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Police escorts, flight bans as half a million South Koreans sit key exam

SEOUL: South Korea closed its airspace to ensure silence and offered police escorts for tardy test takers on Thursday (Nov 17) as more than half a million students sat high-stakes college admission exams.

Seoul’s Education Ministry said 508,030 students were sitting the annual nine-hour test this year, the results of which are crucial for securing spots at top universities.

But the bevvy of anxious parents dropping off their children for the test – and visiting local temples to pray for success – highlights the broader significance of the exam, success in which is also seen as the key to lucrative careers and even marriage prospects.

The enormous pressure on students in South Korea’s ultra-competitive education system has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world.

This year’s exam, locally known as Suneung – an abbreviation for College Scholastic Ability Test – marks the third year it has been held under COVID-19 restrictions.

Pandemic-linked measures continue to affect the students, who will have to bring their own water and lunch and be masked throughout the test, which kicked off at 8.40am local time.

At lunchtime, students taking the exams will be given a three-sided screen to shield them from others as part of a COVID-19 prevention measure, and they are banned from chatting or eating in groups.

Local police were called in to transport students running late to enter classrooms by an 8.10 am deadline either on motorbikes or in police cars, as has happened in previous years.

Videos of the police rushing students to exam halls have been an annual ritual for domestic media, though some local authorities this year banned the transport on motorcycles, citing safety issues.

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