In South Korea, the name of the game is education. The stakes? Life and death, or so it would seem.

In a well-known scene from the television series ‘SKY Castle’, two meticulously made-up, smartly dressed middle-aged women meet in the dark confines of an underground parking garage.

Tension builds as they approach each other with ice-cold glares. After a staredown, one woman viciously assaults the other with a percussive, open-handed smack across the face, and later says: “You’re no teacher…you’re a murderer!”

The backstory: The woman who said this is a mother who hired a professional to help her child gain admission to the country’s top university – who she now blames for a friend’s suicide. Their relationship began to unravel when the mother finds out the woman she hired has a dark past that involves shady dealings and pressure tactics that have ruined families.

‘SKY Castle’, a television series that runs on cable network JTBC, has won the highest-ever levels of viewership for a cable TV drama in South Korea. It has drawn lurid fascination from huge audiences riveted by its intimate look into the sordid lifestyles of the rich and ambitious, notably as they seek educational advantages for their children.

In the real world, it has sparked a national discussion on the country’s obsession with education and how the right credentials can be a decisive advantage in the tooth-and-nail battle for spots at elite schools and subsequently, well-paid jobs.

Reaching for the SKY

‘SKY Castle’ is the name of the upscale apartment complex outside of Seoul where the story takes place, a bastion of privilege and anxiety nestled in the mountainous suburbs that ring the South Korean capital. Within its portals, the wives of the professors of an elite, fictional college battle to win their children the best start in life.

But if the college featured in the drama is fictional, the title of the drama has a meaning that will escape no Korean viewer. “SKY” is the widely used acronym for the names of the three most prestigious universities in the country: Seoul National (S), Korea (K) and Yonsei (Y).

Admission to those three Seoul-based institutions is extraordinarily competitive. South Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of university matriculation, and students break their backs to get into one of those three schools. Many of the large companies that dominate the South Korean economy recruit exclusively from SKY schools. Graduating from one of them means lifetime membership in powerful alumni networks that are known to grant favors via promotions and the awarding of business contracts.

For the tigerish mothers who occupy most of the screen time on ‘SKY Castle’, their kids’ education is not just an investment in their future, but the primary life mission for women who devote themselves to raising children while their husbands work.

“All moms feel so much pressure to operate their children’s education successfully, but particularly for those women who are full-time moms, their children’s academic achievement is the measurement of their success in life,” said Woo Mi-seon, a professor of Theatre and Drama at the elite Yonsei University. “SKY Castle’s popularity tells a lot about South Korean people’s collective desire, insecurity, and anxiety.”

Educational warfare

The show’s popularity has even spurred South Korea’s Education Ministry to convene meetings with related government bodies to plan investigations aimed at rooting out illegal private tutoring and consulting businesses, like those depicted in ‘SKY Castle’.

For some South Koreans, the educational bloodsport depicted in ‘SKY Castle’ is too stressful to bear as recreational viewing, particularly for people who have spent their lives in settings similar to those depicted on the screen.

Park Ju-won, a 25-year-old South Korean journalist based in Hong Kong, can’t bring herself to watch the show.

“It would make me too sad,” she said. “This obsession with top schools, I grew up with it, it’s so traumatizing, and this sleazy drama may be entertaining for others but for me for it’s real.”

“I’ve seen how competitive moms and kids can get growing up in Korea. I’ve seen borderline illegal activities by kids and their parents trying to get to top schools. It’s sad to see what it takes to get to the top echelon of society,” Park added.

Those legally, not to mention morally, questionable activities included paying ghostwriters to craft fabricated college application essays, and parents making large payments to unlicensed brokers and consultants, Park said.

Life imitates art

Some viewers argue that the show, and the widespread fascination with it, are illustrations of how deeply educational fever has penetrated the marrow of South Korean society.

“Over the past 30 years, the competitive education culture has spread from Gangnam around the country, with society being afflicted by a crazy evil,” artist and social critic Lee Jin-joo wrote in a recent column.

But not everyone is convinced that the appeal of “SKY Castle” is rooted in it being an accurate reflection of South Korean society.

“It’s a kind of fantasy about the upper class, and it’s based on stereotypes,” said Choi Ji-eun, a 26-year-old journalist based in Seoul who graduated from one of the most prestigious high schools in Seoul before attending university overseas. “The majority of the people who see this show have no experience with such an intense kind of reality. It is a minority of students and families who send their kids to these kinds of schools or pressure them like this. The real upper-class just send their kids to universities abroad.”

There is also a real discussion going on about the extent to which ‘SKY Castle’, as a work of art, imitates life, and how much real life has come to mimic the fictional stories on the show.

Local media have reported that since the show hit airwaves, business has boomed for private education consultants, and sales of an item called a “study cube” have increased. The cubes are individual booths where students can work in total seclusion and are meant to shut out distractions. On the show, they were presented as an extreme measure the families take to push their kids to focus on school work. At least some South Korean families appear to have taken them as a helpful cue.

But the lived reality in South Korea is not all rising inequality and competition. The left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in is attempting to ease inequality and increase state support for public schools in an effort to reduce families’ expenditure on private education.

A shifting paradigm

According to Yuh Ji-yeon, a professor of History and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, those efforts have not yet made major progress, but some families are changing their approach to educating their kids.

“For at least the past 12 years, the government has tried to restructure some aspects of the education system to lessen the competition. It hasn’t been successful, because a certain strata of society is still engaged in the competition. But another part of the society has decided the competition is too much, so they’ve bowed out and turned to other things,” Yuh said.

Alongside the ‘SKY Castle’ phenomenon, what also appears to be happening, albeit on a small level, is a broadening of how South Koreans define success. More people are now accepting that there is no shame in pursuing a life not characterized by conventional notions of status.

“Some families are wealthy enough to do all the expensive tutoring but choose not to,” Yuh said. “Other families have their kids do other things, become successful in other ways. Some of them become poets or musicians or activists.”