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Special education in South Korea.

The disciplines and professions that influence special education know no international boundaries. People committed to enhancing the development of students with disabilities benefit from an awareness of conditions beyond their immediate jurisdictions. American educators express this view through the considerable interest they display in knowing more about the education of Oriental children. Although considerable literature exists on regular education, virtually none examines the development and current status of special education within an Oriental country. This article describes special education in one Oriental nation with which the United States has had continuous and beneficial relationships--South Korea. We present basic information about South Korea before we discuss its special education system.

South Korea, approximately 620 miles long and 134 miles wide, is situated to the east of Mainland China and to the west of Japan. Its population is about 42 million. Elementary education is free and compulsory for children ages 6 through 11. Secondary education usually starts at age 12 and consists of two 3-year cycles. Approximately 93% of children between ages 12 and 18 attended secondary schools in 1986. There were more than 233 institutions of postsecondary education in 1987 (Korean Educational Development Institute, 1987). South Korea has one of the world's highest enrollment rates for postsecondary education (Europa Publication, 1988).



Protestant missionaries introduced special education in South Korea toward the end of the 19th century. In 1984, Rosetta Sherwood Hall, an American missionary and physician, first taught a blind girl Braille, adapted from the New York points system. Four years later, she founded Pyeung Yang Girl's School for the Blind. In 1903, Alice Moffett, another missionary, founded a school for blind boys in Pyeung Yang. In 1909, Hall established a school for deaf children.

The first public special education institution to educate blind and deaf children was established in 1913. Some special education classes also were provided in regular elementary schools by 1937.

Following the liberation of South Korea from Japan in 1945, education for all students, based on the principle of equal opportunity, was advocated although not always achieved. The 1949 Education Law mandated the establishment of special schools in each province and special classes in regular schools. Despite this directive, the education of students with disabilities has been implemented mainly in private rather than in public institutions because the mandates of the Education Law generally were not implemented. The Five Year Special Education Plan, adopted in 1967, was designed to improve the government's passive role in special education. However, the implementation of the plan was incomplete because the government gave higher priority to promoting the national economy than to developing special education programs. In 1961, programs preparing special education teachers were established in Taegu University in its Department of Special Education.

The 1977 Act for the Promotion of Special Education for the Handicapped signified a turning point for the development of special education in South Korea. This act mandated free public education for children with disabilities and secured related services (e.g., medical examination, physical therapy, and speech therapy) for them. Many of its important features have been implemented.

Although people with disabilities were protected by laws as early as 23 A.D., the public's attitudes toward these people typically showed their indifference, at times even their neglect and hostility. The public often view the handicapped as stubborn, irresponsible, unsocialized, and incapable (An, 1969). Some Koreans believe that, if they encounter a blind person in the morning, they are destined to have an unlucky day.



Approximately 2.3 million people, constituting 5.6 of the South Korean population, are classified as having disabilities. The prevalence of people in the various disability classifications is as follows: mental retardation (2.2%), emotional disturbance (1.9%), physical disabilities (0.8%), deaf/hearing impairments (0.5%), and blind/visual impairments (0.2%). Among the 11.2 million schoolchildren 6-17 years of age, about 600,000 have disabilities. However, only about 15 of these children are served in public and private special schools and self-contained special classes (Kim, D. Y., 1988). The remaining 85% are either in regular classes without benefit of special education services or at home.



The 1977 Act for the Promotion of Special Education for the Handicapped mandated that assessment and placement decisions for pupils with disabilities be made by committees consisting of physicians, special educators, and special education supervisors. In practice, however, the law is not followed. People working with such children often are not aware of the importance of assessment as a prerequisite to placement and educational planning. A lack of qualified assessment personnel and of standardized tests developed or normed in South Korea preclude an adequate assessment. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Draw-A-Man Test, and Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale frequently are used for assessing the children's intelligence; only for the first three measures are normed in South Korea. The Oseretsky Motor Scale and some visual perception tests are used for assessing perceptual-motor development. The Vineland Social Maturity Scale, together with various achievement and interest measures and teachers' observational records, also is used (Han, personal communication, 1989; Kim, J. K., 1984). Although these resources are helpful, their range and cultural relevance are questionable. There are no procedures to ensure or protect children's input to their education, and their parent participate little in making educational decisions; thus, the schools traditionally assume sole authority over making assessment and placement decisions (Kim, J. K., 1984).

