Thu, Nov 29, 2018 - Page 9 News List

South Korea revamps the way its students study North Korea

By Joyce Lee and Kim Jeong-min  /  Reuters, SEOUL

A year of warming relations between North and South Korea has raised the prospects of closer ties, if not some form of unification for the still-warring neighbors far in the future, but it might not be obvious in a typical South Korean classroom.

“I really don’t know anything,” 17-year-old student Roh Ha-na said. “It’s like only twice a year that the school teaches about unification and national security, and about North Korean life ... but I just let most of it go in one ear and out the other.”

This year’s inter-Korean detente has highlighted what many observers see as a lack of knowledge among South Koreans about their neighbor, prompting government efforts to revamp the way South Koreans learn about North Korea and unification.

Baek Jun-kee, the head of South Korea’s Institute for Unification Education, said current education methods have failed to show young South Koreans the importance of a nuanced understanding of North Korea, its people and leader Kim Jong-un.

“If we don’t approach the issue in a rational manner or show how the issue affects [students’] personal lives in middle school or high school, it will be difficult to keep their attention,” Baek told reporters in an interview.

The education shortcomings are contributing to a shortage of North Korea experts across public and private institutions at a time when increased cultural and governmental exchanges between the two Koreas make them all the more important, analysts said.

“Every regional government has rolled out plans for inter-Korean exchange, but they don’t have any experts, no knowledge, no networks,” said Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “When the heads of South Korean conglomerates went along to the September Pyongyang summit, most of them didn’t have an in-house North Korea expert to brief the chief.”

After facing criticism at a parliamentary hearing earlier this month over funding cuts to education programs, South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers that creating a new curriculum on unification was “crucial and urgent.”

Cut off from the North for 70 years and still technically at war after the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, many South Koreans have come to see unification as an increasingly distant and unrealistic goal.

Surveys have shown that younger South Koreans are particularly ignorant or apathetic about their northern neighbors, seeing them as a troublesome distraction from the more pressing concerns of work or school.

Interviews with 17 high-school students revealed most had never heard of the “parallel progress” policy key to North Korean affairs this decade.

Most did not know about the growth of private markets that has transformed many areas of North Korea’s economy.

“I’ve never heard about these North Korean issues in school, aside from learning about the Korean War in history class,” said Moon So-in, a 17-year-old student at Sunil Girls’ High School. “My friends don’t seem very interested, since we are so used to being a divided country.”

Education in South Korea is focused on competing for college entrance, culminating in high-pressure nationwide exams in the last year of high school, on which students stake their futures.

North Korea is “not on the test,” students and teachers said, and is therefore seen as a “waste of precious time,” high-school teacher Choi Ki-bok said.

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