Korean History Education – a casual essay

The following is an informal essay recently written by a first year undergraduate student at Korea University who, as she readily notes, has not herself majored in Korean history. Despite, or rather because of this it provides a refreshingly unconstrained discussion of the topic as seen from a regular, contemporary Korean perspective.  Translated with her permission, she would no doubt emphasize that it represents only one opinion. The essay is not the product of any deep research but merely reflects her personal experience and immediate knowledge, the insightful cohesiveness of which makes it highly readable.

Korean History Education

There are [currently] many problems [concerning] Korean history education [in Korea]. In terms of content there cannot but be problems, however the [whole] system of Korean history education has some really big problems. This is because Korea’ education policy itself is broken and gradually getting worse. The current education policy has already continued too far in the wrong direction [to be able to discuss all matters in this essay], so here I will try to give an overview of the current situation concerning Korean history [as a taught] subject.

The focus on university entrance exams is a fact [of Korean life] which remains unchanged, however, as competition has heightened and the system of entrance keeps changing, the age at which [students] begin preparing for the exams is gradually decreasing. In Korea, compulsory education lasts up until [the end of] middle school and from high school education is [nominally] elective, consequently at high school there is a greater freedom in the choice of subjects. [But] with high school being the stage just before taking the university entrance exams, it is inevitable that the choice of subjects is centered on preparing for the College Scholastic Ability Test (수능 suneung for short). Here, too, in the past students would begin preparations for the suneung exams in their final [3rd] year of high school, but now there is a demand [from parents?] to have suneung style classes not just throughout high school but even from middle school. In order to prepare for the suneung, music, sports, art and ethics classes which used to each be for an hour per week are all relegated to the first year [of high school] to complete the required hours, whilst the remaining [two year] period is devoted to Korean, maths and a foreign language (언수외, the ‘foreign language’ refers to English) study. However, the former topics used to provide time each week for students to take a break [from entrance exam study] and have some fun. With these classes now all moved to one year, the volume of study has become too great and the level of enjoyment halved; for the remaining period [students] have to continuously study [only] for the suneung and so the level of stress becomes many times higher. Particularly subjects such as ethics are important because if regularly taught, they provide students with the chance to think about life, but if the lectures are used merely to fill required hours (수업일수) they really are of no help.

The most basic method for entering university is sitting the suneung, but if all education is [exclusively] centered around it then such preoccupation becomes entirely unhelpful and meaningless study [only endured] out of the necessity [to enter university]. For example, the three subjects focused on most for the suneung are Korean, mathematics and a foreign language (English); of course these topics are important but I do not see for what reason these three are [considered so] especially important when compared to other topics. But with everyone concentrating [only] on Korean, maths and English (언수외), other subjects are neglected, whilst [at the same time] with everyone [forced to compete so hard] the average results continue to rise and so the difficulty of [exam] questions has become unnecessarily high.

Except for Korean, maths and English, the remaining topics are all grouped under the category ‘society’. [They include] politics, economics, society and culture, Korean geography, Korean history, modern history, ethics, a second foreign language (Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Arabic [or] Russian) and world history; when applying for the suneung, three or four [of these] are selected. It is a completely free choice up to the individual and so those subjects not chosen do not have to be studied at all. This is an issue for other topics as well, but it is quite absurd (어처구니 없다) that [both] Korean and modern history are treated as elective subjects. Of course history is obligatory during elementary and middle school but because Korean history is originally so long and complicated (양이 많다 lit. ‘there being a lot of it’), the truth is [students] quickly become confused and forget [what they have learnt]. It is also ridiculous (황당하다) that Korean and modern history are divided. Korean history covers prehistory, and from Old Joseon to the [end of the later] Joseon dynasty, whilst modern history [deals with] the subsequent period until the present. During elementary and middle school there is so much history to study, by the end of each academic year, the content is rushed through whilst the modern history segment is dropped entirely. Then, in my own case, at high school for the suneung I did not choose modern history and so I know almost nothing of modern Korean history. In my mind, I am really frustrated and want to learn [about it] but whenever I have free time there is always something else and so, currently, even I can feel myself just how ignorant I am about modern history.

When studying history it is very useful to know hanja (Chinese characters), but hanja classes are only continued until [the end of] middle school and then they are only once per week and we only learn the most basic and simple words and so younger Koreans today barely know any hanja characters. Trying to memorize Korean history without knowing hanja makes it all the more difficult. It is said that during our parents’ generation, if they met a Chinese or Japanese person abroad, even if they could not speak, it was possible to communicate at a basic level through writing hanja. But for the current generation it is best to not [even] entertain such expectations.

In the case of the suneung exam, there are well crafted questions, but for [earlier internal] school exams the questions are made by the teachers for the sake of ease and so they nearly always consist of questions which can be answered simply through rote learning. For example, [being asked] to arrange in order a series of events which occurred during a similar period, or, in [multiple choice] questions choosing the right date where only the last digit of the year given as options differ from one another. Unless [one goes on to] study history for the suneung, any interest in studying Korean history is soon lost.

