A suitable case for classroom treatment

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Korea can provide fruitful areas of study for many areas of the British school curriculum, writes Keith Howard

What do we know about Korea? Situated to the east of Asia, it seems distant to us beyond the western coast of that same landmass. The country is sandwiched between China and Japan, both in terms of geography and fate, unreasonably overshadowed by the economic success of one and the political strength of the other.

Korea briefly makes it on to our television screens when an attention-grabbing headline is written about by a disaster: a plane crash, the collapse of a bridge or a department store. We know of the Stalinist legacy of the North, with its failed harvests, floods and the prospect of mass starvation, and with supposed political turmoil following President Kim Il Sung's death and the commands of his unpredictable son and successor, Kim Jong Il (pictured together, right).

Yet, in our thinking, we are often behind the times. MASH, both the film and the television series, showed us a war-ravaged and poverty-stricken nation, but Korea has long since thrown off all vestiges of the past. We associate Korea with low wages, and a sweat-shop economy. This is not today's Korea: Korean companies in Britain pay shop-floor workers less than they do workers doing the same jobs in Korea. Only when we shake off the associations can we recognise a country that offers us much to study.

For history teaching, consider the Korean war. This was where, in June 1950, the Cold War turned hot. It began as a civil war, but quickly turned into an international conflagration. United Nations troops were committed because of American pressure; the Soviets were boycotting the UN security council over the refusal to admit Communist China, so did not veto the move. British troops fought in Korea; we wanted to be seen to support the Americans, so that they remained committed to preventing Soviet expansion in Europe.

Korea was where Communist China first fought Americans, their million combat soldiers forcing an 18-month stalemate along the 38th parallel. No peace treaty was ever signed, so the two sides are technically still at war. Korea, then, is the last unresolved remnant of the Cold War.

Put in a different way, Korea is the last divided country, with an unreformed Stalinist Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( the North) facing a capitalist and democratic Republic of Korea (the South).

Korea is of interest in world citizenship and global awareness teaching. The country is situated in a dangerous neighbourhood: the area that political commentators anticipate will become the powerhouse for the 21st century. Koreans often say they are "shrimps between whales". The Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5, which articulated the decline of China, was fought over Korea. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904 was again fought over Korea, and demonstrated the inevitability of Japanese expansion. Today, Korea balances the ambitions of its neighbours. (Further back, of course, Korea has a long and distinguished history as an independent state.) For geography, Korea offers much: rice cultivation; changes and decline in agriculture - as Korea moves from a closed local system to the international market; rapid urban development - in 1945, 85 per cent of the population was rural, now 85 per cent live in cities; and, more recently, tourism. Most important, though, is the South Korean economy. Here is a newly emerging country, probably the most accessible of the Asian tigers. In 1960, per capita gross national product stood at well under $100 per annum, then roughly equivalent to India's. Today, it is pushing $12,000 (Pounds 7,500), snapping at the heels of several European Union states. Several companies are listed by the US financial magazine Fortune as leading players - Samsung is among the top 15 companies in the world - and the four largest conglomerates account for more than two-thirds of all export earnings: Samsung, Hyundai, LG and Daewoo. Development, geared to export-oriented industrial development, is easy to chart. Centralised planning first expanded heavy industry. Korea today has the largest steel plant and the largest ship-building capacity in the world. As the workforce became better educated and more highly skilled, it moved into hi-tech products. Its biggest exports now include cars, televisions, hi-fi equipment, microwaves and computers.

Korean culture, too, also offers much for British education. For religious studies, note that in Korea, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism all peacefully co-exist. Shamanism is primarily rural and verges on animistic beliefs which have it that mountains and rivers have spirits, while Confucianism dictates conduct codes (and respect for ancestors). Zen Buddhism was developed in Korea (where it is known as Son Buddhism). And Christianity, with a short and turbulent history, is growing rapidly: Youido Full Gospel Church, with a membership exceeding 700,000, is said to be the largest church in the world.

For music teaching up to GCSE, Korea offers two contrasting worlds of court and folk, the one austere, upright and highly structured, the other earthy, rhythmic, and full of life.

Contrasts abound in Korea, right down to the staple foods, sticky rice and fiery pickled kimch'i cabbage. The contrasts are witness to history, to the fact that the nation sits at a cross-roads between the Asian landmass and Japan. It is at one end of the Silk Road, and has long been more important than we might expect. Koreans proudly assert that they invented moveable type and iron-clad ships.

They also claim that the Japanese tea ceremony began in Korea, in the south-western Paekche state, which has had the effect of making Korean pottery highly prized - in a recent auction, a cracked Korean vase fetched more than $8m. This, yet again, suggests that we should sit up and take notice.

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