South Korean high school seniors are eager to return to the classroom

South Korean high school seniors are eager to return to the classroom

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Jason Strother

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A teacher gives an online class at school, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Seoul, South Korea, April 9, 2020. 

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Heo Ran/Reuters 

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South Korean high school seniors will be the first students to return to the classroom after the coronavirus delayed the start of the academic year. For many, the pandemic didn’t just disrupt their education; it cast their entire futures into uncertainty. 

On Wednesday, schools across the country will partially reopen to allow students in their final year of primary education to resume in-person learning. A large COVID-19 outbreak in February forced the government to postpone the start of the school year, which typically begins in March, by several weeks. And last month, all students began receiving online instruction. 

Related: South Korea flattened the curve. Now what?

South Korea’s Education Ministry said in a press release that it will reopen schools just for seniors due to their “urgent academic needs.” Students in lower grade levels will gradually return to schools in the upcoming weeks.

Classes were set to resume on May 13, but a cluster infection detected earlier this month in Seoul, the capital, prompted officials to extend school closures by an additional week.   

Some seniors, like Jung Ujin, who studies video production at a specialized high school in Seoul, say they can’t wait much longer to get back into the classroom, despite lingering health concerns posed by the epidemic. Jung explains that virtual classes can’t prepare students for the tests and other requirements they need to gain acceptance into good universities and she feels like the delay has made her “fall behind” in her studies. 

“We are panicking because we haven’t been able to go to school. I feel like I am at a disadvantage now. I really feel like I am in a hurry to get back to class.”

Jung Ujin, high school senior in Seoul

“We are panicking because we haven’t been able to go to school,” the 18-year old says. “I feel like I am at a disadvantage now. I really feel like I am in a hurry to get back to class.” 

The third and final year of high school in South Korea is almost entirely devoted to preparing for a university entrance examination known as the suneung. It’s widely considered the most important test a Korean will ever take and determines the trajectory of one’s academic and professional career.  

Now, because of the delays and imposition of online learning brought on by the coronavirus, many high school seniors say they intend to double down on studying so to make up for this lost and valuable time — as if the rest of their lives depended on it. 

Related: Is South Korea’s approach to containing coronavirus a model? 

Park Ji-yun says the coronavirus will make achieving her educational and career goals more difficult. 

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Jason Strothers/The World 

“Whatever I decide to major in or whatever career I want to pursue will now be more difficult,” says Park Ji-yun, 17, adding it was difficult to avoid distraction while taking her school’s online lessons. “I don’t think I’ve been able to prepare enough to go to university and I need to do a lot more studying now.”  

Park, who intends to study tourism in college, says she plans to rewatch online lectures and study more with her classmates to compensate for this “setback” in her education. 

To allow students more time to prepare for the suneung, the Education Ministry has pushed back the test date from Nov. 19 to Dec. 3. 

Some observers say the coronavirus epidemic is putting added stress on students from this year’s graduating class, who would even in normal times feel  “immense pressure” to win admission to top schools by acing the university entrance exam.

“There’s a very narrow conception of what it means to be successful in Korean society,” says Ji-young Lee, who is completing her PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

Lee, who formerly taught high school classes in South Korea, explains many students are under a belief reinforced by their parents and teachers that the path to a successful life begins with the suneung.  

“If you are a good student who scores high, your life is just going to be fine, you’re going to be happy, you’re going to have a pretty or handsome girlfriend or boyfriend and your life’s problems are all going to be solved,” she says. 

Lee adds that students who do not achieve high marks on the test sometimes feel that their lives are “worthless.” 

Related: South Korea votes amid COVID-19 pandemic

Some Korean students and their parents are compensating for the lost classroom time by spending extra hours and money on private tutoring. 

Even though public schools have been close throughout the pandemic, many of these institutes kept their doors open during much of the past two months. 

Eun Soo-yoon, a 17-year old senior who attends a foreign language high school in Seoul, has been taking extracurricular courses for the past few weeks. 

She says she is not overly concerned about the college entry test, but many of her classmates are “freaking out”  right now. Eun says she’s more concerned about the potential risks of returning to school while new COVID-19 cases are still being recorded.  

“I am quite worried since we are the first ones to return in South Korea and we don’t know if it’s totally safe,” she says. 

On Tuesday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control reported 13 more coronavirus infections, bringing the country’s total number of COVID-19 cases to 11,078 to date.  

Eun says even though her school is reminding students to wear masks and frequently wash their hands, she doesn’t trust that all of her classmates will follow the guidelines. 

“Some boys never wash their hands and I hate that,” she says. “Personal hygiene is very important.”

Eun adds when she returns to class, she’ll take with her extra bottles of hand sanitizer. 

