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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Human Rights Education in South Korea

Soon-Won Kang

Even now that the military dictatorial regime has been ousted, it remains difficult to talk about human rights in South Korea. Teachers are reluctant to use the terminology of human rights education (HRE) and feel more comfortable handling values, moral or democratic-civic education classes, which teach conformity to social norms.

Corporal punishment is usual in Korean schools. HRE emphasizes the rights of students as individuals not protected by teachers or school regulations. Teachers' rights are at odds with students' rights. Caning is treated not as a structural educational problem but as exceptional behavior of overly enthusiastic teachers, even as an act of love. However, when the news of caning becomes public, the teachers are treated as immoral and abnormal. Students' and teachers' rights should be balanced against each other. The fact that teachers' rights are not protected in the classroom or by the school administration is yet another HRE issue.

Schools are central to children's lives. Children who arrive late at school are turned in by school monitors to strict teachers for corporal punishment. Some children are isolated or bullied by their classmates. Some are beaten and robbed by other students. Sometimes teachers inspect students' belongings without permission.

High school students study until midnight to prepare for the university entrance examinations. Those in vocational departments, however, are treated as second-class students. Schools are no longer places of education. They are dreadful places where children lose their dreams and hopes.

The long, feudal Confucian tradition, the imperialist culture produced by years of colonialism, the ideological antagonism caused by the nation's division, the materialism born of economic development during the military dictatorship, and our own lack of identity, overwhelm the schools. Students—whether academically good or not—do not truly understand the goal of studying hard. At one school, a teacher who criticized school policy was shamed by the principal in front of his students. Teachers have no autonomy; students have no freedom. Principals who wish to make their schools democratic suffer in the same way. Clearly, everyone will benefit from HRE. This essay exposes human rights abuses in schools and shows why HRE has been neglected.

Categories of Human Rights Issues in the Schools

Korea is a bureaucratic and authoritarian country. Education is inflexible and uniform, and standardized by university entrance examinations. Competition at school is terrible. Students must make their way through an educational system that has insufficient state funds. Poor schools in a rich country -- this is the reality of Korean education.

Human rights problems are classified into three:

Students' Human Rights

Korea is a newly industrialized country that aspires to international standards of academic excellence. Students at all levels are forced to compete against each other. Universities are ranked according to their social prestige and are very difficult to get into. Many students attend expensive special schools after regular school hours to give them a competitive edge.

All children are thus subject to severe pressure. One's success means another's defeat. Some desperate teenagers commit suicide. Five years ago, an honor student killed herself; her suicide note read, "Happiness is not the same as an examination grade." After that incident, some people tried to campaign for better conditions in schools. They were not successful. Teachers still hit students with a ruler or stick, kick them and verbally abuse them. Lower-class children are abused more harshly than upper-class ones. They have no means of appeal. The worst case on record is that of 12-year-old boy who died after being beaten by his teacher in 1993. A report on youth problems says that the most serious problem for Korean students is corporal punishment.

However, whipping is legal, even a sign of "love." It supposedly builds character and prepares students for the real world. Many middle-class students are under constant pressure by their parents to study hard; but poor children are often left alone at home. There are not enough daycare centers to care for lower-class children. Five years ago, two children died in a fire at home because their parents had locked the door when they went out to work. Public opinion forced the government to enact a law establishing daycare centers for children of working mothers. However, the government failed to implement the law due to lack of funds. Consequently, all children in Korea continue to be abused: middle-class children are crushed by unrelenting competition and have no friends, while poor children are neglected and discriminated against by their teachers and society.

Teachers' Human Rights

Korean schools are either public or private, but all are subject to government control. No school can decide what kind of education to offer. All teachers must follow the national teaching guidelines. They cannot decide what or how to teach. Some formed a union in order to fight for more autonomy and democracy. Unfortunately, the military government banned it, fearing that it would be a communist mouthpiece. In 1989, the teachers established the Korean National Teachers Union (KTU). The government barred from teaching 1,700 members who refused to withdraw from the union. Although 30,000 teachers supported the union and most parents favor it, the union remained illegal.

Even when free elections in 1992 gave Korea a civilian President, the quasi-civilian government asked the union to pull down its flag. In 1993, many teachers reluctantly withdrew from the union and went back to school, but 300 union leaders are still refused entry to their schools. Now there is only one teachers organization—the government-sponsored Korean Federation of Teacher's Associations. Fortunately, the 1998 elections brought President Kim Dae Jung to power. One of his campaign promises was to legalize the KTU; he kept his promise in January 1999.

