South Korean Schools

Figure 1.--This Korean elementary school in 1971 had a school uniform of beanie cap, blue vest, white shirt, blue short pants, and white ankle socks. I believe this was a private school, but are not sure.

South Korean has built a first-class modern educational system. Standards are high. Little is known about the srandards in North Korea. There is a debate as to the pressure being put on children. Many Korean children wear school uniforms. This includes many primary schildren and virtually all secondary childten in South Korea. We thinks unifoems are even more common in North Korea. Most children in South Korea attend public schools. All schools in North Korea are public schools. Short cut short pants were not as commonly worn by Korean school boys as was the case in Japan. Secondary school uniforms, however, are similar to Japanese styles. Unlike Japan, there are no private schools in Korean and even private tutoring until recently has been illegal.

Korean Education

Koreans place a very high value on education. The economic success of Korea as one of the Asian Tigers is in part due to the Korean reverence for education and the value poalced on it. There is another importannt Korean cultural value--egaltarianism. These two deeply held , and sometimes, conflicting values have affected the Korean educational system. Teachers and the educational system are sometimes caught up in the conflict between these two values.


There are three basic periods in modern history which affect Korean schools. There was the period before the Japanese seized control of Korea (1909). We have no infoirmation on Koren schools during this period. We assume the schools were very traditional. We do not know how many children actually attended school. The next period was the Japanese colonia era (1909-1945). As far as we can tell, the Japanese significantly expanded the school system. Instruction was conducted in Japanese and part of the educational objectives was to supress the Korean lanuage and culture. This was followed by the independence operiod following World War II (1945). During this period Korea was occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. Schools in the two areas developed along very different lines. South Korea has a very modern school system with high aschievement levels. The Korean schools have played a role in helping to create one of the most successful economies in the world. We know very little about North Korean schools.

Educational System

The Ministry of Education is the government body in charge of academic policies. Its centralized budget varies from year to year, but generally accounts for about 20 percent % of government spending. Currently, Korea's educational system consists of 6-year primary schools, 3-year middle schools, three-year high schools, and various institutions of higher learning and vocational studies. A middle school education is compulsory for all citizens. The basic primary school curriculum consists of eight major subjects: ethics, Korean language, social studies, arithmetic, science, physical education and fine arts. Primary school instructors are required to graduate from four-year teachers colleges. After primary school, 12-14 year olds enter middle school, the equivalent of 7-9th grade. After the abolition of middle-school entrance exams in 1969, students are assigned to schools based on a zone lottery system. (This ensures that the quality of each school is equal.) Over 98% of Koreans attend middle school, where they learn 12 basic subjects, electives, and technical/vocational courses for those seeking early employment. High schools today are also assigned on a zone-based lottery system. (Side note: according to my cousins, high school in Korea is horrendous. By the same source, an ambitious student averages about 4 hours of sleep and 19 of study. The other hour is used for bathroom breaks, food/water consumption, and commuting from school to library to home). So, they got rid of middle-school and high-school entrance exams. But anyone who has cousins in Korea knows that the college ones are alive and well. Imagine the SAT, GRE, MCAT and LSAT combined into one huge life-altering test-that's the national qualifying exam for higher education.

School Types

Almost all Korean children schools go to public scools. There is little tradition of private education in Kprea. Almost all Korean children schools go to public scools. South Korea has an excellent public school system. We have little information on historic Korean schools. We do not know about Korean schools in the early 20th century. We think several schools were founded by Western missionaries. The Japanese seized control of Korea (1909). We believe that they expanded the scgool system, but required that the language of instruction be Japanese. After World War II the Koreans continued to attach great importance to education. It was not until the 1970s, however, that the expanding Korean economy priovided the revenue to sdequately support a first-class educational system. There is a strong tradition of egalitarianism that runs through public education.

School Levels

The basic school system is divided into the standard primary and secondary levels. There are also kindergartens as well as of course higher education. The education system is one of the finest in Asia with very high standards. Korea has a traditionof scholarship which has been continued into modern times. We do not have a lot of information, but we do not see a lot of uniforms at primary schools. We think private schools do tend to have unifirms, but this needed to be confirmed. SEcondary schools on the other hand do have uniforms which are similar to those worrn in Japan.


We do not yet have a great deal of informatin about Korean school curriculum. Primary education in Korea seeks to create the an environment conducive for physical and mental development. The curriculum is grouped around five core areas: physical, social, expressive, lingusitc, and inquiry life. Many of the actual sunjects are similar to western subjects, but with a heavy emphasis on math and science. One sunject we noted at some schools lesson in traditional manners. We are not sure how common this is. I am not sure about the middle school curriculum. The high school curriculum varies depending on the academic program. Students in academic high schools with high academic standards choose a major in their second year (age 16). The choices include humanities and social sciences, natural sciences, and vocational training.

