A street teemed with cram schools, or hagwon, in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. Daechi-dong has emerged as a locus of hagwon riding on the country’s education fever. / Korea Times File
By Andrei Lankov
In discussions of social and political issues one frequently comes across references to ``Gangnam.'' Every Korean knows what it stands for. In a broad sense, Gangnam is the part of Seoul which is located on the southern bank of the Han River.
In a narrow sense, Gangnam is one of some 20 administrative districts (gu), of which the city of Seoul is composed. But the symbolic meaning of Gangnam lies somewhere between these two.
It is a name that refers to a few prestigious districts of southern Seoul ― not only to Gangnam-gu, but to the adjacent areas as well.
First developed in the late 1960s, the area soon became fashionable and its land prices skyrocketed. Some parts of Gangnam have seen prices going up a thousand-fold! In late 2006, the average price of one pyeong (3.3 square meters) in a Gangnam apartment complex was more than twice the Seoul average.
It comes as no surprise that the rich and famous of Korea overwhelmingly live in that part of the city. In 2004, the total population of the three most prestigious districts in Gangnam reached 1.6 million, or some 16 percent of the Seoul population.
However, this area was the place of residence for 61.3 percent of all the city's lawyers and 56.4 percent of the doctors. It was also the place where almost exactly half (50.2 percent) the top-level officials resided.
Well, there is nothing special about this: every city has its ``golden mile,'' and in this regard Seoul is not much different from New York or, for that matter, Pyongyang (frankly, I believe that social differentiation in North Korea, if anything, is stronger than in the South).
However, one peculiarity of the area attracts much attention, a peculiarity that can be seen as very Korean: the abundance of educational institutions and a perception that the area is the locus of ``education fever,'' the (in)famous Korean drive to send children to the best universities.
Within Korean society, only graduates of the three or four most prestigious schools have the chance to reach the top of the most established hierarchies. In most cases, a graduate of a second-rate school is a non-starter, irrespective of his or her marks and real abilities.
The major role in this drive is played by ``hagwon,'' private institutes where children are trained for future examinations. It is widely believed that attendance at the right hagwon is the key to success in entrance exams.
In December 2000, the Dong-a Ilbo reported that the average Seoul district had four hagwon specializing in entrance exam preparations, and 140 others.
In Gangnam, there were around three times that many hagwon of both types: 13 and 360, respectively. It is remarkable that nearly half of them were located in just one ward, Daechi-dong, which itself became a symbol of Korean ``education fever.''
Some of the students came from afar, often spending a couple of hours every day commuting to and from hagwon.
In 2005, 25.4 out of every 1,000 high school graduates in Gangnam found themselves students of the super-prestigious Seoul National University.
In Korea this is synonymous with nearly guaranteed success in life. In the largely industrial and relatively low-income neighborhood of Mapo, the figure was almost 10 times lower: 2.8 for every 1,000 graduates.
The Korean government has always been remarkably egalitarian in its approach to education, and has done its best to minimize the impact of parents' incomes on an individual's educational possibilities.
Still, it is impossible to stop the drive of Gangnam mothers who are both deadly serious about education and have the money to afford the best teachers available.
This seems to be a self-supporting process. Since education (well, at least the brand name of a good university) is of such paramount importance, many parents who cannot really afford the real estate in Gangnam, still try hard to move there, making sure that their children will be given the best opportunities available.
In many cases, they see their dreams coming true. The by-products of this drive are crowded classes at Gangnam schools, but due to the specifics of the Korean educational tradition, the crowding does not become such a problem as in other countries.
The government feels uneasy about the advantages in Gangnam. It probably would not be seen as a major worry in most other countries, but in equality-obsessed Korea it is scandalous.
To diminish the advantages of Gangnam, from the early 2000s, the Seoul educational authorities even avoided opening specialized schools in the area.
Entrance to such schools, specializing in foreign language or math or arts, is highly competitive, and such schools are seen as very prestigious since their graduates easily get into the best universities in Korea.
This decision was a curious reverse of the policy of the 1970s: then, being uneasy about the future of the newly developed Gangnam, the city authorities forced some of the best schools to relocate to the area!
Thus, Gangnam kids are over-represented at the best universities. This will boost their careers, no doubt, but will it necessarily make them better educated in the normal sense of the word? Probably yes, but I am not quite sure.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at email@example.com