Cheating found to be the style for some in Gangnam
In just six decades it has gone from 22 per cent literacy to becoming one of the world's top educational performers. But today South Korea is in danger of winning a much less enviable reputation - as a global champion in exam cheating.
Last month, the US' College Board cancelled all its May SATs (standardised tests for university entry) in South Korea because question papers had been stolen.
The SATs are taken in more than 170 countries every year. But this was the first time the board had ever stopped SATs for an entire nation. It also cancelled a June SAT in biology and banned some South Koreans from taking any of the tests anywhere.
This is in a country that sends more students to US universities every year - 72,295 in 2011-12 - than anywhere except India or China. The scandal is a "national shame" that reveals "the dark side of our education culture that has no qualms about cheating", according to the South Korean national daily paper the Kookmin Ilbo.
Another newspaper, the JoongAng Ilbo, warned that such incidents were bound to be repeated given the number of students and parents "apparently willing to sell their souls if they can boost test scores".
That gloomy prediction tallies with the analysis of John O'Regan of the University of London's Institute of Education, who lectures on South Korean education. "It is to do with an almost cultural obsession with education and success in education tests," he said.
It is also a serious blot on the record of a country that finished second in reading and fifth in mathematics in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, entered in 2009 by 65 international school systems.
But it is not South Korea's state schools that are to blame. Nor is it conventional private schools, which are banned. Instead, parents in this hyper-competitive country spend much of their spare cash on crammer schools known as hagwons, many concentrated in Gangnam, the wealthy neighbourhood in the capital city Seoul immortalised by K-pop star Psy.
And it is some of these private, after-school academies that are at the centre of the cheating scandal. Tom Stockwell, a teacher from England, taught in a hagwon for three and a half years and remembers a very pressurised environment. "Hagwons are, at the most basic level, businesses, and to keep their business going, students need to be achieving top scores in tests at their state schools and showing clear improvement," he said.
Dr O'Regan agrees: "It is a factory education system. They are entirely for-profit organisations. The only thing they are really interested in is getting as many students through their doors as possible."
And business is booming. Research published last month on Gyeonggi Province, the area that surrounds Seoul, found that 1 million won (#163;580) is spent on average each month on hagwon classes for every high school student (aged 15-19).
For many, it is hagwons where the real learning, or rather cramming, takes place. Actual high school is viewed by some students merely as a place to catch up on sleep.
Indeed, the Gyeonggi study also found that nearly a quarter of high school students dozed off in class every day, with most going to bed after midnight and some after 2am, only to rise again by 7am. The government tried to counter the problem in 2011 by introducing a 10pm curfew to prevent students from studying late into the night.
The relentless pressure to achieve is blamed for dozens of student suicides every year. According to Dr O'Regan, that pressure is also a recipe for disaster in the hagwons. "When that (factory education culture) meets parents who have a certain amount of disposable income, then all sorts of problems and distasteful activities can arise," he said.
The academic warned that the government has been less than rigorous in monitoring the activities of a significant minority of unlicensed hagwons.
'Success is everything'
But the SATs scandal has prompted a crackdown, with Seoul's education office investigating several hagwons suspected of illegally obtaining test papers and offering them for sale for millions of won.
"The moral hazard prevalent among some SAT prep schools has reached a serious level," the office said in a statement.
But Dr O'Regan argued that the hagwons are a symptom of a deeper social malady that has its roots in an ancient Confucian approach, such as that seen in China - only more so.
"It is a historical thing," he said. "All progress in these kinds of societies is by examination and has been for centuries. So culturally there is huge pressure to pass them. Success is everything. It has been said that an A-minus grade might as well be an F in Korea."
This is a society where parents send children to "learning clinics", which prescribe Ritalin and other drugs to help them boost their academic performance.
Almost two-thirds of 25- to 34-year-olds have university degrees, the highest ratio in the world according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which only intensifies competition for the limited places in the most prestigious institutions at home and abroad.
"The fever for educational success leads to all sorts of extreme behaviour and social distortions," Dr O'Regan said.
Parents are willing to remortgage their homes to pay hagwon fees, while others become "goose fathers and mothers". A goose father, Dr O'Regan explained, "works himself into the ground in Korea in order to pay for the wife and children to go and live in the States or the UK". The hope is that their children's English will improve, giving them an advantage in getting into English-speaking universities.
The South Korean education ministry is trying to cool the fever by allowing all middle school students (aged 12-15) to spend a term without tests or assessment from 2016. But while demand for top university places continues to outstrip supply, the pressure to perform, and to cheat, is likely to remain.