South Korea’s remarkable and unprecedented economic and technological transformation after the Korean war (1950-1953) is often referred to by observers and historians as the “Miracle on the Han River”. The country rose from being one of the world’s poorest after the Korean war, to becoming the 12th largest economy in the world and fourth in Asia. South Korea also became one of the most technologically advanced nations in a short span. The country’s makeover is the result of a strong emphasis on education and work ethic, entrepreneurship, pragmatism, nationalistic fervour, personal and collective sacrifices, and stress on efficiency in a highly competitive environment that permeates throughout the culture. For centuries, but more so since the 1980s, Koreans have placed a high value on education. Generally speaking, as in most countries, Koreans view education as the path to financial security, economic prosperity, and prestige. Some perceive it as the way out of poverty, others as a way to maintain or improve their socioeconomic status. In South Korea, these beliefs are intensified by the competitive nature of the culture. Therefore, families – both low- and high-income – spend excessive amounts of money on private education in the form of academies or “crammers” and private tutors. Clearly, the more affluent families spend more money on supplemental private education than families with limited resources. The latter often have to borrow money or spend their retirement savings in a futile attempt to level the playing field and give their children a competitive edge. How South Korea’s job applicants are learning to trick AI hiring bots A good example is the working-class Kim family portrayed in Bong Joon-ho ’s acclaimed movie Parasite . The daughter failed to gain admission into an art programme at university. The fact that she has attempted to gain university admission shows that even a low-income family is willing to sacrifice their limited resources to ensure their children are tertiary-educated. Her brother, who has also tried unsuccessfully to enter university, has a well-to-do friend who will study abroad in the United States. In the end, it is the son of wealthy parents who will still have the upper hand in job searches because of the decided edge he will gain from an overseas education, something the Kims cannot afford. Young people in South Korea are finding that the playing field is not levelled. As a result of the emphasis placed on education since the 1980s, South Korea has one of the world’s highest literacy rates. In 2017, the country had the highest high school graduation rate among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nations in the 25-34 age category, at 98 per cent. In comparison, the average OECD high school graduation rate was 85 per cent. This emphasis also applies to higher education. The percentage of South Koreans aged 25 to 64 with any postsecondary degree doubled between 2000 and 2017 from 24 per cent to 48 per cent. Furthermore, in 2017, 69.8 per cent of high school graduates continued their studies at university, as compared with the OECD average of 41 per cent. The “democratisation of higher education” has created a period of degree inflation and an excess of overqualified individuals for blue- and white-collar jobs. This situation exists not only at the baccalaureate, but at the master’s and doctoral degree level as well. As a result, young people in South Korea are finding that the playing field is not levelled. All the individual and family sacrifices in terms of money, time, and effort are not enough to guarantee a job commensurate with their education. Why South Koreans are trapped in a lifetime of study The job market has become so competitive that even some students from top-tier universities struggle to secure a job at a large corporation. The job market situation, as well as the evident social inequality, has prompted some disheartened and disenfranchised young people to refer to present-day South Korea as “Hell Joseon”. This term essentially rejects the aspects of Korean society that make it difficult for some young people to find opportunity and happiness – such as the gruelling competition, the individual and collective sacrifices, the unfulfilled promises of education as a panacea for financial success, the excessive real estate prices, and the high youth unemployment. Behind the public face of South Korea – the glitz and glamour associated with K-beauty, K-pop and K-dramas; as well as the high-tech displays exhibited during major sports events, such as the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics – there are some looming formidable challenges. Some of these issues include having one of the fastest ageing populations among OECD countries and concomitant increased expenditures on social services; a persistently low fertility rate; and an overemphasis on higher education, which has contributed to the creation of a period of degree inflation and high youth unemployment. The critical question is whether the government and the general public are prepared to face yet another difficult test by implementing long-range solutions to a very challenging set of conditions. John Gonzalez and Young Lee are authors of the newly released book South Korea: The Price of Efficiency and Success .