Of course, there are many other important subjects taught at school but because there is almost no one who would refute the fact that Korean history is really important, there are visible efforts here and there to encourage the study of Korean history. In the case of Seoul National University, perhaps because of its self-pride (자부심) as the representative university of Korea, one can only apply for a place there if they have taken Korean history as a suneung examination subject. Recently, also, a new test offering a qualification has been established, the ‘Korean History Ability Evaluation Test’ (한국사능력검정시험 Hanguk-sa neungnyeok-geomjeong-siheom); this is very useful for students preparing their seupek (스펙 ‘spec’ from English ‘specification’, a term used to denote additional academic qualifications)for the suneung exam. Considering its only relatively recent introduction, the influence of the Korean History Ability Evaluation Test is surprisingly large and is an exam which is invariably taken by those who need seupek. In spite of there being such efforts, for students to whom university entrance exams are their entire world, it seems the importance of studying Korean history remains under-acknowledged.

Separate to the issue of education policy, the genre of Korean [television] dramas [known as] sageuk (사극 ‘historical dramas’) exert a negative influence on the study of Korean history. The majority of historical dramas are not only based on a past period [of history] but also deal with historical figures and events. However, viewers are surprisingly naive and will very often believe that whilst there is some fiction, most of the content is true. The problem is that the people who write the scenarios have not themselves majored in history. The scenario writers simply borrow the names of minor historical personages and facts and then create fiction with their own imaginations, but the viewers accept it [all] as fact and so accumulate nothing bu inaccurate knowledge. The settings of the dramas are never entirely invented but will indicate a particular period of Korean history within which the story unfolds, however, [the scenario writers typically] know nothing about the period and so the clothing, food and sets are all entirely made up and fake. When the historical dramas are broadcast the episodes almost never begin with any notice [to the effect] that, ‘This story deals with historical events but the content is ahistorical fiction’. Just occasionally will there be such a notice but, it seems only when the plots are particularly extreme.

At least [in terms of] the content of Korean history education, some positive change is visible. During the period of Japanese occupation, many cultural relics (문화재) were lost and simultaneously the content of history education also greatly changed; this was a necessary process for [the Japanese to] legitimize [their] rule. The content that changed during that period is [now] referred to as ‘the colonial view of history’ (식민사관 singmin-sa’gwan). When I was learning Korean history, we were already being taught both about the ‘colonial view’ and original history. Very often there were [multiple choice] test questions asking to identify the ‘colonial view’. Because I was taught in this manner from the beginning I accepted it as natural (당연하다), as a consequence I was really surprised to [only] recently learn the fact that even during my parents’ generation they were taught Korean history as it had been altered by Japan but without it being termed the ‘colonial view’. It was quite chilling (섬뜩하다) to realize that something I had vaguely assumed to have been the case in the distant past [had in fact continued] up to our parents’ generation. But on the other hand, I am [equally] reassured (뿌듯하다) to realise [therefore] that efforts to search out the ‘colonial view’ and preserve original history (원래 역사) have already [achieved] the stage of near complete success.

To give the most representative example of the ‘colonial view’, it would be the factional politics (붕당정치 bungdang-jeongchi) of the Joseon dynasty. Even during my parents’ generation, they were taught that the factional struggles over power were because the Joseon people’s sense of ethnic identity (민족성 minjokseong) was weak and so they easily formed rival groups and fought [amongst themselves, ultimately] causing the downfall of the dynasty. However, any average student of my generation will have heard the term ‘factional politics’. When I was taught [Korean history, we were] told that rather than power [continuously] residing in the same place it was divided between several parties/factions (당파) and so tension and a balance of power was maintained and this played a large role in Joseon’s longevity.

In this manner, by describing (표현) Korean’s sense of ethnic identity as historically (나쁘다 lit. ‘bad’) and painting Joseon as an inferior country, [they] emphasized the necessity of rule by a more advanced country (선진화된 나라) such as Japan.

Another example of the ‘colonial view’ is the ‘hypothesis of Mimana (任那 Kor. Imna) having been a part of Japan’ (임나일본부설) and, to be sure, during the Japanese occupation it was taught not as a hypothesis but as fact. It was another excuse to legitimize [Japanese] rule through grafting (집어넣다) their own traces onto ancient history (아주 옛역사). However, presently (in Korea) the “Mimana hypothesis” is taught as a clear term together with logical evidence disproving it as fact. [Teachers] do not simply insist that it was false but always systematically (논리적으로) teach the reasons [why], which in my view, is very good.

Although, even during our parents’ generation history was taught [still] based on the ‘colonial view’, as young students they did not seem to have taken that ‘fact’ [as truth]. But for my grandparents’ generation, because they were the generation which actually experienced the Japanese occupation, their education was [no better than] brainwashing and even today they still believe that Japanese culture and civilization (문물) is extremely good. It seems that because much Japanese culture remains from their memories of when they were young, there is an aspect of sensing the fragrance of their youth in Japanese things. For example, [if they hear Japanese language] they feel nostalgic for their youth. Even in such horrid circumstances as when one country uses military force to rule and oppress another country, the fact that in spite of that, the [aggressor] country could leave a positive impression on the victim country, I felt as truly frightening. Even if it is only limited to cultural [impressions].