Special education services are provided mainly in special schools and full-time, self-contained special classes. A few residential facilities are provided for students with sensory impairments or those with multiple disabilities. Some speech clinics for children with speech disorders are affiliated with general hospitals. Among the 100 special schools that provided services to more than 19,000 children in 1986, 70 were private. More than half of these schools served students with mental retardation. Approximately 3,000 special classes serve more than 31,000 children, of which about 29,000 are students with mental retardation (Association of Korean Special Education, 1989). The expenditures for each disability classification are associated with the severity and nature of the disability and usually are 2 to 10 times that of normal students. Allocation of funds for special education is based on the unit of special schools or classes. In special schools, the annual public expenditure per student is about $1,300 (in U.S. currency) (Chung, 1986).



One national and five private universities currently prepare special educators. Teaching certificates are of two levels (elementary and secondary) and in four categories (blind, deaf, mentally retarded, and severe physically disabled). Secondary special education certificates specify the subjects the teacher is qualified to teach. Prospective special educators are able to obtain their certificates in one of two ways: They are entitled to the certificate after completing a 4-year, university-based program, or regular teachers with 2 years of teaching experience may earn a certificate by passing a qualifying examination administered by the Ministry of Education. In addition, a therapist certificate can be obtained after 4 years of higher education. Four universities currently offer graduate programs to prepare special education administrators and research staff.


The scope of special education in South Korea, compared with that in the United States, is limited in terms of disability classifications and service delivery options. In the United States, special education services are provided from early childhood to adulthood across all classifications. However, South Korea emphasizes only a few categories, largely mental retardation and, to a lesser extent, sensory and physical impairments. More services are needed for students with emotional disturbances, learning disabilities, multiple disabilities, and preschool children with disabilities.

Special education services are provided mainly in special schools offering residential or day programs and in self-contained special classes. There are few, if any, teacher-consultants, itinerant teachers, or resource teachers. The high teacher-student ratio makes quality education difficult even in the special schools and special classes. South Korea is attempting to improve this ratio by increasing the number of special schools and special classes. Improving this situation by integrating children with disabilities into the regular public schools currently is not being done, despite the rapidly expanding data base on mainstreaming for students with mild disabilities, as well as international efforts in this direction (Oakland, Cunningham, Meazzini, & Poulsen, in press).

Although South Korea has special education journals, (e.g., The Journal of Developmental Disability, Journal of Emotional and Learning Disabilities, and Journal of Special Education), research on issues important to special education is lacking. This deficiency is attributed, in part, to insufficient research funds and limited numbers of special education professionals. Lacking its own research base, special education tends to rely on information obtained from other nations (e.g., Japan and the United States). B. H. Kim (1985) and other special education leaders have expressed their concerns about these problems and have urged South Korean researchers to develop their own special education, research, theories, and practice appropriate for its culture.

At the national administrative level, South Korea lacks a special education director in its Ministry of Education. Consequently, school principals and special education teachers often make decisions with little guidance or policy from government officials. Indeed, most regular school and some special school principals are not familiar with special education regulations and practices. School principals need additional inservice training in this area. Also, experts in special education need to be more involved in educational decisions for children with disabilities. Furthermore, greater efforts are needed to encourage parents to participate in making educational decisions affecting their children. The formation of parent organizations of exceptional children is needed to serve as advocates for them. To this end, parent education programs implemented by special education professionals or advocacy groups are needed to help parents become more effective participants. The public's low awareness of the needs and abilities of people with disabilities limits their vocational opportunities. Within the United States, vocational rehabilitation has been largely established, funded, and expanded through federal legislation. The need is urgent in South Korea for similar laws that provide incentives to prospective employers to hire people with disabilities.


