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Seoul's intellectual pressure cooker

COLUMN ONE

Welcome to hyper-competitive Exam Village, where 20,000 people study around the clock for law school entrance tests, civil service exams and other trials.

August 21, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Times Staff Writer
  • For five long years, Park Jin-hun lived a monkish life in an area of Seoul known as Exam Village. After failing the bar exam, he opened a bookstore.
For five long years, Park Jin-hun lived a monkish life in an area of Seoul… (Matt Douma / For the Times )

Reporting from Seoul — When he was 35, Park Jin-hun quit his job, left his family and moved to Exam Village.

Pursuing his dream of practicing law, the salaryman told his wife he would see her and their young son only once a month until he passed the bar. He gave himself two years maximum.

Five years in a row, he failed the exam, each time resolving to stick it out for one more attempt. He spent his days in neurotic study rooms that demanded total silence (no paper rustling, please!), too consumed to think of anything but the intricacies of South Korean law. Sometimes he thought he was going mad.

With each failure, he ratcheted up his study hours and became increasingly antisocial, driven by fear of failure. At night in bed, he dreamed of studying.

He had become a prisoner of Exam Village, an area of Seoul where 20,000 people of all ages and backgrounds lead monkish lives — cramming nearly round the clock for law school entrance tests, civil service exams and other trials of knowledge and memorization, living on family loans, cafeteria meals and too little sleep.

In hyper-competitive South Korea, Exam Village is both an intellectual isolation chamber and an emotional pressure cooker, the center of a dizzying array of preparation courses and private study rooms, where the only thing that counts is a passing grade.

Lawyers here brag of surviving not law school but their sentences in Exam Village, or gosichon. Years later, the name still makes many shiver.

Park, a wiry, bookish man in spectacles, never passed the bar. Now 48, he has found a new career: selling textbooks to those toiling in Exam Village.

To other repeat exam-takers, he offers discounts and words of encouragement, especially to those who have failed so many times — sometimes 10 times or more — that they've become the butt of jokes: "I tell people they're almost there."

Park's wife, Cho Hyun-suk, says her husband's obsession tested their marriage. Forced to live alone, paying the bills on her civil-servant salary while her husband went through their hard-earned savings, she felt emotionally divorced.

"At first, I secretly hoped he wouldn't pass the bar. He was a bit too arrogant. I thought that as a lawyer he would be overbearing," said Cho, also 48.

But he emerged from his trials a changed man, she said. "His continued failure made him more humble. And I didn't know he had such good business instincts. He looked around that environment and recognized a good opportunity."

*

Park arrived in Exam Village in the fall of 1998. He had gotten his undergraduate degree in law years before and had worked in the electronics business. But he always dreamed of taking the bar and doing careful preparations for the big test as a resident of the blue-collar neighborhood that sits in the shadow of prestigious Seoul National University.

People trudged along the narrow streets with backpacks and faraway looks. Businesses had names like the Smartville apartments, Pizza School and Exam cafeteria. Walls were papered with ads for private prep classes whose guarantees for passing grades had the boastful cheesiness of late-night TV commercials for low-cost lawyers or kitchen gadgets.

For some, studying isn't enough: They rely on superstition. Real estate agents hawked apartments by touting the passing grade of the previous tenants. Coffee houses displayed window signs lauding successful students who had once frequented the premises.

Park found a room just large enough for a desk and sleeping mat for $150 a month. He budgeted $5 a day for meals, buying books of discount meal coupons.

Buying a membership in one of the private study rooms, he soon learned a strict code of conduct: no talking, whispering, pen clicking, throat clearing, loud page turning, text messaging, foot tapping, book jostling or wrapper crinkling.

Once he was admonished for shaking his leg and coughing. To preserve the quiet, the complainer waited until Park rose to go the bathroom and then left a scolding note. (A confrontation would only have created more noise.) "Once you've failed an exam a few times, you can get on edge," Park said.

He soon exhibited that edginess himself. He failed the bar exam once, then a second time. He changed apartments, hoping for better luck. On a subsequent attempt, he passed the first part of the exam, but failed the second, a four-day marathon.

"At times, I felt like I was going crazy. I was suffering economically," he said. "I didn't socialize well. I felt uncomfortable around others."

One day, he went home unexpectedly to see his wife. He found her at a park, a lonely-looking figure. He said his heart broke.

He also watched Exam Village deteriorate. Bars, pool halls and brothels moved in to lure students frustrated from too much study. He did his best to ignore the temptation.

During his third year, Park was browsing in a crowded bookstore when it struck him that the area's support businesses seemed to be making a killing.

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