Hagwon whistleblowers get big bucks for snooping

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Hagwon whistleblowers get big bucks for snooping

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology on Sunday named 37-year-old homemaker Lee Ji-hyo the second-most paid “hagparazzi” - a portmanteau of hagwon (cram schools) and paparazzi to refer to people who report illegal hagwon activities to the authorities for monetary rewards.

The National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee passed the Revised Hagwon Law on June 28, which restricts hagwon from operating past a certain time and requires the cram schools to abide by the fees they have listed on the Web sites of education offices throughout the country.

“After sending my two children to hagwon, I found out about the illegal acts of cram schools,” Lee said. “It’s what led me to become a hagparazzi.”

Lee said she has accumulated over 200 million won ($188,600) during the past two years as a hagparazzi.

“Anyone can be a hagparazzi by studying the act for a mere two or three days like me,” said Lee. “Dealing with hagwon and private tutors is not dangerous.”

Her process is fairly simple and takes only about 10 minutes. First, she conceals a hidden camera inside her bag or her clothes and walks into a hagwon. After Lee receives a consultation on the program fees, she asks specific questions to entice the hagwon official to reveal their late-night program. Lastly, she nonchalantly strolls around the hagwon to record students in classes past the legal curfew. With the evidence, she collects her reward from the Education Ministry.

“I believe that I am working for society as a civil worker,” said Lee.

When asked if people think she does her work solely for the money and not so much for society, Lee answered, “No, for the public. I think I do a more noble act than others.”

The reward, ranging from 300,000 to 1 million won, depends on the illegal activity reported. The bigger the crime, the bigger the reward money.

To nurture more whistleblowers, the ministry recently launched classes on how to become professional hagparazzi.

“Last month, we had 100 hagparazzi enrolled in the class. This month, we have over 120 members,” a ministry official said.

Professor Ahn Do-hee from Chung-Ang University said, “The number of hagwon is directly proportional to the number of hagparazzi. Hagparazzi’s success reveals the weak structure of the public educational system and the doubts parents and students have.”

When asked what she would do if hagwon stopped their illegal activities, she laughed. “Illegal hagwon will never vanish. I’ve reported a single hagwon on three different occasions, but it’s still in business.”

By Nam Hyung-suk [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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