Kim Jong Who? South Korea revamps the way students study North Korea


Kim Jong Who? South Korea revamps the way students study North Korea
Posters bearing messages, wishing unification between the two Koreas, hang on a wall at the Daesungdong Elementary School, a school inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, November 22, 2016.

In Summary

  • Baek Jun-kee, the head of South Korea’s Institute for Unification Education says 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.
  • 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 say.

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 détente has highlighted what many observers see as a lack of knowledge among South Koreans about their northern 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 says 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 Reuters 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 say.

“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, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers creating a new curriculum on unification was “crucial and urgent”.

“WASTE OF TIME”

Cut off from the North for 70 years and still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce not a peace treaty, many South Koreans have come to see unification as an increasingly distant and unrealistic goal.

Surveys show younger generations of 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.

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Story By Reuters
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