This article explores some of the hidden background behind the highly praised school results in South Korea. An ethnographic case study is used to cast light on how schooling is actually experienced by South Korean students. Two main results are reported from these data. First, evidence is presented of damaging cultural elements such as internalised norms of resistance and conformity, symbolised helplessness, studying without any interest in controversial issues, an internalised culture of “dealing” and widespread playing with mobile phones, sleeping and applying make-up in class. Second, evidence is presented of an institutionalised school violence involving mechanisms of control, abusive and violent everyday language, explicit school violence and delinquent/deviant behaviour. The article concludes that there is something unique and deeply disturbing about institutionalised violence in South Korean schools and that the abysmally low subjective wellbeing levels of pupils are no coincidence.