Are Koreans Human? | Min Jin Lee || Radcliffe Institute | Summary and Q&A

February 28, 2019
Harvard University
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Are Koreans Human? | Min Jin Lee || Radcliffe Institute


The speaker discusses the value of education in Korean culture and the prevalence of hagwons (private tutoring centers). While recognizing the pressure and unintended consequences of the hagwon system, a balance is sought between understanding its existence and striving for change.

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Key Insights

  • 🇰🇷 The educational system in South Korea places a strong emphasis on academic achievement, leading to a high demand for hagwons and private tutoring centers.
  • 🧑‍🎓 Hagwons serve a practical purpose by providing additional support and learning opportunities for students, especially when public schools may not meet their needs.


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Good afternoon. I'm Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Welcome to our annual Julia S. Phelps Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. Julia Phelps was a Radcliffe College alumna and beloved teacher in Harvard's German department and the Harvard Extension School and here at ... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What are hagwons in South Korea and how do they contribute to the education system?

Hagwons are private tutoring centers in South Korea that offer supplemental education in various subjects. They are popular due to the competitive nature of the education system and serve as additional learning opportunities outside of regular school hours.

Q: What are the positive and negative aspects of the hagwon system?

The positive aspects of hagwons include extra support for students who may struggle academically, additional learning opportunities, and daycare options for working parents. However, the intense pressure to succeed and the financial burden on families can have negative effects, including stress, anxiety, and a lack of free time for children.

Q: How does the prevalence of hagwons in South Korea compare to other countries?

Hagwons are unique to South Korea in terms of their prevalence and the intense focus on academic achievement. While supplemental education and private tutoring exist in other countries, the scale and significance of hagwons are more pronounced in South Korea.

Q: How does the hagwon system impact mental health and well-being in South Korean students?

The intense pressure to succeed, long hours of study, and lack of free time can contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression among South Korean students. The high rates of suicide in South Korea are often attributed in part to the pressure and expectations associated with academic performance.


This video is a lecture by Min Jin Lee, an acclaimed novelist, on the topic of education and its importance among Koreans. She talks about her personal experiences growing up in Korea and highlights how Koreans value education as a gateway to progress, distinction, and proof of one's value. She discusses the intense focus on education in South Korea, where students start private tutoring at a young age and high school students sleep an average of five hours a day. Min Jin Lee also explains her research for her upcoming novel, which explores the value of education among Koreans around the world. She emphasizes the complex and multifaceted nature of the subject and aims to challenge stereotypes and misrepresentations about Koreans.

Questions & Answers:

Q: What was the inspiration behind Min Jin Lee becoming a writer?

Min Jin Lee became a novelist after facing a serious liver disease, which forced her to quit her job as a corporate lawyer. She was inspired to write fiction as a way to document the Korean diaspora in Japan, a community she had learned about in college. She spent the next two-plus decades writing the story that eventually became her bestselling novel, Pachinko.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee approach writing a novel?

When Min Jin Lee writes fiction, she does extensive research, reading widely across various disciplines such as sociology, history, political science, law, and economics. She conducts interviews, visits different locations, and immerses herself in the subject matter to gain a deeper understanding. She believes that reality corrects her preconceptions and helps her develop a more nuanced and truthful narrative.

Q: Why does education hold such importance among Koreans?

Education is highly valued among Koreans because they believe it is a path to progress, distinction, and proof of one's value. This belief has deep roots in Korean culture and history, dating back to the Confucian tradition. Koreans trust that educational achievement can significantly improve their social status and provide security for themselves and their families. The importance of education has only increased over time, especially in South Korea, where competition for top universities is fierce and employment prospects are challenging.

Q: What are hagwons, and why are they significant in Korean society?

