Korean Education

I learned two very interesting things about Korean education and I thought I would post them while they are fresh in my mind.

Firstly, one reason why study and memorization is so highly prized and emphasized is due to the history of Korean writing. Prior to 1446 there was no Korean writing system. Any writing was done in Chinese. Korean is a distinct language, unlike others. So speaking is Korean but writing in Chinese would be like speaking in English but writing in Arabic – very tricky. This meant that only about 10% of the population was literate. It took a lot of work and study to be able to read and write.

in 1443, King Sejhunminjeongeumong the Great, developed a writing system based on the way Korean sounds – The characters represent the sounds of Korean. However this new writing system, Hangeul, was not used for official purposes and was only used for some pop culture and for women and children. So study continued to be highly prized and necessary for educated people. It wasn’t until the Japanese occupation (and forced Japanese as the official language) in the twentieth century that Hanguel emerged as a source of national pride and was used.

So for hundreds (10th century onwards) of years the only way to be educated was through intense work and memorization. Expecting that to change in less than a hundred years (the occupation ended 1945) seems unrealistic.

Secondly, I asked a local university student here, if what I had heard about the high school system was true. We had a fantastic talk about the South Korean Education system. Students, in high school, don’t pay very much attention to their teachers it seems. I inquired why and she said because the teachers were “no good”. I pressed further and she said it was because teachers knew that students go to additional school after school and do all their learning there, so they don’t need to pay attention in regular school. They go to this additional school in the month long summer and winter breaks. I said that this didn’t seem very fun, and she agreed. Students usually eat dinner at this second school and can see their family very little. They look forward to University which, in comparison, has waaay less studying and waaaaay more fun. She says some students struggle with the freedom.

I asked her if the quality of teaching changed in school, would students pay attention and care? Would they then not do the other school? She said that she personally, would have payed attention and been happy about it, but many of her friends would not. Change, will be slow in coming.

I feel like the two are linked. Study is valued, so there is extra school, so the teachers & students of the actual school stopped caring because ‘Why learn twice?’. Points for me to ponder…

South Korean Education on North Korea

Today was my first lecture. It was about North Korea. South Korea is separated from the rest of the continent by the North. Essentially it is an attached island. You can really see this separation at night.

korea at night
Image from: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83182

The explanation about why and how the split happened and what that meant in terms of economics, freedoms, prison camps and how the average person lives was fascinating. What shocked me was how little the South Korean students knew about what was happening just north of them. The lectured shocked many of them and they had lots of questions.

The Lecturer, Dr. Yoon Yeosang, Director of North Korean Human Rights Archive, repeatedly said that South Koreans just don’t care about what is going on north of them. He mentioned the book Escape from Camp 14, about a person who escaped from a political prisoner camp, which became a best seller internationally and made in to a film, yet only sold 10 000 copies in South Korea. Why don’t people care/know? Maybe too may threats and incidents? I’m not sure. I decided to investigate further so at dinner I asked about what South Korean students learned about North Korea in school.

It turns out not much! They know lots about the 5000 year history about the Korean Peninsula but nothing about the human rights violations that occur there. I expressed surprise about this and asked if they learned anything about it in high school. Collectively they said very few teachers talk about it. The situation in the North is mentioned, but only briefly. Only a few teachers talk more about it. Most were unaware what was happening.

How much of a responsibility do educators have to tell about what is happening in the world? Should students not be made aware of what is happening? It seems unbelievable that South Koreans do not know what is going on in a country that was until recently a part of a large country that they belonged to. I was told that if students, or people, here want information on North Korea they must listen to English language stations like BBC. Without being taught, the future educators will perpetuate the lack of knowledge.

Teaching must be about more than the ‘content’. We are part of a global community. I believe that we have a responsibility as educators to connect what students are learning with the world around us.

Dr. Yoon Yeosang offered to share his PowerPoint with us. He wants people to become more aware. There are a few translation errors, but it is worth flipping through. As the PowerPoint is too large, I have copied it to a PDF. Click the link here: North Korean Society

Korea – The Start of the Adventure

VIU Faculty, Students, & Soon-to-be Exchange Students

I am in South Korea as part of the Bahrom International Program. Every year faculty and students come to the Seoul Women’s University to participate in learning about Korea. Korean students from the university participate and then will spend a year abroad. There are students from all over the world (Canada, U.S., Russia, & Germany are the ones that I can remember).


DatelineLeaving Canada & my family was tough. It was beautiful in Nanaimo, not so much in Vancouver. The flight was long (11 hours). I watched 3 movies and could have seen four! At least I knew other people on the flight, 3 other faculty and 3 students. I arrived soooo tired!

my room
My room. Yup, I have bunk beds…


I have my own room (with 4 bunk beds & 4 desks) that leads out to a common area that four rooms share – I am sharing with the three other women from VIU: Claire Marshall, Sharon Kelly, & Heather Sanrud. There is one other professor here, Andrew Markley from Grove City College. To be honest, the first night is a bit of a blur.


faculty taking notes


We will be attending lectures & learning about Korean culture and visiting sites of cultural interest. I cannot wait!