Flight bans, police escorts as half a million South Koreans sit annual ‘Suneung’ college exam

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  • South Korea fell silent on Thursday with flights suspended and businesses opening late as more than 500,000 students sat the annual college entrance exam
  • Local police were even mobilised to transport students who were running late
Agence France-Presse |
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Students sit the annual college scholastic ability test at a high school in Seoul on Thursday. Photo: AFP

South Korea closed its airspace to ensure silence and offered police escorts for tardy test takers Thursday as more than half a million students sat high-stakes college admission exams.

Seoul’s Education Ministry said 508,030 students were sitting the annual nine-hour test this year, the results of which are crucial for securing spots at top universities.

But the bevy of anxious parents dropping off their children for the test – and visiting local temples to pray for success – highlights the broader significance of the exam, success in which is also seen as the key to lucrative careers and even marriage prospects.

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The enormous pressure on students in South Korea’s ultra-competitive education system has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world.

This year’s exam, locally known as “Suneung” – an abbreviation for College Scholastic Ability Test – marks the third year it has been held under Covid-19 restrictions.

Pandemic-linked measures continue to affect the students, who will have to bring their own water and lunch and be masked throughout the test, which kicked off at 8.40am local time (7.40am Hong Kong time).

Buddhist believers pray for their children’s success in the annual college entrance examinations, at a Buddhist temple in Seoul. Photo: Reuters

At lunchtime, students taking the exams will be given a three-sided screen to shield them from others as part of a Covid-prevention measure, and they are banned from chatting or eating in groups.

Local police were called in to transport students running late to enter classrooms by a 8:10am deadline either on motor bikes or in police cars, as has happened in previous years.

Videos of the police rushing students to exam halls have been an annual ritual for domestic media, though some local authorities this year banned the transport on motorcycles, citing safety issues.

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At the Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School in central Seoul, some test-takers arrived holding hands with their visibly nervous parents.

One student got out of a police vehicle and rushed to her classroom, seemingly desperate to make it on time.

Among this year’s half a million exam takers, 2,400 have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the education ministry, and will sit their exams in specially designated test centres and medical facilities.

An exam candidate is given a lift by police to Ewha Girls Foreign Language High School, a test site for the national college entrance exam, in Seoul, November 17. Photo: EPA-EFE

The national importance of the exam is reflected in the extraordinary measures South Korean authorities take to remove any disturbance that could hinder students. Public offices, banks and the stock market open an hour later than usual to help ease traffic congestion and ensure students arrive on time for the exam.

All take-offs and landings at the country’s airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test from 1.05pm except for emergency landings. All planes in the air must maintain altitude higher than 3,000 metres (10,000 feet).

The South Korean transport ministry said 77 flights – 18 of them international – have been rescheduled because of the exam.

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