A SMASH-HIT South Korean TV series gives 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 recalls how she would wake at six to catch the bus, study until 10pm and arrive home an hour later, before repeating the cycle – a daily routine she shared with her peers in the hyper-competitive 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 television 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, Korea and Yonsei universities.
The show resonates 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 extra-curricular 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 own daughters.
Ahead of the series finale last Friday, its most popular episode had been watched by 23 per cent of South Korea’s entire subscription television 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,” said Choi Jae-young, an education activist in Seoul.
South Korean children have been repeatedly cited as the least happy in the OECD group of developed countries, while government data shows suicide is the leading cause of death among young South Koreans aged nine to 24.
‘What about Harvard?’
Selective establishments of the kind in SKY Castle account for less than five per cent of South Korean high schools, but provided 36.2 per cent of SKY’s first-year students in 2018, according to the World Without Worries about Shadow Education think-tank.
Almost half these schools are in the state sector 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 told pupils 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 all night every single day and went to the medical school at Seoul National University (SNU),” 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 herself, Lee feels 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 fulfils his mother’s greatest ambition for him – admission to SNU medical school – only to turn it down and reject his family.
“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 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, 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,” said the 29-year-old.
Activist Choi, who is working with lawmakers to ban discrimination based on university degrees, said South Korea’s educational culture 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 who spoke to AFP 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.”