When it comes to education in South Korea, there is no such a thing as too much parental involvement. For families, the academic success of children takes priority over almost everything else. While such dedication to used to be the exception among the country's parents, the Washington Post reports that over the last decade, it has become much more common for families to put everything on hold in the service of providing the best educational opportunities to their kids.
It's no exaggeration to describe South Korean culture as "education-obsessed." The lengths that families would go to for the sake of academics would surprise most Americans. Even a decade ago, some of the steps that parents wouldn't think twice about taking now would shock even most South Koreans.
When Choi Seo-yoon found out that her daughter was accepted to a prestigious school that was located far away from where Choi and her husband Kim Ho now live, the decision to split the family to allow Choi to go with their daughter and have Kim Ho remain in Seoul was made quickly.
Even a generation ago, education experts say, only the wealthiest families considered dividing themselves for the sake of education — generally with the son or daughter traveling overseas, the mother joining as a caretaker and the father staying behind as a money-earning quasi-bachelor. The goal: English fluency, which helps admission to South Korea's top Ivy-level colleges and leads to jobs at the country's giant conglomerates.
Academic competition in South Korea is fiercer than almost anywhere in the world. When the goal is a top-of-the-line education, no sacrifice seems too big for parents to make. In order to prepare their children for college entrance exams, many families hire English tutors as early as kindergarten. The market for boutique academies located outside Seoul that promise top-notch preparation and say that they improve odds of college admission, is thriving. For older kids in higher grades, there are dorms to house them while they attend classes far from home. But for families that want their kids to begin prep as early as possible, having a parent move with the child is the only viable option.
For kids who stay on in Seoul, there are always hagwons – the after-school institutes that provide intensive tutoring in all subjects that a student is expected to know to gain admission to a good college.
Choi and her husband, Kim Ho, know firsthand about the fierce market for English education, because Kim happens to run several hagwons in Seoul. He wanted to set his daughter on a path where she could avoid the cram school environment.
"I am running the system in terms of preparing kids for global education," Kim said, "so I know the lifestyle of the Korean school system, where stress levels are to the max, where they have to stay in [cram] school till 8 or 9 p.m. So we decided to take the other path."