Even The Planes Stop Flying For South Korea's National Exam Day | KERA News

Even The Planes Stop Flying For South Korea's National Exam Day

Nov 12, 2015
Originally published on November 13, 2015 1:06 pm

It's an hour before the big test starts and the skies above Seoul have gone silent. The government grounds aircraft or reroutes flights to keep students from getting distracted during the biggest test of their lives. It's a college entrance exam known as Suneung, and all South Korean high school seniors take it on the same day each year.

The Suneung is a standardized test much like the American SAT, only the five-part, multiple-choice exam takes nearly eight hours to complete, and the importance that Korean society places on it makes it far more intense.

On the streets Thursday morning, you could hear more sirens than usual, because anyone running late to the competitive exam can call for a free police escort to rush them straight to the test site.

The students are greeted at test centers by cheering squads of underclassmen, who carry signs and bang on pots and pans to support the students when they arrive.

"I came here [at] 5:30 a.m.," said cheer squad leader Chansoo Park. He's junior class president at Ichon High School. "There's a lot of students so we have to take a good spot."

Everyone in Korea plays a role in supporting the 600,000 students taking the Suneung. The stock market opened an hour late. So did most businesses. Parents filled up local churches and temples to pray.

"There is this sense that, 'Oh, you're going to fail at life unless you do well in this exam,'" said Daniel Tudor, a former Economist correspondent in South Korea and author of Korea: The Impossible Country.

"To live in modern South Korea is to live with constant pressure. The Suneung exam, it's an emblem," he says.

Students sitting down to the Suneung know it.

"I think I've been preparing since elementary school," says senior Im Hayoon. "I studied about 10 hours every day."

That's typical, says Tudor.

"Korea is very hierarchical, so if you're seen as someone who's not succeeded, you're really made to feel second class," he says.

Success is defined narrowly. Get a high score on the Suneung to get into a high-ranked school. Go to a good school to get hired at a South Korean chaebol — the term for a mighty mega-conglomerate, like Samsung. They power the Korean economy.

"Any market that's worth having is really sewn up by chaebol already. So your best hope would be just to join a chaebol," Tudor says. "You know, if Mark Zuckerberg were Korean, there's absolutely no way he'd be doing what he's doing now. He'd probably be working for Samsung and hating it."

Policymakers are trying to relieve the pressure by encouraging entrepreneurship so students can imagine more creative paths. But all the hullabaloo around the test only seems to add to the exam's intensity.

The message the cheering squads give to their fellow students?

"Relax and get good grades so they will not take the test again next year," Chansoo Park says.

Korean students can retake the test if they don't like their results. But since the Suneung happens only once each year, it would mean repeating a year of high school, too.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story. For a behind-the-scenes look at reporting and life from East Asia, check out our Tumblr, Elise Goes East.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Students all over South Korea took the biggest test of their lives today. It's a college entrance exam called the Suneung. All South Korean high school seniors take it on this same day each year. NPR's Elise Hu reports it's sort of like the SATs times a thousand.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's an hour before the big test, and the skies above Seoul have gone silent. The government grounds all aircraft to keep students from getting distracted. But on the streets this morning, more sirens than usual. That's because students running late to the competitive, day-long exam can call for a free police escort to rush them straight to the test site.

They're greeted by these cheerleaders who are carrying signs and banging on pots and pans to welcome these students as they come through the gates for the test.

CHANSOO PARK: I've came here 5:30 so...

HU: 5:30 in the morning?

PARK: Yeah.

HU: We found Chansoo Park in the scrum of cheering students. He's class president at Ichon High School and organized his fellow underclassmen to make noise for seniors as their rides pull up.

PARK: There's a lot of students so we have to take a good spot.

HU: All of Korean society has sort of stopped to support the 600,000 students taking the Suneung today. The stock market opened an hour late. So did most businesses. Parents filled up local churches and temples to pray for their kids.

DANIEL TUDOR: It's a really tough life for these young people.

HU: Daniel Tudor is author of "Korea: The Impossible Country."

TUDOR: There is this sense that, oh, you know, you're going to fail at life unless you do well on this exam.

HU: Students sitting down to the eight-hour-long test know it. Im Hayoon is a senior.

IM HAYOON: (Through interpreter) I think I've been preparing since elementary school. I've studied about 10 hours every day.

HU: That's typical, Tudor says.

TUDOR: To live in modern South Korea is to live with constant pressure, and the Suneung exam, it's an emblem, it's a symptom of this very almost poisoned mentality of what success is.

HU: Success, he explains, is defined narrowly - get a high score on the Suneung to get into a high-ranked school. Go to a good school to get hired at a South Korean chaebol, the term for a mega-conglomerate, like Samsung. They power the Korean economy.

TUDOR: Korea is very hierarchical. So if you are seen as someone who's not succeeded, you're really made to feel second-class.

HU: Policymakers are trying to relieve the pressure by encouraging entrepreneurship so Koreans can imagine more creative life paths. But all the hullabaloo on test day only seems to add to the exam's intensity. Back out at the test site with the cheer squad leader - what is the message you give to the other students?

PARK: Relax and get good grades so they will not take the test again next year.

HU: Korean students can retake the test if they don't like their results, but since the Suneung happens only once each year, the chance for a do-over won't come again for another 364 days. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.