Some Koreans want their kids taught in the U.S.

Young Jin, 32, was a solo flyer when she arrived at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport last December for her flight to Los Angeles—except for the fact that she was 8 1/2 months pregnant. The airline made her sign a waiver in case she went into labor during the 12-hour passage. It was a risky trip, but Young Jin (who doesn’t want her family name in print) was flying to deliver her unborn child from Korea’s hellish school system.

Koreans are education zealots, partly because of Confucian tradition but also because a degree from a top university is a passport to status and a comfortable life. The problem is that getting into good Korean universities has become so competitive that parents are going great distances to let their kids avoid the whole stressful mess. The favorite ticket is to get them American citizenship, which is guaranteed to anyone born on U.S. soil. Dr. Kim Chang Kyu, an obstetrician practicing in a rich neighborhood in Seoul, estimates that every year thousands of women are going to the U.S. to deliver babies—not to migrate but to get their children the document that, 17 years hence, might allow them a shot at a place in a U.S. university.

Travel agencies are offering three-to four-month package childbirth tours, which include airport transfers, an apartment to live in before and after the delivery, medical treatment at clinics catering to Koreans, sightseeing and assistance in getting a birth certificate and passport for the newborn. Total cost: $20,000. Young Jin, who didn’t go on a tour, had a hard time doing the paperwork on her own. But seven weeks after landing, she had what she wanted—a bouncing baby boy with an American passport. The two happily returned to Seoul. “I want my child to have time to play, like a normal kid,” she says. If she had to worry about his getting into Korean universities, Young Jin’s son would have been in cram school by age 7.

A U.S. passport doesn’t get anyone into college or pay the tuition bills after admission. But in Korea it’s viewed as an insurance policy: if a kid falters in the tough, local system, he can pick up and move and get onto the easier American path. A 34-year-old mother who had her second child in Boston two years ago (and who asked not to be identified) says she simply wanted a better education for her child when he gets to school age. “The American system is better than the Korean in every way you can imagine,” she says.

The U.S. State Department isn’t crazy about the trend, but tourist visas are given freely to well-heeled Koreans who don’t appear to be illegal alien risks. Some airlines don’t let women in advanced stages of pregnancy on aircraft, but others, such as Korean Air and Air France, are more accommodating.

According to Arugus Lee, CEO of Los Angeles’ Hana Medical Center, which delivers at least five babies from Korean visitors a month, education is but one of three reasons they come to deliver. The others: parents think their children will end up working in the U.S. at a good job; and that the kids can avoid South Korea’s mandatory 26-month military duty. That’s produced some heat: travel agencies that arrange the tours tend to be secretive and do most of their business by e-mail. Few mothers want to go public with their experience. But most mothers insist they’re not being unpatriotic by delivering abroad. They say that unlike other foreign nationals who want passports or green cards to escape their home countries, they’re not abandoning South Korea. Life there suits them just fine except for one thing: school sucks.

(adapted from TIME)