In South Korea, white-collar workers’ salaries and job titles in their 60s can often be predicted by which university they attended. The jostling for position starts in kindergarten, with some rich parents spending thousands of dollars a month on private tutoring to help their children secure spots in elite prep schools and top universities.
Well-connected families often resort to dubious tactics to get their children into the best universities, such as helping them land coveted internships at big corporations, research think-tanks and university labs, which offer opportunities to get credit on research papers.
The Education Ministry’s audits of universities since 2017 have uncovered 794 research papers where middle school or high school students were listed as co-authors, including at least 11 where professors named their own children as co-authors. When economists from Seoul National University compared two boroughs of Seoul in 2014, they found that children from the wealthier borough were 20 times more likely to enter the university, the country’s most coveted, than children from the other.
South Korean TV dramas and movies, such as Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, “Parasite,” have attracted huge audiences by fictionalizing the divide between the so-called gold-spoon children and their less well-to-do dirt-spoon peers.
“South Korean millennials consider fairness the most important value — an attitude the older generations have failed to understand,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. As the economy has slowed and attractive jobs have become harder to come by, they have become more sensitive to the “fair rules of game,” Mr. Ahn said.
The case that took down President Park — leading to the first such impeachment in South Korean history — was emblematic of such favoritism, and was set off when students at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul began organizing rallies against her government in 2016.
The students had learned that Choi Soon-sil, a secret friend of Ms. Park, used her influence with the president to force Ewha to enroll her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, in 2015 ahead of better-qualified applicants. Ewha professors gave Ms. Chung good grades, even though she later said she hardly knew what her major was because she seldom attended classes.