Korean Schools

(P1) The post office PULLED UP STAKES and moved away years ago. The police station is long gone. And so is the bank. Over the years, the residents of Nogok have watched almost every major institution disappear, victims of an EXODUS of young people that is emptying villages and towns across much of rural South Korea.

(P2) Now, Nogok is about to lose an important symbol of youthful VITALITY: Next spring, the local primary school will close when its only student, a 12-year-old named Chung Jeong-su, graduates.

(P3) “Villages around here have no more children to send,” the school’s only teacher, Lee Sung-kyun, said recently, looking over an empty, weed-filled playground surrounded by old cherry trees. “Young people have all gone to cities to find work and get married there.”

(P4) Nogok, which lies 110 miles east of Seoul, is typical of many rural South Korean towns. An IDYLLIC CLUSTER of 16 HAMLETS, it is NESTLED in a series of narrow valleys surrounded by LUSH hills. In the hills and valleys, farmers tend crops of potatoes, beans and red peppers; in town, persimmon and apricot trees grow in the well-tended gardens of every home. But the town also bears SCARS from the country’s rapid industrialization, a great transformation that places like Nogok helped UNLEASH.

(P5) And the primary school itself played a large part in those changes.

(P6) Like COUNTLESS other parents in the AFTERMATH of the Korean War, the SLASH-AND-BURN farmers of Nogok saw education as the ticket for their children to escape lives of BACKBREAKING work and poverty. Every morning, they would send them to study at Nogok Primary, with some of the children walking as many as five miles each way.

(P7) Later, the children joined streams of rural youths migrating to cities to seek higher education or factory jobs from the 1970s and onward, providing cheap and disciplined WORK FORCES to fuel the economy.

(P8) Many children from Nogok Primary, for instance, moved on to work as WELDERS and painters at shipyards on the southern coast of South Korea, earning wages their fathers could hardly have imagined as they TOILED on their HARDSCRABBLE PLOTS in the hills around Nogok.

(P9) This exodus also OVERLAPPED with a government BIRTH-CONTROL campaign that started in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. In Nogok, married men reporting for MANDATORY army reserve training would receive condoms or EXEMPTIONS from serving if they agreed to free VASECTOMIES. Across South Korea, the BIRTH RATE dropped from 4.5 children per woman in 1970 to 1.2 last year, one of the lowest rates in the world. Over the same period, the number of primary school students decreased by more than half to 2.7 million.

(P10) HARDEST HIT by this DEMOGRAPHIC shift were rural towns like Nogok and their public schools. Since 1982, nearly 3,600 schools have closed across South Korea, most of them in rural towns, for lack of children.

(P11) Today, many villages look like GHOST TOWNS, with houses CRUMBLING and once-BUSTLING schools standing in weedy ruins, WINDOWPANES cracked or full of COBWEBS. In Nogok, the only store in the town center was closed during a recent visit in the afternoon.

(P12) “There are only old, useless people left here,” said Baek Gye-hyun, 55, a farmer here. “If we come across a young woman with a child, we stop and stare as if they were an ENDANGERED SPECIES.”

(P13) In 1960, Nogok had 5,387 people, 2,054 of them age 12 or younger. In 2010, the last year the government conducted a general census, the town reported a population of 615. Only 17 were 14 or younger.

(P14) Jeong-su, the Nogok Primary student, is the youngest child, and his 52-year-old father, Chung Eui-jin, the youngest married man in their village of Hawolsan-ri, which is part of Nogok. The school has not had a first grader since Jeong-su enrolled there five years ago. After two sixth graders graduated this spring, he was the only student left.

(P15) “It’s cool to have all the school to myself,” said Jeong-su, a shy boy with glasses, who said he wanted to become a VETERINARIAN.

(P16) When asked what he would remember the most from his school days, he mentioned playing table tennis with his teacher, Mr. Lee.

(P17) Mr. Lee said the PERSONALIZED attention was obviously good for Jeong-su. But he said he felt bad that the boy had no classmates with whom to share school memories later in life.