The history of special education in South Korea parallels developments seen in other helping professions worldwide (Azuma, 1984). Prior to the emergence of a profession within country, foreign experts initially are relied on to provide the knowledge and to encourage its development. The first professionals to provide services typically are prepared abroad. This first stage is followed by the second stage, in which colleges and universities establish programs and departments to teach the discipline and prepare specialists. This second stage leads to a third stage, in which colleges and universities import information from abroad to achieve standards that characterize the discipline or profession in more advanced nations. During this stage, the concepts, theories, and practices found in the more advanced countries are taught, applied, and tested in the host country. Some are found to apply, but others do not transfer well. Professions move onto the fourth stage, in which research is initiated in the country to developed the concepts, theories, and technologies needed to enhance practice. The fifth and last stage is reached when this new body of knowledge developed in one country is integrated into the larger body of knowledge available internationally. As disciplines and professions evolve from one stage to the next, they continue to gain strength and improve qualities associated with lower stages of development.

South Korea entered the first stage when Hall established institutions for the blind and deaf toward the end of the 19th century. Others later built on her pioneering work. More than 60 years later, South Korea entered Stage 2, when professional preparation programs for special education were formally established. Lacking its own knowledge and technology and being under the military control of Japan, South Korea entered Stage 3 when it began importing information from other nations, principally Japan and the United States, and attempting to modify it to its national conditions.

Special education in South Korea currently rests largely at this third stage. The two advanced stages have not been reached. Little research has been done in South Korea to fashion a research base to guide practice there. This step is critical to the continued development of South Korean special education. Professions are expected to have generated a well-defined body of knowledge and theory, together with technology, to help guide practice. Lacking these resources, professions have low prestige and less impact on their target populations.



Origins of special education in the two countries are somewhat similar. Both focused intially on children with sensory impairments, developed residential programs, and relied on foreign experts. However, the origins for special education occurred about 70 years later in South Korea, and the scope of its services is more narrow. Whereas special education services in the United States have enlarged to include diverse categories of disabilities and have developed their own special education theories, practices, and technologies suitable for their culture through research, special education in South Korea remains focused on a small number of categories and is struggling to develop its own special education theories and practices. Its slow growth in South Korea is due in part to the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 and later the Korean War (1950-53), during which times the government gave highest priority to defense and industrial development. Therefore, responsibility for the education of children with disabilities remained largely in the private rather than in the public sector. Other important differences exist between the United States and South Korea. The South Korean per-capita gross national product is considerably less than that of the United States. Thus, it has fewer resources to develop to special education needs. Other limiting factors include the lack of an organized effort by parents to serve as advocates for their children's right to education, and general negative attitudes of the public toward people with disabilities.

Somewhat comparable percentages of children quality within each of the various classifications of disabilities in the United States and South Korea: mental retardation, 2 vs. 2.2; emotional disturbances, .9 vs. 1.9; deaf/hearing impairments, .2 vs. .5; other health impairments, .1 vs. .8; blind/visual impairments, .1 vs. .2, respectively. However, the prevalence of schoolchildren with disabilities in the United States is more than twice that of South Korea because South Korea provides no services for children with learning disabilities and speech disorders, whereas these groups constitute the highest prevalence in the United States.

The 1977 Act for the Promotion of Special Education for the Handicapped, modeled after the 1975 U.S. Public Law 94-142, signified a turning point for the development of special education in South Korea. This act mandated free public education for children with disabilities and secured for them such related services as medical examinations, physical therapy, and speech therapy. More recently, laws were passed mandating the education of young children with disabilities, employment of people with disabilities, and aids to children with severe disabilities as well as providing financial benefits to them.

However, various key features of P.L. 94-142 do not appear in the 1977 Act. These include non-discriminatory assessment procedures, due process provisions, and least-restrictive alternatives. Individual education plans, when available, are difficult to implement because of the high pupil-teacher ratio in special education. Moreover, placement into special education typically is predicated on the availability of room for the students, not on a need for service.

The regular education initiative for educating students with mild disabilities, now popular in the United States, is not held in high regard in South Korea. Special education professionals in South Korea typically believe the benefits to children educated in a segregated system outnumbers harmful effects and argue that regular schools do not have the ability to serve most students with disabilities (Kim, B.H., 1988; Research Institute for Special Education, 1986). In South Korea, the teacher-student ratio in the regular classroom may be as high as 1:37 at the elementary school level and 1:36 at the secondary level (Korean Education Development Institute, 1987). Teacher aides, special consultants, compensatory educational programs, and regular education remedial programs do not exist. Furthermore, regular classroom teachers are not prepared to teach students with disabilities.

