Hit S Korean show reveals ‘SKY’-high school pressure

AFP, SEOUL

Sat, Feb 02, 2019 - Page 6

A smash-hit South Korean TV series has been giving Lee Min-joo flashbacks of the punishing work schedule she endured at an elite Seoul high school as she competed for a place at a top university.

Now 23, Lee recalled how she would wake at 6am to catch a bus, study until 10pm and arrive home an hour later, before repeating the cycle — a daily routine she shared with her peers in the hypercompetitive society.

“I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I wasn’t getting enough exercise,” she said. “I was processing a lot of information all the time.”

South Korea’s most successful cable TV series has touched a nerve with Lee as it portrays wealthy, overbearing parents desperate to send their children to the best universities — whatever the cost.

SKY Castle is named after the acronym for the country’s most prestigious educational triumvirate: Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University.

The show has resonated in a society where high-school academic performance is seen as pivotal in defining adult lives, holding the key to the best universities at home and abroad, social status, a stable job and even marriage prospects.

Some of the plotlines are commonplace, featuring expensive extracurricular tuition, while others are inspired by real-life events, including a high-school teacher’s arrest last year on charges of stealing exam papers for his daughters.

Ahead of the series finale yesterday, its most popular episode had been watched by 23 percent of South Korea’s entire subscription TV audience, the highest such rating ever achieved by a drama.

“The show is obviously exaggerated, but so many South Koreans are responding to it, because it really does reflect reality,” education activist Choi Jae-young said.

South Korean children have been repeatedly cited as the least happy in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, while government data has shown that suicide is the leading cause of death among South Koreans aged nine to 24.

Selective establishments of the kind in SKY Castle account for less than 5 percent of South Korean high schools, but last year provided 36.2 percent of SKY’s first-year students, the World Without Worries about Shadow Education think tank said.

Almost half of these schools are public and the rest are private, but most of them seek to send their students to SKY or top global universities like Harvard and Oxford.

At Lee’s school, teachers had told students that they were “not contributing” if they did not secure such spots and the student culture was no less fierce.

“People would tell you anecdotes about a student who stayed up all night every single day and went to the medical school at Seoul National University,” she said. “That is admirable, but it’s also unhealthy on so many levels.”

Lee was admitted to Georgetown University in Washington, only for one teacher to remark: “I thought you could do better than that. What about Harvard?”

Now a teacher, Lee feels that she missed out on crucial elements of childhood, such as time to talk to her parents, whom she described as loving and supportive.

“I would literally never see them,” she said. “They didn’t understand what I was going through.”

In SKY Castle, one boy fulfills his mother’s greatest ambition for him — admission to SNU medical school — only to turn it down.

“I’m just going to go and live my own life,” he says.

One SKY graduate in Seoul who did not want to be named said that her parents were overjoyed when she did well at school, but would become stern and distant when her grades slipped.

When characters in SKY Castle asked their parents “to see them and love them for who they are, plain and simple, and not for their accomplishments,” she said that it “resonated a lot with me.”

Her parents were not SKY graduates and regularly told her about resulting professional disadvantages.

“I just wish I had been motivated on my own and not through my parents’ wishes for me,” the 29-year-old said.

Choi, who is working with lawmakers to ban discrimination based on university degrees, said that South Korea’s educational culture has had social consequences.

“Under the current system, you are forced to view your friends only as your competitors,” he said. “The result is a society where almost nobody has any support network.”

Even now, the 29-year-old said that she feels anxiety and a need to “prove herself” after her years at an elite high school.

“Those very high standards are now wired into me,” she said. “What makes me a worthy and lovable person? I still wonder. That question is something that will take all my life to answer.”