(P18) “Until last year, when we had several students, we used to play mini-soccer,” he said, referring to a STRIPPED-DOWN version of the game for small numbers of players. “Now, that has become impossible.” At recess, Mr. Lee said, he and Jeong-su now spent their time throwing paper airplanes.

(P19) Most South Koreans now live in the tall apartment buildings that are spread out like DOMINOES across South Korean cities, but many still BEMOAN the shrinking of rural communities. The slow death of rural schools is particularly POIGNANT in a culture that CHERISHES hometown and school ties.

(P20) Even decades after leaving rural hometowns, many urban MIGRANTS stay connected through “dongchanghoe,” or school alumni associations, whose bonds are so strong that politicians often use them as vote-gathering tools.

(P21) “It’s a SORRY SIGHT,” said Mr. Baek, a graduate of Nogok Primary, pointing at the weeds in the school’s playground. “When I was a student here, 300 children were crawling all over there, giving weeds no time to grow.”

(P22) In 1990, for the 60th anniversary of the school, graduates POOLED money to build statues of an elephant and a lion, as well as a MONUMENT that urges students to NURTURE their “dreams into the future, into the world.” But by 1999, the school had lost so many students it became a branch of another school, Geundeok Primary School, in the nearby town. Today, the monument stands FORLORN, OVERLOOKING a basketball hoop, slides and soccer goal posts RUSTING in the school field.

(P23) Inside the two-story concrete school building, it is oddly silent.

(P24) The wooden floors CREAKED when Jeong-su, Mr. Lee and the school’s janitor, Lee Dong-min, walked in on a recent school day. Walls lined with crayon drawings and ORIGAMI created by former students BORE WITNESS to a busier past.

(P25) GATHERING DUST in empty classrooms were big-screen TVs, table tennis tables, computers, a drum set, a piano, telescopes, anatomical charts, book-filled shelves, and desks and chairs, all empty.

(P26) Painting and guitar instructors visit the school twice a week to give Jeong-su lessons. A yellow van operated by the local educational office delivers lunch for the boy and his teacher.

(P27) It cost more than 100 million won (about $87,000) a year to run the school, Mr. Lee said.

(P28) “You can’t say all the excess is JUSTIFIED by one student,” said Kim Bok-hyun, 71, a Nogok villager.

(P29) Mr. Kim used to sell pencils, gum and toys to Nogok Primary students from a shop in front of the school. But he closed up years ago because of a lack of customers. He now spends most of his time sitting on a chair on the roadside, watching the few buses and trucks that pass by.

(P30) Some rural towns started campaigns to save their schools, hiring buses to transport children from neighboring towns and even offering free housing for couples moving in with school-age children.

(P31) Similar efforts did not work for Nogok, said Kim Jong-sik, 58, a village chief in the area.

(P32) “There is no one coming in to live here, only people moving out,” said Mr. Kim, who said all his own children lived in cities. “With all the best schools, jobs and shopping malls concentrated in big cities, their attraction for young people has become IRREVERSIBLE.”

WORDS: 1270



If you found the passage difficult to read or had problems understanding specific words or idiomatic expressions, please discuss them with your tutor. The following discussion questions should be answered in your own words and with your own arguments.

  1. Briefly summarize the content of the article in your own words.
  2. Why do so many people prefer living in cities or their nearby suburbs, instead of in small towns and rural areas?
  3. Did you attend large schools or small schools when you were growing up?
  4. The teacher quoted in the article worries about his lone student having no classmates. Is school as much a social experience as an educational experience?
  5. With a very low birth rate, South Korean society as a whole is aging rapidly. What effects will this have 20 or 30 years from now?


What do the following expressions mean? Practice using each expression in a sentence; extra points if you can use it in conversation.

  • Pull up stakes
  • Slash-and-burn
  • Work force
  • Birth-control
  • Birth rate
  • Hard hit
  • Ghost town
  • Endangered species
  • Stripped-down
  • Sorry sight
  • Bear witness
  • Gather dust

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