South Korea

South Korea silenced as students take vital college entrance exam

Planes grounded, military drills postponed for test which can cement a teens place in society

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2014, 5:31pm

Planes were grounded and air-force drills rescheduled as South Korea went into "hush" mode yesterday while nearly 650,000 students sat the annual college entrance exam that will help define their futures in an ultra-competitive society.

Preparation for the crucial exam starts from primary school, and so does the relentless pressure which has been blamed for everything from early burnout to teenage depression and suicide.

Success in the exam means a secured place in one of South Korea's elite universities - a key to future careers as well as marriage prospects.

A 17-year old boy was found dead on Wednesday evening having apparently jumped from the window of his family's flat. His parents told Yonhap news agency that he had become extremely stressed as the test neared.

With so much riding on the outcome, the day of the test - held simultaneously in 1,257 centres nationwide - sees the entire country switch to silent running.

The transportation ministry bans all airport landings and departures for a 40-minute period to coincide with the main language listening test.

The military also reschedules air-force drills and live-firing exercises, while traffic is barred within a 200-metre radius of the test centres.

Public offices and major businesses, as well as the stock markets, opened an hour later than usual to help keep the roads relatively clear and ensure the students arrived on time for the exam, which began at 8.40am local time.

Anyone who did get stuck could dial the emergency number 112, and request help from police cars and motorbikes on standby to rush them to the centres.

At Seoul's Pungmoon girls' high school, junior students huddled together in the cold and held good-luck banners and shouted encouragement as their seniors entered the exam room.

For the equally stressed parents, there was little left to do after a final hug at the school gates.

Many immediately made their way to nearby churches and temples in search of some divine intervention.

Major internet portals and social networks were flooded with good-luck messages, and "test-takers" and "jackpot for the test" were among the top trending topics for Korean Twitter users.

Some warned against taking the exam too seriously.

"Don't do anything stupid," wrote one user on the portal Naver. "Don't kill yourself just because you mess up the test. There are many people who succeed in life without going to college."

The approach of exam day tends to renew a perennial debate in South Korea about the country's obsession with education.

The bottom line for many is that the examination itself is fair. Everyone takes the same paper, which relies on the multiple-choice system to prevent subjective marking.