Prevailing negative attitudes toward people with disabilities and the among parents of nondisabled students toward mainstreaming also serve to promote self-contained programs (Kim, D.Y., 1988). Many students with disabilities, themselves, do not want to be mainstreamed.

Education in South Korea is similar to that found in Japan. Both are characterized by high academic standards, strong competition, strict discipline, and teacher burnout. Teachers focus on excellence rather than equity and generally ignore individual differences. Students with disabilities who believe regular education is too competitive and nonresponsive to their unique needs resist attempts to continue their placement in programs that have been ineffective. These conditions generally preclude mainstreaming.

Continued advancement of special education in South Korea will require bifocal perspectives. One focus has an international perspective and requires South Koreans' awareness of the international body of literature that enables them to take advantage of the knowledge and experience gained by those in other countries. South Korea also may profit especially from knowledge provided by its more immediate neighbors along the western Pacific. Japan, Hong Kong (Hu, Oakland, & Salili, 1988), Thailand (Ayawongse & Pungah, 1983), and other countries seemingly are struggling with many of the same issues.

However, effective services require awareness of social and educational traditions, social philosophies, and ways of resolving conflict that may be unique to one country and the impact these qualities have on regular and special education services (Oakland, Cunningham, Meazzini, & Poulsen, in press). Thus, the second focus takes a more narrow perspective, one that enables the evolution of special education services that reflect the needs and characteristics of South Koreans.

The first focus may identify as viable goals the extension of services to the students with learning disabilities, mainstreaming, garnering additional political support for special education through parent advocacy, and supporting the further employment of people with disabilities. However, a more narrow focus on issues directly important to South Korea is likely to clarify more viable future directions for special education in South Korea. Further initiatives critical to Azuma's (1984) Stage 4 will require considerable research and policy debate among South Koreans.


An, T. Y. (1969). A study of traditional Korean thought toward the handicapped. Unpublished master's thesis, Korean Social Work College, Taegu, Korea.

Association of Korean Special Education. (1989). The handbook of national special education (p. 5). Andong: The Association of Korean Special Education.

Ayawongse, L., & Pungah, P. (1983). Special education in Thailand. School Psychology International, 4, 25-30.

Azuma, H. (1984). Psychology in a non-western country. International Journal of Psychology, 19, 45-55.

Chung, B. D. (1986). A study on the estimation of the standard educational expenditures per unit for special education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Taegu University, Taegu, Korea.

Europa Publication. (1988). The Europa yearbook: 1988 (Vo.2.). London: Author.

Hu, S., Oakland, T., & Salili, F. (1988). School psychology in Hong Kong. School Psychology International, 9, 21-28.

Kim, B. H. (1985). South Korean special education: Future. Journal of Special Education, 6, 181-191.

Kim, B. H. (1988). Issues in the reformation of special education in South Korea. Educational Development, 10, 13-18.

Kim, D. Y. (1988). The present situation and issues of special class. Journal of the Research Institute for Special Education, 1, 33-47.

Kim, J. K . (1984). Educational diagnosis and assessment of the mentally retarded in Korea. Journal of Special Education, 5, 159-166.

Korean Education Development Institute. (1987). Educational indicators in Korea. Seoul: Author.

Oakland, T., Cunningham, J., Meazzini, P., & Poulsen, A. (in press). An examination of policies governing the normalization of handicapped pupils in Denmark, Italy, and the United States. International Journal of Special Education.

Research Institute for Special Education. (1986). Tasks for development of special education in South Korea (pp. 94-98). Taegu: Taegu University Publisher.

GYEONG-HEE SEO is a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education and THOMAS OAKLAND is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. HONG-SEOK HAN is a lecturer in the Department of Special Education of Taegu University, Seoul, Korea. SHERMAN HU is a Research Fellow at Hong Kong Polytechnic.
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Author:Seo, Gyeong-Hee; Oakland, Thomas; Han, Hong-Seok; Hu, Sherman
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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