Special Days

There are a variety of special days in Korean schools. The first day of school is very important, especialy for children just beginning school. This was a major event in Japan where parents bought new suits for the occassion. There are many similarities between Japan and Korea, We do not know if the same first day tradition is followed in Korea. And of course graduation is a major milestone. There are also special days like sports days are holiday celebrations. We do not yet have much information about these days in Korea and how the children dress up. Of course at the uniform schools the children just wore their uniforms. We are less sure about the primary schools whre uniforms were not required.


Our information on Korean schoolwear is very limited. Some Korean primary students wear uniforms. We are unsure, however, just how common this was. There does not appear to be a national school uniform, but rather one chosen by individual schools. I think many of the uniformed schools are private schools. Some have short pants uniforms, but this may change seasonally. We believe that most primary school chilkdren do not wear uniforns. We do note some boys wearing the cadet style caps. Rather we see the children wearing their own clothes to primary school. Students in secondary schools more commonly wore school uniforms. Boys in the 1970s wore military cadet uniforms as in Japan. This shows the very significant Japanese unfluence in Korean education. I'm not sure if this is still the case today.


Mark D, you ask "Anyone care to explain why Japanese and Korean schools can have class sizes upwards of 40 students, and virtually 100% graduation rates? And spend a lot less $$ per pupil. Could it just possibly have something to do with the kids rising to the expectation that they will do the work?" and then partially answer with "Maybe the extra time they spend in school has something to do with it." I had a Korean professor who said it was common for high school students to only sleep 4 hours a night because after school, they'd study so extensively in order to be able to get into a university. He said the Koreans are the most highly educated population, even exceeding the Japanese, where pressure for academic attainment has been connected to a high rate of student suicides. I had heard that many Japanese mothers get a college education because they want to help their childen excell in school, and they are absolutely devoted to that end. I've also seen where Japanese elementary schools don't need custodians, because the students are engrained in a tradition of keeping their classrooms scrupulously clean, and this fosters a sense of responsibility to the group and pride in their school. Japanese culture prizes politeness and conformity more than US culture, and you could figure it would be necessary to lubricate social relations on an island nation where space is at a premium. Fostering politeness would mean less wasted class time for disciplining disruptive students.

Korean Ethnic Schools in Japan

Harassed Korean Schools Here Decide "No Chogori" To Protect Students from Attacks

A chains of hate crimes against Korean students by some Japanese have compelled the Korean school authorities to give up the practice of making the female students wear the traditional Korean uniform in public. The Korean school authorities has revised the school regulations on school uniform to protect Korean female students. The Education Bureau of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, in charge of about 140 ethnic schools for Koreans on Mar. 5 sent a notification to 61 high and middle Korean schools, on a "partial revision on regulations regarding the uniforms of female students."

"For the safety of female students in view of the present grave situation surrounding them, female students may wear their esecond uniformsf when they commute, for a certain period of time," the notification said. According to the notification, female students will wear blazers and other unobtrusive clothing outside of schools and change into the ethnic costume in school from the new school year beginning in April. Koreans in Japan have been subjected to a series of threats of murder, rape, harassment, kidnapping, etc., since Japan attacked north Koreas' satellite launch in last August, alleging the rocket to be a "Taepodong Missile." Attacks against Koreans intensified as Japanese mass media echoed "threats of the DPRK." Especially Korean children, mainly girls in Chogori, fell victims in more than 50 cases of verbal and physical abuse committed by ill-willed Japanese.

The vicious circle of Tokyo-Pyongyang relations getting tense, media clamoring about "Pyongyangfs threat" and increased Japanese attacks on Korean students has long existed in Japan but the present case was the first in which Chongryun officially instructed schools to make Korean female students virtually unseen in their Chogori uniforms in public, though temporarily.

Korean schools, established throughout Japan since 1940s, had no official school uniforms at first, but adopted Chogori as school uniforms in 1960s in response to a demand of female students who hoped to assert their identity as Koreans. Not only for overseas Koreans, but also for all north and south Koreans, Chogori has been a symbol of national pride.

"I really regret the decision to make Korean female students discontinue wearing their Chogori uniforms, though temporarily, as it is a problem concerning the national rights of Koreans as well as the cultural rights of minorities," So Kyong Sik, a Korean writer in Japan, was quoted as saying by the Asahi Shinbun. He further explained in the daily, "There live more than 650,000 Koreans in Japan, but only Korean female students apparently look Korean, as they wear Chogori. Thatfs why they became the main targets of attack. Violence to these students was directed to all Koreans. It is the reality of Japanese society that aliens will receive maltreatment unless they conceal their ethnicity."

