Currently, the public schools are on break. But the consequence of that is that the "kid" population along "Academy Road" here in Ilsan actually skyrockets. The real name for the street is 일산로 (ilsanno), but no self-respecting Korean knows the names of streets, so I just mentally think of it as "Academy Road," because it's where all the after-school hagwon are concentrated for the Ilsan districts of Goyang City. And that's where I work.
Walking along, in the humid, overcast midday weather, buses and taxis whizzing past and cicadas crying deafeningly, there are kids everywhere. They're all enrolled in special "summer session" morning classes at the various hagwon. There are English hagwon (like LBridge, where I work), there are math and science hagwon, there are huge, generalist "5-subject" hagwon and test-prep hagwon. There are music hagwon and art hagwon and there's even a "lego" hagwon. Just after 12 pm, the kids are on break between one hagwon and another, and they stop to buy toseuteu ("toast" – grilled sandwich concoctions) or kkochi (skewer food) or kimbap (korean rice/seaweed wraps) or so many other things. Hundreds of kids, ages 6~18 or so, gossip on the streets, play ball games, cram for tests and quizzes, ride bikes, scooters, skateboards. They shop with parents or shop in tribes on their own, they get into and out of taxis on their own, they play games and talk on their cell phones, they make purchases with bank cards on their own. It's like being in a busy college community, but everyone is on average 10 years younger. It's quite charming.
In a two-block distance between my bank and my workplace, I see and say hello to 4 or 5 kids that I know. They wave and say "hel-lo tea-cheueueu!" The toast-selling lady beneath our hagwon does that short, automatic dip-of-the-head bow when she sees me walking past, and then goes back to her incomprehensible monologue (to me — I catch something about working fast or working hard) as she flips her grilled-egg-ham-and-cheeses for the gaggle of middle-schoolers clustered at her window. It's definitely a neighborhood, despite (or because of?) the incredibly high density of the surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. And despite the patina of post-modernity exuded by the dull, concrete-and-glass architecture, the wide boulevards and omnipresent video-monitors in store windows. There are men hawking raw fish and watermelons, old women selling lettuce and garlic, helmeted (and criminally insane) moped delivery dudes ignoring pedestrians and cars alike, teenage girls clustered around displays of fancy new cell-phones, a pair of 10 year-old boys weaving their bikes way too fast among the sidewalk crowds, yelling at each other.
In my experience, it's so very different from the feel of similarly-aged, large groups of kids in the U.S. Somehow they're both more mature and yet also more sheltered. There are things that are very tough for kids here – they're expected to work very, very hard and unpleasant things like corporal punishment, although much declining, are still quite common.
Nevertheless, there's something very protective and nurturing, in my opinion, in how this society, collectively, deals with children, and if I was in a position to be raising kids, right now, I would very seriously consider the potential advantages of living in a place like Korea as an environment in which to raise them.