South Korea reels from latest high-tech, online sex trafficking case

South Korea reels from latest high-tech, online sex trafficking case

By
Kelly Kasulis

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Cho Ju-bin, leader of South Korea’s online sexual blackmail ring known as the “Nth room” walks out of a police station as he is transferred to a prosecutor’s office in Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2020. 

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One story might be dominating South Korean headlines even more than COVID-19: The Nth Room sex trafficking scandal.

In late March, Korean news organizations began revealing details about a series of pay-to-view, sex trafficking chat rooms on multipurpose, encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and Discord. The Nth room — which is actually eight different chat rooms on Telegram — circulated footage of at least 74 women and 16 minors performing forced sex acts for thousands of users who paid cryptocurrency to view it.

Many of the women and children, who were referred to as “slaves” in the chat room, were blackmailed using private information illegally obtained from government offices. On camera, the victims were raped, beaten and forced to self-mutilate. 

Related: South Korea’s controversial ‘life-size’ sex doll imports

Even worse, it’s unclear how many men paid for this footage, how many messaging apps are involved or how many copycat chat rooms have been made. Several minors between the ages of 12 and 17 are also being investigated for managing similar chat rooms and circulating or selling videos of rape and sexual assault.

“At least up to 10,000 men in Korea have had access to that chatroom, and they shared videos of sexually assaulting a bunch of minors,” said Yudori, a feminist graphic novelist and cartoonist who uses a pen name to protect her identity.

Yudori, like many other South Korean women observing these issues unfold in the media, is skeptical about whether the victims will see justice. Already, one of the individuals involved with creating the Nth room was sentenced to just 42 months — 3.5 years — in prison.

“I feel like there is still a possibility that they will get very, very lenient sentencing,” Yudori said. 

The Nth Room is a shock to many in South Korea, but it’s part of a greater trend of high-tech, national sex crimes. There was the Sora.net scandal in 2016, in which thousands of illegally filmed, nonconsensual spycam porn videos were circulated to up to 1 million site visitors. (One of the site’s co-founders was sentenced to four years in prison last year.) Similarly, in 2018, thousands of women rallied against spycam porn filmed inside hotels, spas and public bathrooms around the country.

Related: These Argentine women fight against a justice system ‘written by men’ 

“The platforms change and the message and the details change, and the patterns are similar and you see the same patterns in the nth room, and that’s treating the sexual objectification and the dehumanization of women as a game.”

Haeryun Kang, freelance journalist, South Korea

Haeryun Kang, a freelance journalist from South Korea and the creative director of a media startup called VideocusIN, recently created a short film called “Color of Rage: The Nth Room” that addresses the impact of these sex crimes on women.

“The platforms change and the message and the details change, and the patterns are similar and you see the same patterns in the nth room, and that’s treating the sexual objectification and the dehumanization of women as a game,” Kang said. 

But even as a journalist who reports on these issues frequently, the cruel nature of the Nth Room was hard for Kang to imagine.

“The Nth Room shocked me because of the way these women were treated and the things they were coerced into doing,” she said. “Yes, those actions were shocking to me, but what was shocking to me, even more, was the callousness of the language, and how people just talked about rape as if it was just a joke.”

For now, it’s unclear how the government will react to the Nth Room in the long run. Police are investigating several chat room handlers, and the story continues to develop in South Korea on a daily basis.

Lee Soo-jung, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University, said it’s time for the government to create laws that crack down harder on internet sex crimes.

Related: In Japan, sexual harassment isn’t a crime

“This is an astonishing case for people who didn’t know about cyberspace, the dark web and how the world works. How can there be a place where such inhumane, uncivilized crime can happen in secret?” 

Lee Soo-jung, professor of criminal pyschology, Kyonggi University, South Korea

“This is an astonishing case for people who didn’t know about cyberspace, the dark web and how the world works. How can there be a place where such inhumane, uncivilized crime can happen in secret?” she said. “We’re running into a problem where offline law and order does not yet apply to the online world. So, how do we make a law that can cover all kinds of dubious, illegal activity in cyberspace? That’s our homework for now.”

Mitch S. Shin contributed to this report.

Millions of South Korean voters head to the polls amid COVID-19 pandemic

Millions of South Korean voters head to the polls amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Jason Strother

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Voters in South Korea line up to cast their ballot in the election. 

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After winning praise from across the globe for mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus, South Korea has held parliamentary elections despite concerns that rolling back distancing and quarantine measures could expose voters to the disease.  

The rising number of coronavirus infections and deaths worldwide has prompted dozens of nations to postpone scheduled elections. Other governments have faced criticism for putting citizens at risk by not calling off their polls — such as during the April 7 primary elections in Wisconsin. 