At some schools, teachers and school staffs have not yet agreed on whether or not the uniforms should continue to be worn in public. Many Korean students still wants to use Chogori as their uniforms saying, "We donft want to give up Chogori in this difficult time. That means kneeling before discrimination." Representing wishes of such students, the notification concluded with an appeal to the Japanese, saying that the schools need support from the Japanese public to enable Korean female students to commute in Chogori safely. Film director Oshima Nagisa was quoted as saying by Asahi Shinbun, "This must have been a bitter decision for Koreans to make and Japanese people should think hard about how the decision reflects on Japanese society."

Rebuilding of Ethnic Korean Schools Shows Commitment to Koreanism in Japan

Despite the currently raging storm of Pyongyang bashing, ethnic Korean residents in the island nation are making intensive efforts to protect their cultural heritage, inspired with mental and financial assistance from the DPRK. The last couple of years have seen Korean schools completely rebuilt in Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Hyogo, and Kanagawa prefectures. Two Korean schools in Tokyo and Tohoku areas will have their buildings renewed within two years. From the late 80s to the early 90s, ultra-modern buildings were built for Korean ethnic schools in Ibaragi, Hokkaido, Shiga and some other prefectures. The school rebuilding program has been under way all the financial difficulties confronting the Korean expatriates in the island country in the wake of the burst of the bubble economy. Reconstructing Korean schools in Tokyo and Tohoku regions will cost 1,300,000,000 yen and 1,000,000,000 respectively.

What has brought the ethnic Koreans to undertake the costly school reconstruction program? There are two reasons. Dilapidation of the buildings is one major reason as most of these schools were built in 50 years ago. The other is their reinforced commitment to retain their cultural heritage in particular in the situation where third and fourth generations are increasing in the Korean population here. "No matter how hard the construction effort may have been, we, second generation Koreans, have a duty to hand down to the next generations what the first generation created," said a committee member of the Hokkaido Korean Middle and High School, which was rebuilt in three years ago. In the recent school construction projects, second-generation Koreans have played a key role in planning and fund raising. As Korean schools are not accredited by Japan's Ministry of Education as "regular schools," subsidies from the Japanese authorities are hard to obtain. Construction funds are mainly contributions from parents of students and graduates of the Korean schools.

Korean residents in Japan boast of their Japan-wide educational system which has 50-year-long history. Chongryun operates 62 kindergartens, 75 elementary schools, 42 junior high schools and 12 high schools as well as a university in Tokyo. Hong Song Il, chairman of the construction committee of Tokyo Korean Middle and Junior High School, had this to say: "The greatest gift my parents left me was ethnic education. It's the origin of my life. I want my children to also be aware of their Korean identity and live proudly as Korean."

During its colonial rule over Korea, the Japanese government implemented policies designed to eliminate Korean cultural identity, such as forcing them to adopt Japanese names, banning the use of Korean language. So the first thing Koreans in Japan did when their country was liberated was to build Korean schools so as not to project their Korean identity completely as they had defended it against the government's successive assimilation policies.

What strongly encouraged the Koreans' struggle to gain the right for ethnic education was aid fund and stipends sent from Pyongyang. The financial support provided by Pyongyang in 137 transfers during 40 years, valued at a total of 43,049,532,433 yen, has gone a long way towards winning the hearts and minds of the Korean population who mostly originate in south Korea. The south Korean regime in 40 years ago, blind to the difficulty of Koreans here, refused to support Korean schools in Japan on the ground that they were bound to be assimilated into Japanese society. Besides, the Japanese government has given resident Koreans strong "No" to the request for public subsidies to Korean schools, insisting those Korean schools are legally defined as "miscellaneous schools for vocation."

Because of the Japanese government's discriminatory treatment of the Korean schools, a number of Korean children have been somewhat compelled to go to Japanese schools using Japanese name. Cultural heritage of the Korean nation which has a 5,000-year-long and its time-honored culture cannot be learnt in Japanese schools, where Korean children can only get a distorted view of Korea as an ex-Japanese colony. Koreans attending Japanese schools often end up with an inferiority complex, discriminated and prejudiced d by misled Japanese.

Resident Koreans have vigorously promoted the school reconstruction, far from daunted by the hostile policy of Tokyo against Pyongyang or media's malicious reports amplifying distrust of the DPRK among Japanese citizens. The renewal of the schools clearly shows the determination of resident Koreans to protect traditional values in the same way as the first generations did and "never let the Korean schools shut down."


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Created: May 28, 2000
Last updated: 8:17 AM 12/6/2012