Ivory tower under siege
As the nation's most prestigious university, Seoul National practically runs South Korean society. Many of today's political, business and social elite have attended, along with the majority of professors, lawyers, doctors, civil servants and top executives.
And it is becoming tougher to get in. Some high school graduates try repeatedly, even if it means several extra years of preparation. Some who failed to gain admission were later admitted to Harvard, Yale and other prestigious US universities.
Today's students at Seoul National are not just smart - they also come from rich families, as they are the only ones who can afford the best cram school teachers and tutors. Those from poorer families have little chance of being admitted.
It is against this backdrop that the left-leaning Democratic Labour Party has called for the university to be scrapped. The progressive party, which entered the National Assembly for the first time by winning 10 seats in the April general election, argues that the university is at the root of the nation's numerous problems.
It claims the 'network' increases the chances of collusion and corruption among the top echelon's inner circles. And as a new class of 'aristocracy', the group also has little knowledge of the real world or the people at large, the party claims. It says that wealth and poverty are inherited from generation to generation, as Seoul National University perpetuates the class structure of society. Because only rich people enter the school and, hence, enjoy successful careers and lives, the chance of success for other groups is getting slimmer.
The Democratic Labour Party and other progressive groups suggest that all nationally owned universities, including Seoul National University, should be integrated. That way, it would become just one of about a dozen national universities, its dominance would end and the future of the other universities would look brighter.
This is a tempting idea in a country where equality is viewed as the most important virtue. Standing out among your peers is always seen as dangerous, while living with others on an equal footing is more desirable.
But as long as South Korea is based on the principles of capitalism and free competition, such an idea could prove detrimental to society. Rather than trying to downgrade the best, second-tier universities have to work harder. The loss of Seoul National University would be a tragedy for a nation whose academic standards are already lower than its competitors'. The solution is not to get rid of Seoul National, but to create a second - and a third - prestigious university.