[Column] Korea: Where one comment from the president brings down a whole system

Posted on : 2023-06-22 17:01 KST Modified on : 2023-06-22 17:01 KST
The recent CSAT fiasco is just the latest case of ab off-the-cuff remark from the president touching off a series of events that have real-life consequences for Koreans
A person walks through Seoul’s Daechi neighborhood, passing signs for private cram schools, on June 16. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
A person walks through Seoul’s Daechi neighborhood, passing signs for private cram schools, on June 16. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

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By Kim Young-hee, executive editor

“This year, anyone would be scared to be part of the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) exam writing committee,” a well-known English instructor recently told me over the phone. “It’s not easy to determine which words are included in the curriculum and which aren’t… Who could be a judge of that?”

To be honest, I didn’t think much of the statement President Yoon Suk-yeol made on Thursday when I first encountered it. No administration in the history of South Korea hasn’t championed “normalizing public education” and “cutting down on private education expenses,” after all. Plus, even the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) had promised that all CSAT exam questions would be drawn from the curriculum. If what Yoon meant was that he would put this keynote into practice, there would be no reason not to welcome it.

But we all know what happened afterward: The Education Ministry official who oversees the CSAT was replaced, an audit of KICE was announced, the minister of education issued an apology and announced that so-called “killer questions” would be excluded from the CSAT, and the director of the KICE resigned, all in quick succession.

It’s been a long time since my two children took the CSAT, but I still remember that the mock test in June was generally considered more difficult while the one in September was considered easier. The results of this June’s mock CSAT will be announced on June 28, and even though provisional marks put out by college entrance institutions didn’t all match up, there were no mumblings about how difficult the test had been. I even felt pity watching the vice education minister stammer as reporters doggedly asked which test question from which test subject was problematic in particular.

Sure, it’s quite comical to see the likes of Park Dae-chul, the chief policymaker of the ruling People Power Party, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Lee Ju-ho, fawn over Yoon, saying Yoon “is an expert who handled investigations into corruption in college entrance examinations ever since his days as a probationary prosecutor” (Park) and that they “learn a lot from the president though I myself am an expert” (Lee), but the situation at hand is fundamentally more akin to a horror story.

The government and Chosun Ilbo are trying their utmost to give meaning to Yoon’s initiative, calling it “education reform” and a “struggle against private education cartels.” It is indeed true that the interests of private education companies are deeply entrenched in education. It is also true that reform often requires will and action that defies common sense. But there are tasks that call for speed and tasks that do not. Being able to distinguish between them is what constitutes good government administration.

Attempts to change South Korea’s college entrance system didn’t fail because of a lack of just cause. Even your next-door neighbor with school-aged children knows that anxiety marketing tactics that spout “new question types” and “pseudo-killer questions” thrive when authorities obsess over “advancing exam-writing techniques” without explaining why and offering solutions.

If education reform is truly what Yoon wants, it’s clear where to look next. Everyone has been arguing that fusing creativity with education is the decisive move in the age of ChatGPT and artificial intelligence, but in reality, Korea acts as if a fraction’s difference in CSAT scores calculated by how many multiple-choice questions one gets right determines life itself. Killer questions are merely a byproduct of this reality and the limitations of the CSAT, now 30 years old.

How many parents could choose not to make the decision to force their children into competition, when our society normalizes discrimination based on educational background and contempt for labor in the name of meritocracy? Not everyone is equipped with the intellectual capacity or the circumstances to support their children’s education, either. Nonetheless, they say they are standing up for “educational underdogs” by getting rid of killer questions while letting autonomous private high schools and foreign language schools stand. No matter how much I try to understand, the logic is beyond my abilities.

Currently, attention is focused on the confusion surrounding the CSAT and what will happen next, but those are not the only things we should be worried about. If the process we’re currently seeing of information reaching the president through mysterious channels, then being transformed into policy statements is repeated, it will only add to the amount of risk society is forced to bear.

It’s easy enough to understand where the president’s biased views on labor, foreign policy, and the press come from. Not an insignificant number of people hold the same views, in fact. But Yoon’s axe-grinding against education came totally out of nowhere. The full story of what happened in regard to lowering the school entrance age, which ended in Park Soon-ae’s resignation as education minister, hasn’t even come out yet. It is a self-evident fact that if a president fails to instill trust regarding his ability to gain accurate information about reality, none of his policies will gain the public’s confidence.

The proliferation of the message that going against the president even slightly can get you hurt within public offices and society at large is not a laughing matter either. If one mock CSAT can cause such drama, it’s perfectly reasonable to worry about prosecutors conducting searches and seizures against exam writers and exam-writing institutions should the most minor complaint be raised about the CSAT.

More and more, I’m meeting academics who actually fear voicing their opinions about pending issues lest they be audited or investigated. Some may say we live in a world where we can freely demand Yoon’s resignation, but the atmosphere in no-man’s-land is quite different. Serious consideration should be given to the long-term effects of the loss of nerves that can be detected all around society.

Throughout this incident, the “four-year notice system” customary in the college admissions world was ignored, and concerns from experts were treated like that from “interest cartels.” Even if there really is a problem, the history and context behind institutions and systems should be considered.

Yoon appointed many controversial figures to the National Education Commission and the Economic, Social and Labor Council, making me believe he had some plan there, but when it comes to issues that require deliberation and social discussions like education and labor reform, these organizations have barely done anything.

I still want to believe that the current reality in which one comment from the president can bring down the system in different fields is a comedy. That such a comedy can lead to irrevocable regressions is the tragedy of South Korea.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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