In the first week of November, I had the great privilege of going on an overnight retreat with LiNK's Young Leaders Program (YLP). Here, I learned more about North Korea from the fellows (defectors who are the program participants).
One of my most memorable experiences during the retreat was when I got to talk one-on-one with e of the fellows. Listening to the story of how this person escaped, and how his family risked their lives escaping from a political prison camp was amazing. I also took part in a discussions where I heard firsthand experiences of challenges and discriminations the fellows faced while resettling in South Korea. Listening to these personal accounts strengthened my conviction in my own research and work. It was also fascinating to hear about North Korea's response to organized resistance. Yes, I knew that organized resistance was life-threatening to partake in North Korea. However, the fear became all the more real when one of the fellows told me about a time when protests happened at a factory in his hometown. As soon as the protests began, tanks came into his city and began shooting at the protesters.
Protests have been happening in the two countries that embody my cultural heritage. They have been happening across U.S. college campuses, primarily related to race. It's been incredible to see this movement facilitate power change #ConcernedStudent1950. Protests have also happened in South Korea this past month regarding new governmental policy. Recently, President Park Geun Hye announced a revision of history textbooks. Beginning in 2017, schools can only use state-issued textbooks in classes.
For some context, curriculum in South Korea is rather centralized and standardized across South Korea. The Ministry of Education plays a large role in determining curriculum. Local and provincial governments do not have much say as to what goes into the curriculum. Very different from the U.S. education system. The South Korean testing system shows the level of standardization. South Korea has a national exam called the 수능, or College Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The test happens once a year. This year the test was on November 12th. Your score is a key determinant of what universities you are eligible to apply for. Unlike the "holistic college admissions process" that many colleges use in the U.S., there are strict test score cutoffs for universities in South Korea. If your score doesn't fall within a certain university's range, you cannot attend that school. The test is so important that the entire nation is affected by it on testing day. On the day of the test, public transportation across the country runs more frequently to ensure that students can get to the test site on time. Even if you're only a minute late, you aren't allowed to take test, meaning you have to wait until next year to apply to college! Students can call their local police station to be escorted to a testing site if they feel they won't make it on time using public transportation. While the exam is being administered, planes aren't allowed to land in Korea. They have to remain up in the air until the test is over. No pressure, right?
In some ways, the way the country prepares for this test can be seen as how much education is valued in South Korean society. Recognizing this, the new textbook policy has serious implications. What makes this policy particularly suspect is that the current president is the daughter of the former military dictator of South Korea, Park Chung Hee, who used education to emphasize nationalism and anti-communism. In the present, the state controlling the South Korean narrative, representing it monolithically, is not conducive to a pluralistic society.
To protest this new policy, there was a demonstration in Seoul on November 15th with over 80,000 participants. It's been the largest protest in over a decade. Unfortunately, tear as and water cannons were sprayed into the crowds. President Park compared the protesters to ISIS. Ironically, the administration's new policy and its reaction to dissidents does not seem too far from the tactics used by South Korean's northern neighbor. I'm interested to what happens next. My dad says there are plans for another protest to happen very soon. It's amazing to see how powerful narrative can be. Whether its making human rights violations more of a reality for some or trying to shape a society through the education system.
On a lighter note, I was able to see money form North Korea, courtesy of a LiNK staffer→. It was so cool- I never thought I'd be able to see much less touch bank notes form the DPRK. This bill is worth about $5. It features Kim Il Sung on the front and a traditional Korean village in North Korea on the back. I wonder what I could buy with this much money in North Korea?