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Suneung wishes, prayers echo at Palgongsan

A woman prays next to a rock under the Buddha statue after placing her coin on the rock’s surface. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
A woman prays next to a rock under the Buddha statue after placing her coin on the rock’s surface. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
DAEGU - Come November, parents who have children taking the Suneung, or college scholastic aptitude test, flock to Palgongsan.

While the mountain in Daegu attracts many hikers year-round for its splendid views -- carpeted with azaleas in the spring, vibrant green leaves in the summer, colorful fall foliage and the delicate winter snowscape -- Palgongsan draws pilgrims to its Gatbawi, a seated stone Buddha at one of the mountain peaks that is believed to have the power to make wishes and prayers come true.

By 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, nearly 30 people had ascended to Gatbawi,

Ryu Seong-nam, a 53-year-old housewife from Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, said this is her second time praying in front of the well-known statue of Buddha on Palgongsan.

“Compared to three years ago, when I first visited Gatbawi for my eldest son, there are definitely fewer people today. Maybe this is because of COVID-19. But I am certain that the parents’ wishes remain strong,” Ryu told The Korea Herald early Tuesday morning, two days ahead of this year’s Suneung, which will be administered Thursday.

“This year I am praying for my second son, hoping he can do his best in the long-anticipated Suneung,” the mother of two boys said.

A grandmother in her early 70s surnamed Kim from Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province, came to Palgongsan for her granddaughter, who takes the Suneung this year.

“I prayed for our family’s health. And asked Buddha to help my granddaughter not be nervous and be able to do well,” Kim said.

Lanterns hang at the temple Seonbeonsa with messages hoping for an “outstanding Suneung result.” (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
Lanterns hang at the temple Seonbeonsa with messages hoping for an “outstanding Suneung result.” (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
Crowded with visitors catching their breath after the hike of 40 minutes or so from the foot of the mountain, Gatbawi is blanketed in offerings of flowers, sacks of rice and lit candles.

The parents, wearing face masks, bow in front of the statue, unperturbed by the chill in the air, whispering their prayers and clutching at photos of their children.

Some buy yeot, Korea’s traditional sticky candy that has come to hold significance in test-taking. Others try to stick coins into the rocks, wedging them into small cracks and crevices. In Korean, “butda,” meaning “to stick,” is also used for the expression of passing a test or exam.

Coins are placed on the rock’s surface at Gatbawi. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
Coins are placed on the rock’s surface at Gatbawi. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
The Suneung, a nearly eight-hour marathon of back-to-back exams, brings the whole country to a stop each year.

Shops and banks delay their openings, construction sites take breaks and planes are grounded. Police are on standby for test-takers in need of help, transporting students to exam centers on patrol vehicles and motorcycles.

While some believe the relative importance of Suneung results in university admissions has been declining over the years, the exam is still considered an essential milestone for its influence in university admissions, job prospects and more.

Parents bow and whisper their prayers at Gatbawi on Palgonsan in Daegu, Tuesday morning. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
Parents bow and whisper their prayers at Gatbawi on Palgonsan in Daegu, Tuesday morning. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)
Many nervous parents spend the day of the Suneung at their local temple or church, praying for their children. Some spend the day in front of the exam center, sending their wishes and prayers to the children inside.

“Palgongsan may be a famous site for parents to pray before Suneung, I am sure all Korean parents with examinees are pouring their heart and soul into their prayers elsewhere,” said another housewife surnamed Kim.

By Lee Si-jin (sj_lee@heraldcorp.com)
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