes of society, whatever they were trying to learn. They were unconsciously “transformed” into elites.

Inevitably, some students performed above average among the elites in the Hagwons, which were the ones who got chosen to enter the Gifted Education System program. Within this unique educational environment, students are exposed to an even fiercer competition where meritocracy rules with the mindset of “If you can’t be the best, don’t bother.” 

In the case of classical musicians, Hagwons serve as academies to prepare students to win national competitions. This is because of the image that if someone wins a concour, they will survive as a professional performer in Korea, where classical music is not as favored by the general public compared to other countries. Prodigies are selected by an institution with a Gifted Education System and receive special training. Yunchan Lim is a famous example of a pure Korean pianist without experience studying abroad; his journey began at a local Hagwon. Lim was naturally exposed to the competitive atmosphere at an early age, and since he was found to be gifted, institutions were eager to train him as a successful musician. He entered his first Hagwon at the age of 7, and Kumho Cultural Foundation, an organization with a Gifted Education System, gave him the opportunity to perform in their concert when he was only 11, which became his debut performance. He entered the Korea National University of Arts as a gifted student after graduating as a valedictorian in Yewon school, a middle school specializing in arts. After turning 15, he won first place in the teenager section at Isangyun Competition, the most significant piano competition in Korea. Many classical musicians have taken a similar path to Lim’s: Seong-jin Cho is another example of a classical monster that Hagwons raised. 

Customized education for concours that different institutions offer optimizes an educative condition that systematically teaches music prodigies. As students within those participate in distinct types of competitions, they steadily gain rich stage experience and sharpen their skills, along with intensive technical guidelines. They non-resistantly come to accept as teenagers the competitive structure that they’re placed in due to how naturally this entire process flows. What causes the success of Korean classical musicians is the result of each performer’s hard work and commitment, as well as their parents’ sacrifices and the nation’s spirit of competition. (This applies to any type of career that Hagwons teach). 

The achievement of Korea on the global stage in the arts and sciences is not something that proliferated overnight; instead, the long-term goals are returning as a fruit of “international awards.” Hagwons effectively act as a place where talented young people may begin pursuing their dreams by taking a broad view of things. Today, South Korea is mainly recognized for its success in international competitions. Yet, neither classical music is a famous music genre within Korea nor novel theorems developed by Korean mathematicians are globally used. As a Korean myself, I hope that in the near future, Korea will develop into a nation not only recognized as a “successful country in international competitions” but as a “successful country in classical music and math.”



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