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World Perspective | Immigration

Some in S. Korea See a Brighter Future Overseas

In all, 15,307 moved abroad last year, many seeking a better education for their children. The departures are worrisome because the emigres tend to be well-heeled and well-schooled.


SEOUL — Fed up with what the South Korean education system was doing to his children, Jeon In Soo sent his wife and two daughters to live in Canada while he helped his ailing father and wrapped up his business affairs. If all goes well, he'll join them in a few years.

"On holidays and weekends I get a bit lonely, but we call and e-mail. And my children seem so happy now," the 41-year old management consultant says. "I think a lot of talent is squandered in Korea and that people who could do very well elsewhere don't get the chance here."

A single family's choice, multiplied several thousandfold, has become a cause for national hand wringing. South Korean government officials, politicians and the media are fretting these days over a 21% year-over-year jump in the number of Koreans who opted to move overseas in 2000. In March, a seminar on living abroad drew 53,000 people. "There's No Future Here," said a headline in one conservative newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo.

Although the number of South Korean emigres last year was still relatively small at 15,307, many find the sharp jump disconcerting after a decade of near-continuous decline. Furthermore, although Koreans throughout their long history have moved abroad for better opportunities, past waves were generally made up of the poor and uneducated. Today's migrants tend to be affluent and well-schooled, the very people Seoul is counting on to steer the nation into the future.

Topping the complaint list in unofficial surveys of those leaving is the quality of South Korea's education--in a country where parents will do almost anything to get their children into an elite university. This dovetails with a widely held view that the country's unforgiving entrance exam system and the blistering competition for a handful of key openings force families to spend huge sums on private tutors.

"The fact that we're in a global, knowledge-based economy and many elites want to emigrate just for their children's education is quite worrisome," said Kim Kyu Won, associate professor of sociology at Kyongbuk University. "Moving to a different country is not a decision taken lightly."

Emigres also say the nation isn't producing graduates with the skills to compete in the global economy. The education system evolved during the heady years of economic growth when South Korea needed a relatively uniform labor force for its factories and offices. As such, critics say, the system doesn't encourage individuality or reward inspiration.

Jeon, like many, believes that his children weren't given much chance to pursue their dreams but instead were placed on a rigid track well before their full potential was evident. Since their move to Canada, 11-year-old Hae Jin has developed an interest in drawing and art, while 9-year-old Hae In is doing well at ballet.

Stories circulate in Seoul, meanwhile, of applicants turned down by top-flight Seoul National University only to be accepted by Harvard, along with complaints that South Korea's leading schools are not even ranked among the world's top 100. Even getting into Seoul National, Yonsei or Korea University--South Korea's Ivy League--is no guarantee these days as unemployment rises.

Another factor is general angst over the country's worsening outlook. Economic growth is falling rapidly, structural reform is stalled and relations with North Korea are getting chillier.

"The crisis in Korean education and political uneasiness lead to the departure of talented individuals," said an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo. "But they're also a source of frustration for those who don't leave and who are in need of hope."

Still, some feel that the emigration issue is overblown--and being used by opposition politicians to attack the government. Analysts say capital, goods and know-how now move rapidly around the world, so it's natural to expect that labor will increasingly do the same.

"It's natural for people to find a better economy to live under, and Korea has still not fully recovered from the 1997 [currency] crisis," said Park Jie Won, an aide to President Kim Dae Jung who immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1972 before returning to South Korea in the 1990s. "It's just not that big a deal."


Magnier was recently on assignment in Seoul.

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