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For North Korean students, a new way of learning

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Oct 21,2004
With generations of North Korean children having grown up under the communist juche ideology, education will be the key to solidifying a unified Korea, says Han Man-gil, a senior researcher at the Korea Educational Development Institute who wrote a report titled “Educational Policies for Unification.” Mr. Han said that since the decades of division have created not only differences in ideology and values but distrust and hostility, classroom curricula should emphasize what the two have in common. “First of all, it is important to help students recognize that North and South Koreans share an ethnic, historical and cultural heritage, by emphasizing traditions, homogeneous cultural identity and customs that are unique to Korea,” he said. Educational reform could be patterned after post-reunification East Germany, he suggested. There, the subjects of Marxism and Leninism were eliminated from the universities; West Germany’s textbooks replaced those of East Germany, or supplementary textbooks were used for subjects like history, sociology and German language that had been influenced by communist ideology. Because education in the former East Germany was considered far inferior to that in the West, re-education of East German teachers was also considered necessary. At Humboldt University in East Germany, half the teaching staff was replaced by West German professors after reunification because of their past involvement with the East German central information agency. But the proportion of West Germans on the teaching staff was kept below 50 percent to prevent a sense of “colonization,” Mr. Han said. North Korean students would have to adapt to a new educational timeline as well. In the North, where the education system is based on the former Soviet Union’s, students spend one year in kindergarten, four in primary school and six in middle and high school, according to a report, “Characteristics and Functions of Education in North Korea,” by Lee Chong-jae at the Korea Educational Development Institute. Children of government and Communist Party officials attend special schools for the elite. Some aspects of the North’s educational system would be worth preserving, Mr. Han said. He noted that the North provides free, mandatory education for a longer period than the South does; it requires one year of kindergarten, four of primary school and six of middle and high school, though for economic reasons that goal has not always been met. Also, Mr. Han said, North Korean education emphasizes practical application of knowledge, such as in work settings. According to Mr. Han’s report, language is the biggest problem now experienced by students in South Korean schools whose families defected from the North. This raises the question of whether North Koreans would need lessons in what is considered standard Korean in the South. Culture shock and emotional distress were also cited as difficulties for these students. Defector students are also reported to have problems following instructions, partly because they’ve spent much of their classroom time learning about communist ideology instead of taking regular courses in math, science and so on. They also have a hard time catching up in the ubiquitous English classes. According to Mr. Han, 70 percent of the middle and high school students drop out; primary school children have fewer problems. He said the more competitive atmosphere in South Korean schools is a hardship for defector students, as is the more advanced computer instruction. The report said that what helped the students adjust to South Korean culture and schools were religion, mass media such as TV and, most of all, making friends. by Limb Jae-un


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