As Korean education is centralized, competitive and bureaucratic, teachers are burdened by much paper work. They have to test the students weekly, monthly, at the end of the semester, at the end of the year, and prepare them for high school and university entrance examinations. With so many examination papers to grade and grade lists to prepare, they have little time to get to know the students intimately. As they have 40-60 pupils in one class, they cannot help classifying students into "clever" and "less able." They have no freedom to interpret textbooks from their own point of view because they must prepare the students for standardized entrance examinations.

In 1989, a teacher was dismissed for teaching post-World War II Korean history from her own viewpoint. Forty-three professors signed a petition supporting her and advocating "freedom to teach," but to no avail. As teachers are evaluated by the head teacher for promotion or transfer, they obey their superiors. It is impossible for an individual teacher to make education more humane. One teacher was bitter: "I am a machine in a huge corporation that turns out capitalist human beings. The owner is the headmaster and the parents are the investors who watch me constantly. In order to survive at school, I have to give up my dignity."

Parents' Rights

As Korean education is so centralized, there is hardly any place for parents in the system. They cannot even fight back when their children are beaten or sexually abused at school. They can only resort to bribing teachers not to neglect their children. Parents' associations are made up only of rich parents; they are one of the few places where mothers exert their power. Rich parents enjoy many privileges denied to the poor ones. They know only that education will bring future social success; they do not care that their children suffer stress in school, and push them to compete.

However, parents say that they are the victims too, because they have no time for themselves. Their lives revolve around their children's studies, from dawn to midnight. The 1993 census showed that the most serious problem for housewives in their 40s was whether or not their children would be accepted by a university. They close their eyes to violations of students' and teachers' human rights, and are concerned only for their own children. They give teachers a token of gratitude at the beginning of the school term. Children of the poor, however, are ignored and abused at school.

In keeping with Korea's Confucian tradition, many parents believe that their children must obey the teachers. But lately, the government has tried to make schools more democratic, and parents have also tried to form truly representative parents' organizations. Parents are starting to participate in school decision making through the school governing committees, which were started in 1996, although they are still reluctant to discuss educational subjects. But they do help determine educational policy at the local level. They want organizations that will democratize education; some parents want middle-class-oriented organizations, while others want to radically transform the educational structure.

The Social Context of HRE

While HRE has universal characteristics, it also reflects its historical context. Since independence from Japanese colonization, the language of human rights in South Korea has been highly political, used in relation to political prisoners, torture and confinement of people of conscience, censorship, arbitrary detention of students or workers fighting for democracy. Human rights have always been a political goal and not a subject to be taught in schools.

HRE has gone through four stages since independence. The first stage was from 1945 to 1960, during which there was no formal HRE. The country was liberated from Japan, it was divided, and the Korean War broke out. The urgent task of the Korean people was to build a democratic nation with foreign financial aid. But the Korean War in 1950 and the country's division fostered hostility between north and south. The Cold War ideology of the dictatorial South Korean government encouraged inflexible anti-communism among the people. The government controlled and mobilized people with a state-building ideology based on nationalism. The concepts of freedom of thought and expression or human rights were seen as threats to national security.

Educational facilities were so poor that primary schools had two or three shifts, with over 80 students in a classroom. Qualified teachers were so few that less qualified teachers who had undergone only short-term training had to be recruited. The legacy of colonial education was a strongly centralized educational administration, uniform school curriculum, hierarchical teacher-student relationship, legitimization of corporal punishment, competitive entrance exams, and so on. Teachers and students had no dignity. Students at all levels were mobilized for government demonstrations as well as birthday parties of President Rhee Seung-Man. Strictly controlled military reviews of the students' National Defense Corps were held as patriotic exercises against North Korea.

The second stage was from 1960 to 1980. The democracy movement against the military dictatorship clashed with the government's program of quick economic growth. From being an anti-government political struggle, the movement expanded to include the struggle for human rights. Threatened, the newly emerging power elite launched a coup d'etat in 1960 in response to the April democratic revolution. In the name of national security, the military and big business instituted emergency measures beginning in 1975 and amended the Constitution in order to suppress the movement and people's basic rights.

The government used the schools, media and religion to foster a collective ideology for survival. It imprisoned and tortured thousands of protestors. Still, the movement grew. Movements of students, workers and peasants supported each other. Violations of human rights were widespread.

