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EDITORIAL/사회 :: Current Issues

South Korea’s Brain Drain

By Janet Kim | English Columnist

In recent years, South Korea has been dealing with a large issue and this time, it’s not North Korea. South Korea, now more than ever, has been experiencing a largely economic but also social, problem that goes by the name of brain drain. Brain drain, otherwise known as human capital flight, is the phenomena in which highly intelligent and skilled individuals emigrate from their home country to find work elsewhere.

The root cause of South Korea’s brain drain is all but simple and it is not surprising that this phenomena has found a home in a country such as South Korea.  Many in their mid 20’s and 30’s have coined the current working environment in South Korea as “Hell Joseon”, referring to the harsh and rigid hierarchy they are subjected to on a daily basis in professional working environments. According to many South Korean working individuals, the bright lights, urban landscape, and the good-looking residents do not seem to represent the harsh reality of the work environment nearly as accurately as outsiders believe. Ironically, South Korean individuals are trained from an early age to enter this supposed hell of a work environment despite knowing what difficulties lie ahead.

According to many reports, most millennials believe there is an inescapable divide that separates the nation into two halves: “golden spoons” and “dirt spoons”. Many believe that those with “golden spoons in their mouths get into the best universities and secure the plum jobs, while those born with a dirt spoon work long hours in low-paying jobs without benefits.” (Park). And because a majority of the nation identifies as being in a tier lower than the golden spoon, most young individuals are trained at an early age to achieve vast amounts of academic success purely through their own effort. South Korean high-schoolers spend an average of 15-17 hours a day either at school, or hagwon, commercially successful tutoring centers dispersed all around Korea in an effort to help students achieve higher test scores. These students start this sort of routine very early on in hopes of achieving a top score on the national college entrance exam, which is perceived to be the ticket into a prestigious university and a financially stable life. Over the years, this pressure that has been consuming young individuals in South Korea from an early age has manifested into a much darker societal trend.


This trend is suicide. In South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death amongst individuals ages 15-24 and “in 2013, male suicide rates were 41.7 and 26.9 per 100,000 in South Korea and Japan respectively — the first- and third-highest rates among high-income Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.” Many young students who feel pessimistic about their performance on the national college exam, something they have been preparing for all of their lives, feel hopeless and at a loss and opt for the supposed “easy way out.” Countless educational institutions within South Korea have lost their students to suicide and as a result, many are now turning their attention toward this dangerous epidemic.

However, it does not stop there. Referring back to the term ”Hell Joseon”, for individuals who do secure a position in a large conglomerate/company (even those who don’t), they continue to be met with financial and emotional hardship. According to the Washington Post, “there’s a Hell Joseon group on Facebook that boasts more than 5,000 members and a dedicated “Hell Korea” website that posts graphic after graphic to illustrate the awful state of life in South Korea: the long working hours, the high suicide rate and even the high price of snacks.”

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Many companies in South Korea demand long hours from their employees all the while offering them considerably low wages. Meanwhile, the cost of living has also increased precipitously in the metropolitan country, as consumer Prices in South Korea are 7.83% higher than in the United States while local Purchasing Power is 22.47% lower than in the United States. This combination leads to large financial turmoil, as employees in South Korea are now being paid less to work more and are expected to pay more to gain less.

And so, individuals who are now facing this problem are taking the skills they acquired in South Korea, elsewhere. This is brain drain.  Many South Koreans of working-age are now finding jobs in foreign countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Canada, and Australia where the line between work and one’s free time is less blurred and individuals are at the liberty to work under their own contractual terms. A number of individuals begin this process at an earlier age as well. According to the Korea Herald, “South Korea has the fourth highest number of students pursuing studies abroad in the world, with the most favored destination being the United States, recent data showed.” Many families, for some time, had sent their children abroad to either begin or continue their education in the foreign country in hopes of them finding work there and avoiding South Korea’s Hell Joseon. This can be better shown in the statistic from the 2006  Report of the American National Science Foundation, in which 65.1% of Korean international students with doctorate degrees in engineering and science preferred to stay in the states, and international students with doctorate degrees in engineering/science leaving South Korea has increased from 2006 to 2016 by 170%.

These numbers can have large economic impacts, such as in innovation, research & development,  and overall market competitiveness. This brain drain issue is critical in that the competitiveness of South Korean products could meet a rapid decline in the future so long as this trend continues, as the nation’s top contributors are now working to improve the technological advancement of different countries. However, the South Korean government has proven itself to be a highly efficient and capable power structure in that after becoming increasingly aware of the issue at hand, it has begun to slowly implement policies that aim to directly attack brain drain.

South Korea has adopted a variety of attitudinal shifts in hopes of preventing the outflow of highly-skilled workers to foreign countries. For instance, the government has recently been encouraging educational institutions such as high schools and universities to offer foreign language camps during vacation periods in order to rid the need to go abroad to learn different languages. There has also been the effort to attract foreign educational institutions. There have already been two American universities, the State University of New York and George Mason University, that have placed extensions of their campus in South Korea. And because of South Korean educational institutions focusing more intently on helping students cultivate key skills such as English, the distinction between the domestic South Korean student and the international South Korean student is no longer as visible. And as a result, going abroad to achieve academic goals is not as valued and prized as it was in earlier years.  

South Korea’s brain drain is an extremely complex and cyclical problem that stems from a fiercely competitive educational system, which then evolves into a harsh working environment. There are an endless amount of components in this economic phenomenon, but just as Korea has learned to adopt different tactics of resiliency over the years, only time can tell when brain drain will officially meet its end.