Hagwons are for-profit tutoring businesses in South Korea that provide private supplemental education. They are prevalent in South Korean society and serve as a way to improve academic performance and increase chances of success in exams. Hagwons cater to various subjects and provide additional coaching and support to students. They also serve as community centers and daycare centers, addressing the needs of working parents. While there may be a stigma associated with hagwons in Western culture, they are considered a normal and essential part of education in Korea.

Q: How do Koreans view the value of education compared to other countries?

Koreans place immense importance on education, which sets them apart from many other countries. The Korean value of education is deeply ingrained due to the country's history and the belief that educational achievement can lead to better opportunities and social mobility. Koreans are known for their strong work ethic and commitment to studying. They are willing to invest significant time, effort, and money in their education, including supplemental tutoring and exam preparation. Koreans see education as a means to level the playing field and attain power and success.

Q: What are some misconceptions about Koreans, and why is it important to challenge them?

There are many misconceptions about Koreans due to limited and negative portrayals in the media and mainstream news. These misconceptions often overlook the diversity and complexity of the Korean community. Min Jin Lee believes it is crucial to challenge these misrepresentations and allow Koreans to tell their own stories. By understanding the achievements, challenges, and values of Koreans, a more fair and accurate picture can emerge, promoting empathy and understanding among different cultures.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee conduct her research for her novels?

Min Jin Lee conducts extensive research for her novels, drawing on various academic disciplines and conducting interviews with individuals from different backgrounds. She reads widely across sociology, history, political science, law, and economics. She also visits locations relevant to her novels and immerses herself in the subject matter. By doing so, she aims to gain a deep understanding of the themes and perspectives she wants to explore in her writing.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee challenge stereotypes and misrepresentations through her work?

Min Jin Lee challenges stereotypes and misrepresentations by depicting the complexity and humanity of Koreans in her novels. She aims to present a more complete and nuanced picture of Korean individuals and their experiences. Through her careful research and storytelling, she confronts common misconceptions and encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of Korean culture and history.

Q: Why is dance mentioned as a metaphor in the lecture?

Dance is mentioned as a metaphor to illustrate the need for expression and freedom of emotion. Min Jin Lee emphasizes that Koreans, like any other group of people, have a desire for self-expression and the ability to convey their emotions without relying solely on words. The mention of dance highlights the humanity and the universal nature of our physical bodies, desires, and weaknesses. It challenges the notion that Koreans are vastly different from others.

Q: How does Min Jin Lee approach the subject of education and wisdom in her work?

Min Jin Lee is interested in exploring the subject of education and wisdom in her novels. She questions how education differs from wisdom and what a wise life entails. Through her research and storytelling, she delves into the metaphysical aspects of education and seeks to understand the meaning and purpose of education in the lives of Koreans. Her aim is to provoke thought and encourage reflection on these profound subjects.

Q: What impact does Min Jin Lee hope to achieve with her writing about Koreans?

Min Jin Lee hopes to challenge preconceived notions and stereotypes about Koreans through her writing. By presenting a more complete and human portrayal of Koreans, she aims to foster a greater understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the Korean community. She believes that all people, regardless of their background, have complex experiences, emotions, desires, and vulnerabilities, and it is essential to recognize and respect this universal humanity.


Min Jin Lee's lecture sheds light on the importance of education among Koreans, particularly in South Korea. Education is viewed as a gateway to progress and success, and it holds immense value in Korean society. Koreans are known for their commitment to studying and investing in supplementary education, such as hagwons. However, it is crucial to challenge stereotypes and misrepresentations about Koreans and recognize their complexity as human beings. Min Jin Lee's research-driven approach to writing aims to provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of Korean culture, history, and values. Her work challenges common misconceptions and promotes empathy and understanding among different cultures.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The speaker emphasizes the importance of education in Korean culture and the strong emphasis placed on academic success.

  • Private tutoring centers, known as hagwons, are common in South Korea and play a significant role in supplementing education.

  • While there are concerns about the pressure and negative effects of hagwons, they also serve practical purposes such as providing daycare and additional learning opportunities.

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