The teachers' union movement, inaugurated on 19 April 1960, spread all over the country. However, it was destroyed by the 16 May coup d'etat in 1961. Teachers now had a single task: to follow the government's curriculum. But the student movement made itself heard in the 1960s and 1970s. Students and teachers involved in the democracy movement were expelled. Naturally, schools had no HRE. They used corporal punishment in primary and secondary schools; they censored books; they denied students and teachers freedom of thought, expression and assembly in and out of the school; and they monitored what teachers taught.

The third stage was from 1980 to 1992. It was a period of more diversity of thought. After the massacre in Kwangju in 1980, people of conscience started to discuss the direction of reunification. Anti-U.S. sentiment was so strong among many young protestors that they were imprisoned for violating the National Security Law. The slaughter of ordinary people in Kwangju, the dehumanizing detention of and violence against young people, the violent suppression of human rights marches, the human rights abuses of Korean women near the U.S. military camps, all forced Koreans to reflect on their country's situation. The enemy was not merely the government. The U.S. had for so long intervened in domestic affairs and supported the military dictatorship in order to serve its own economic interests. Movements in the 1980s were thus anti-U.S. and pro-reunification.

While the human rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s were bourgeois movements led by the intelligentsia, the social movement in the 1980s splintered into various sectarian movements whose main goal was the abolition of the National Security Law. Visits to North Korea by dignitaries such as Reverend Ikhwan Moon or Sookyung Lim pushed the democratization movement beyond the ideological constraints of the time. A similar shift occurred in education. Parents' movements and teachers' union movements were born, although they were repressed by the government. The journalMinjung Education, published in 1985 by volunteers, was labeled radical and declared illegal. The teachers on its staff were all fired. This gave rise to the formation of the National Teachers Association in 1987, which then became the KTU in 1989. The approximately 2,000 teachers who never resigned from the KTU were expelled from their schools. At the same time, a number of students under stress of examinations committed suicide. Concerned teachers declared their support for students' rights and parents formed their own movement. Teachers and parents tried to boost the children's self-confidence and self-respect through cultural activities. The government, however, continued to train children in self-denial. Teenagers, especially, were abused even more than before. Child suicides brought examination stress, detention to midnight and corporal punishment out in the open.

The fourth stage began in 1993 and continues today. HRE began to bloom in schools. Human rights issues surfaced, as well as social concerns such as the suffering of comfort women during the colonial regime, Korean prostitutes near U.S. military bases, undocumented low-paid foreign laborers, and violations of students' rights by teachers or peers. NGOs looked to the international network, including the UN, for solidarity. Human rights NGOs are doing much to raise the level of democracy in Korea. For example, the Association of Lawyers for Democracy, and Sarangbang of the Human Rights Movement influence public opinion regarding human rights. And since President Kim Dae-Jung is much more concerned about human rights and peace than his predecessors, there may be much progress in human rights and in education as well.

In 1993, many teachers who were fired for being members of the KTU returned to work on the condition that they would resign from the KTU. Now they are among the most enthusiastic in developing programs to democratize education. Thoughtful parents no longer endure the abuse of their children's rights. The school culture has improved due to democratic school regulations. In 1996, the school-governing committee played an active role in transforming the bureaucratic school administration into a democratic participatory structure of teachers, parents and community members. The Presidential Advisory Educational Committee suggested an educational reform agenda for civic-democratic education, including HRE. Some groups in the education system, however, resisted these moves.

In 1991, the Korean government ratified the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. In 1997, Korea joined the OECD. Now the government is required to develop educational programs to promote human rights. It can do so in collaboration with government organizations, NGOs and educators.

What about the Future?

Korea is a growth-oriented society. For the sake of economic growth, we have endured political dictatorship, economic injustice, social corruption and abuse of basic human rights. It is time to share society's wealth with others and turn our eyes to human rights and world peace. HRE should therefore teach not only human rights, but change people's attitudes and values so that they will have self-respect as well as respect for others, and transform a violent society into one that values peace, justice and human rights.

For HRE workers I suggest several tasks. First, change the school ethos in order to bring HRE into the schools. School regulations, education laws and the Constitution must also be revised. Second, bring HRE to the broader Korean society. Third, publish manuals on HRE for teachers.

We need an international network to support human rights organizations in Korea. Through it we can learn how to improve the school curriculum on human rights, learn from experiences in other countries and tell the global village about our own experiences.


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