I am not sure if it is related to the Japanese colonial era, but [in China-Korea relations too] I heard they used to teach that Korea sent tribute to China because [Korea] was always weak. Of course, [I] realise the strength of China and Korea do not bear comparison and know that Korea sent tribute to China but in Korean history education today, this fact too is logically presented (표현) even [manages to be interpreted] quite positively. Firstly, there is the clear evidence that although China invaded Korea countless times, Korea was never annexed by China and has remained [independent] to the present. Historically there were instances when [Korea] practiced sadae-ju’ui (사대주의 lit. ‘serving the great -ism’ i.e. active Sinocentricism) and instances when it pursued a policy of strengthening its borders (강경책) according to the individual kings; always, in this manner, there were various opinions on what to do about relations with other counties which depended on individual people and circumstances. Crucially, if it [had only] been a case of normal products being paid as a tribute tax (상납), then certainly it could be seen as having been little more than a system of Chinese rule, but because it can be understood that, rather than [simply] offering up tribute (물건), they were [in fact] exchanged for even more treasures (물건) [from the Chinese side] and so profited Korea, the relationship can be interpreted as not having been so one-directional (수동적 lit. ‘passive’) [after all].

Of course, because I do not major in history, this is [only] my personal interpretation [combined with] the content of Korean history lectures I [only] vaguely [remember] but anyway, it is a clear fact that the Korean history syllabus is moving towards emphasizing Korean independence (자주성 as having been chief protagonist in its own affairs) and identity (정채성). Nothing is good if taken to an extreme but because, for a long time, Korea was described [as] not having [any strong] identity, I think this kind of process [of reemphasizing Koreanness] is very much necessary.

Aside from Japan [related matters], the manner of portraying (표현 방식) many other historical incidents is [also] changing, or has already. The [most] representative example is the case of the May 18 Gwangju Democracy Movement (5.18 광주민주화운동) [which] at the time was termed the [Gwangju] ‘riot’ (폭동). Actually, I’m not exactly sure when the name was changed to ‘democracy movement’, but to me it has always been [called so]. In actuality, at that time, the government tried to cover up many large incidents and so even if people did not believe the government, there was [still] no way to accurately find out the reality of [such] incidents. Consequently, if the government termed [it] a ‘riot’, then people too would [find themselves] referring to [it] as a riot and so the expression would stick. Actually, very recently there have been attempts to change the term back to ‘riot’, that is, since the start of Park Geun-hye’s administration.

The period (체제 lit. ‘system’) of [South Korean] dictatorships was no less awful than the Japanese occupation [and so] I was really surprised last year to see Park Geun-hye [daughter of Park Chung Hee] selected as a presidential candidate. This was because, although I knew that my grandparents’ generation had a positive appreciation (인식) for Park Chung Hee, I had not realized they liked him to this degree (i.e. enough to vote his daughter into power). I had thought that no matter how much common people’s eyes and ears had been covered by the government and [in spite of] the economic development achieved, inside their heads they would have [also] known just how many horrible incidents there had been. Concerning this point, I do not know if it is the influence of education or that, despite having been a dictatorship, [most] people had felt it to have been peaceful (평온하다).

Finally, I will finish with an explanation about Korean history textbooks. In our country, until the 7th [National] Curriculum (교육과정), there was only one Korean history textbook (modern history was a normal publisher {i.e. various textbooks were available}) [but] from the 8th Curriculum, it changed so that normal publishers could also publish [their own textbooks for premodern Korean history]. Although I do not know well myself, [as I understand], before the 8th Curriculum came into place for first year high school [students] in 2009, [each chapter of] the Korean history textbook was nearly always divided into [separate sections on] politics, economics, society and culture and so [each topic] was taught in that order. Thus having learnt all the politics of a [given] period and feeling like it was finished [and ready to move on], in the next lesson [they] would study the economics of the same period, and then the society, and then the culture; only having studied one period (나라) from each of these aspects four times over would it finally be finished. However, because Korean history is originally long with several dynasties which each repetitively came and went, it is very easy to become confused on the different periods. Consequently in the Korean history text and workbooks there were [and still are] often tables to show the similarities and differences between the different periods. This is because (i.e. helps to demonstrate that) although there were differing dynasties, their systems and culture remained similar.

However much the syllabus of Korean history is changed, it is difficult to have a perfect curriculum and so it is always a topic of debate amongst experts. Each time the curriculum is changed, there is much debate (말 lit. ‘words/talk’) and complaining (불만). The content is one thing, but the need to strengthen Korean history education is also something being very much emphasized. As stated at the beginning, this is because Korean history education is not being properly achieved. From the point of view of students, the amount (범위 lit. ‘range/scope’) of Korean history is so incredibly much greater than other subjects, studying it is always difficult and hated.

It would be difficult beyond description to completely change the Korean education system but it would be good to at least elevate Korean history from simply being one amongst various topics to that of a much more special topic. An important starting point for this would be getting students to recognize the importance of studying Korean history. It will be impossible to have Korean history education without any complaints, but I hope the several positive experiments will be incorporated (이어받다) and that it will continue in a direction of gradual development.

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