Related: Is South Korea’s approach to containing coronavirus a model for the rest of the world?

On Wednesday, at least 29 million South Koreans lined up at polling places to cast ballots for the 300-seat National Assembly — a vote that was widely seen as a measure of public support for the government’s response to the pandemic.  

While Seoul has not imposed shelter-in-place orders since the crisis began, a nationwide social distancing policy remains in place until April 19. But on election day, as well as two early voting days last week, some of the official guidance — such as maintaining six feet of space from others and avoiding crowded spaces — was eased to allow the election to take place.     

Additional precautions were adopted to reduce the potential for infection. At polling locations, all voters were required to wear masks and stand just three feet apart from each other. Officials checked their temperatures and applied hand sanitizer on each voter before giving them disposable plastic gloves to handle the paper ballots.    

At a polling station, two people prepare gloves and hand sanitizer for voters casting ballots amid the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. 

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Jason Strother/The World 

Stations were also set up at medical centers to allow coronavirus patients to participate in the vote.   

Walking underneath a row of blossoming trees alongside a high-rise apartment building, Lee Sa-rang and members of her family waited for about 45 minutes to enter their local polling place — a now-shuttered elementary school in Yongin, a city just south of Seoul. 

Voters lined up inside a school to cast a ballot. 

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Jason Strother/The World 

Lee, who works in private education, says that as the number of COVID-19 cases here continues to decline, she feels it was safe enough as well as important to cast her vote now.     

“Everyone is taking their vote very seriously,” the 32-year old said.  

“Everyone is taking their vote very seriously. … Life needs to go on.”

Lee Sa-rang, private educator, Seoul, South Korea

“Life needs to go on,” Lee said, adding that voting signifies a return to “normalcy” for Korea and that the way in which the country’s leadership has confronted the coronavirus “reaffirmed” her support for the ruling party.  

Voter turnout was at a 28-year high, according to media reports. South Korea, which experienced a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak in February, has since flattened the curve thanks in part to widely available diagnostic tests and a technological infrastructure that has allowed for rapid contact tracing of infections.  

Related: South Korea flattened the curve. Now what?

Some observers say candidates affiliated with President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party, which recently adopted the slogan “We protect the people — we’re winning the battle against the coronavirus,” have campaigned on this success in order to win spots in the National Assembly.     

“They’re saying we’ve handled this pandemic better than any other country in the world. … This public relations campaign will help the ruling party.”

Gi-wook Shin, director , Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University  

“They’re saying we’ve handled this pandemic better than any other country in the world,” said Gi-wook Shin, director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.  “This public relations campaign will help the ruling party.”  

Exit polls show the Democratic Party with a strong lead over the main conservative opposition. The final vote tally will be released on Thursday. 

The Korea Centers for Disease Control reported on Wednesday that for the third consecutive day, new coronavirus cases slipped below 30, bringing the country’s total number of infections to 10,591. More than half of all patients have already been released from medical care, government data shows.  

Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have reached 225, according to the KCDC. But officials are still concerned about cluster outbreaks inside churches and hospitals as well as infections linked to Koreans who have recently returned from abroad. Since April 1, all inbound travelers are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. 

Before leaving the airport, new arrivals must install a smartphone health check app, which allows authorities to identify COVID-19 symptoms as well as track the movements of users.  

On election day, quarantine restrictions were temporarily lifted and polling stations were kept open to allow some 13,000 recent returnees to briefly leave their homes and vote.

“It’s too hasty to conclude that the coronavirus is gone. … The election should have  been postponed.”

Hwang Myung-jin, researcher, Korea University 

These relaxed measures put the public in danger, said Hwang Myung-jin, who researches social policy at Korea University. 

“It’s too hasty to conclude that the coronavirus is gone,” he said. “The election should have  been postponed.”  

Hwang fears that South Korea could see another spike in new coronavirus cases. 

Surveys leading up to Wednesday’s polls showed strong approval for President Moon, which was not the case prior to the start of the pandemic, due in part to a sluggish economy

For some voters, the election was a chance to show their frustration with his other policies.

“The cost of living has gone up too high under this administration,” Kim Hyeong- jun, a 60-year old businessman said after casting his vote in Yongin. “The government raised the minimum wage and that’s hurting the owners of small companies.”   

Related: South Korea’s delivery workers face ‘unbearable’ pressures 

The coronavirus has only exasperated some of South Korea’s pre-existing economic problems, with government figures showing a sharp rise in unemployment claims as well as a drop in new job creations. 

Stanford’s Gi-wook Shin says these concerns could have cost the ruling party some seats in the National Assembly.   

“The government may have been quite successful in containing the virus, but it doesn’t mean they have been successful in dealing with the economic situation,” he said.