South Korea’s dystopian nightmare

South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced and culturally influential countries in the world, but behind the curtain is an ultra-competitive dystopian “survival of the fittest” job market and education system where everything wrong about free market (crony) capitalism is amplified to its logical extreme.

Education System

“Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us…We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework.” -Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Student Council

Despite boasting some of the world’s highest test scores and the world’s highest high school graduation rate (97%), student happiness is ranked among the worst in the world, suicide rates the highest, and students undergo conditions not unlike that of a prison labor camp [1] [2] [3].

High school begins at 7:30am and ends at 10pm (yes, the school cafeterias actually serve dinner), after which students go home and typically study for another 2–3 more hours before falling asleep around 2–3am. They sleep for 4 hours, and wake up to repeat the cycle for 3 years.

Gym class is twice per week, but the students are so sleep deprived that the time is often used to nap, or for the most dedicated — to cram in more studying.

All of this is to prepare for the college entrance exam, the outcome of which largely dictates the rest of your life due to society’s extraordinary academic elitism. Getting into a top university all comes down to the score you get on that exam, as well as selecting the optimum combination of schools to apply to (you’re not allowed to submit your score to more than 3 schools). You also need to select a major for your college application, after which it’s practically impossible to change.

Not unlike the rest of the world, elite colleges are disproportionally represented by children of the wealthy — almost to a comical extent — for the obvious reasons that their parents are able to invest more in their education to game the system. The stereotypical student at Seoul National University grew up in Gangnam (highest real estate prices in the country), spent some years living abroad (English test scores are critical for getting accepted to good schools and good companies), went to expensive private schools, and have rich parents who are doctors, lawyers, or something of that nature.

Cutthroat Job Market

Ultimately this ultra-competitive education system stems from the ultra-competitive job market, and it really can’t be overstated how competitive it is for young people to find decent work in Korea these days.

It’s standard for students to take 1–2 years off before graduating to prepare for the rigorous and demanding job application process because companies prefer to hire students who haven’t yet graduated. They prepare for the TOEIC English exam (scores expire after 2 years) and company-specific entrance exams that the big conglomerates require their applicants to undergo and offer only twice per year (though Samsung ended theirs this year).

Name brand is incredibly important, so if you don’t graduate from a top university, you’re basically screwed. Only a select minority will make it into the big conglomerates after undergoing their rigorous and lengthy interviews and company-specific entrance exams. Those unable to land jobs at these prized companies have to compete for work at smaller companies offering half the salary ($24k/yr), and relegate themselves to careers of mediocrity due to the lack of prestige in their company’s brand names in a name-brand obsessed society.

As an example of the desperation of those without the prestige of a brand name university: last year’s entrance exam for the position of a lowly public servant — possibly the only job in the country where one’s candidacy is based solely on a test score — received 200,000 applicants for 3,846 openings, a 1.9% acceptance rate. All that for a job stamping documents for $1,400/month. (And the exam is offered only once per year) [4]

Work culture is absolutely brutal and militant-like in its hierarchical authoritarian structure. Nobody is allowed to leave before their boss, so everybody stays at the office until 8–11pm everyday. Unconditional obedience to your boss is expected, and any sort of questioning of their opinions is asking for a pink slip.

Institutionalized Nepotism and Plutocracy

Korean Resume

Korean resumes require:

It’s difficult to fathom as an outsider in a Western culture, but a job applicants’ parents’ occupations actually matter a great deal. The more prestigious their work, the higher your odds of getting that job.

Korean companies don’t even pretend to not discriminate in favor of physically attractive people. That’s why Korea boasts the highest plastic surgery rates in the world. It’s typical of job interviews to start off with “icebreakers” like “so do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”

The big corporations expect you to have studied abroad in countries like the U.S. and Canada, something only possible for those who’s parents can afford it. Companies value the international exposure and the English skills (despite the fact that employees rarely use English), particularly because public schools fail to teach proper English speaking skills. English is taught more like a math or science to game the exams, which don’t test speaking ability.

Again, name brand is paramount. Despite the resume asking for names of previous employers and job titles, there’s actually no section for describing what you actually did at your jobs because it’s not important enough for the resume. No matter how experienced and removed from school you are, education is always listed at the top because your alma matter is of upmost importance. Working at less prestigious companies confines you to a career working at less prestigious companies, which unlike the U.S. means accepting drastically lower compensation and longer (unpaid) hours.

In a recent survey, 78.6% of adults said they would emigrate if they could, and 47.9% of those people said they were already preparing to leave. The most common reasons cited were lack of work life balance, poor working conditions, severe income inequality, anxiety about jobs and life after retirement, and the competitive environment. [5]


In summary, you have an extraordinarily competitive education system that pits high school students against each other in school for 14 hours/day in preparation for a college entrance exam, after which upon graduating they’ll compete against each other for a limited set of jobs at employers that demand 14 hour workdays ruled by strict, authoritarian regimes.

None of this is specific only to Korea, Korea just takes it all to its logical extreme and doesn’t even pretend like it’s not doing these things. American employers also discriminate against older married women on the verge of pregnancy (and always will as long as it’s advantageous for them to do so), they just lack the boldness to explicitly demand that information on their applicants’ resumes.

Ultimately, all of these problems — from the inhumane education system to the brutal wage slave working conditions to the blatant discrimination on everything from physical appearance to your parents’ ages and job titles — stem from the ultra-competitive labor market.

The government can enact laws all they want such as mandatory curfews on cram schools, anti-discrimination laws, and regulation promoting better work-life balance, but those can only haphazardly address the symptoms without addressing the underling root cause (like trying to lower the suicide rate by mandating more nets on tall buildings). When there are too many people fighting for too few slots, no curfew law is going to have the desired impact. There will always be people willing to work longer hours when the alternative is starvation and social estrangement.

How does a country fix an ultra-competitive labor market?

First we need to frame the problem correctly. The problem is not that there are too many people chasing too few jobs (this is the state of every single first world country), the problem is that people need jobs in the first place.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one policy proposal that would eliminate the dependence of people on jobs, which in Korea’s case would have enormous reverberating implications throughout not only their job market and work culture but also their education system. Being in school for 14 hours/day would suddenly become an option rather than a necessity required in order to escape a humiliating life of poverty, unrespected work, parental dependence, and limited dating options. Rather than an outdated industrial-education complex that breeds overly passive and obedient workers, true individuality would finally be made possible. All the time wasted showing facetime for one’s boss, often within commoditized companies endlessly competing against each other in zero-sum games for profit, could become a thing of the past. The wage slaves would be freed.

Lee Jae-myung (described to me as a combination of Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama), the mayor of a prominent city next to Seoul who finished 3rd in the Democratic primary in the recent presidential election, is a huge advocate for a basic income funded by a land value tax. He’s already implemented a basic income for 19–24 year olds in his city and is striving to get it implemented at the national level. [6]

We’re all stuck in endless competition against each other, but for what?

“The big problem with competition is that it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we’re competing on, we lose sight of anything that’s important, or transcendent, or truly meaningful in our world.” -Peter Thiel

Even if one can’t swallow the idea of a first world country with an unconditional safety net, there’s always the possibility of the government creating jobs for its citizens in order to employ those left out by the private labor market. Unfortunately its a tough sell to corporations who prefer their monopolization and death grip over the labor market, and in turn the politicians bought out by the corporations and the masses brainwashed by them. Former president Park Geun-hye (daughter of a dictator) and the CEO of Samsung are in jail on charges of bribery and corruption. The president before Park was CEO of Hyundai.

To many the idea of a UBI will sound like heresy, but I’ll take it over whatever Korea has.