Issues and challenges of History Education in the Republic of Korea – Part II

This is the second installment of a blogpost on Marios Epaminondas’ study visit to Seoul, Korea, which took place from 22-28 July 2017. (N.B: In this report the terms Korea, Republic of Korea and South Korea are used interchangeably unless stated otherwise) It is the fifth article in a series of reports and blogposts related to the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. The preceding blogpost on Marios’ visit can be found here.


  1. Which parts of Korea’s past are considered difficult and/or sensitive?

Educating the children of North Korean defectors which have moved to South Korea either directly or through third counties, mainly China, is also an issue related with the understanding of the past. In this case, there is no dispute or attempted dialogue with North Korean authorities. Rather, there are efforts to educate the people who chose to come to South Korea in ways that will help them integrate in society. Apart from issues related to language (for the children who spend many years in China on the way to South Korea) there is a need for a new understanding of the recent past. Teacher Hyeonjin Chae working in Hangyeore High School which welcomes North Korean defector children said that this particular school offers both the regular curriculum and a specialized one to help defector students adapt and be transferred eventually to regular South Korean schools. During their history class, they tackle particular issues which are presented in different ways in North and South Korea. Methodologically, the school adopts group work and dialogue. Content wise, there is still dialogue; nevertheless the South Korean narrative should eventually prevail. For example, regarding the very crucial issue of Korean war, about which in North Korea it is taught that South Korea invaded first, teacher Chae explained that “I provided students with some documents that supported the argument that the Korean war started when North Korea invaded South Korea” (p.125).

  1. What educational programmes exist which deal with the past?

South Korea’s education is divided in three levels: Elementary School six years, Middle School three years and high School three years. According to Sun Joo Kang, Professor at Gyeogin National University of Education (p. 61-62) the Korean national syllabus has changed several times since its first release in 1948. A crucial change occurred in 2011 when a nine year common basic and three year selection based curriculum was adopted. According to this curriculum, students study Korean History at the primary school, middle and high school levels each with different themes, depth and standards. World history is compulsory in Middle school, whereas in High School students choose from a variety of social science courses which include Korean History, East Asian History and World History. This entailed that Korean History was not compulsory in High School. However, historiographical and territorial disputes with Japan and China sparked reactions among the public and the politicians which disagreed with the fact that the subject of Korean History was only optional.

“As a result, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) just before implementing the 2011 curriculum, in which all courses in High School were to be electives strongly recommended that High School should teach Korean history as if it were a compulsory subject.

Korean history has always been more prominent in school curricula than world history because History Education has been viewed as a means for establishing national consciousness and cultural transmission” (Sun Joo Kang, p. 62).

The prevalence of the “task” of History Education to instill national consciousness was evident in all formal and informal discussions held in the framework of the Conference. There was also a discussion about the contribution of history education to the enhancement of civic competences and promotion of active citizenship. These directions of history education, as described by the researchers who studied the official deliberations on the subject are, to a large extend, in line with the information gathered from 35 3rd Grade students of Choong Ang High School. Answering the question “Why should we learn history” the students gave responses clustered around four main areas: a) to provide lessons from the past in order to avoid repeating mistakes, (b) to construct a national identity, (c) to orientate the citizens as to who are they and where they should go and (d) to understand/respect “others” and live in peace with them.

Apart from the educational programmes offered in schools, another arena in which South Korea’s relation with its past is negotiated and presented are the Museums. Seoul has a very rich Museum scene covering themes related not only to political, but also the cultural and social history of the country. The Museums are generally well structured, attractive and rich in content. The narratives underlying the collections are diverse and are offering the chance for reflection. It is interesting to note that post war history of South Korea is presented in a dynamic and critical way. One could have assumed that in an attempt to compare favorably the liberal/capitalistic system espoused in South Korea with the communist/authoritarian system of North Korea the former would somehow be idealized. On the contrary, the development of South Korea’s political life is portrayed as an on-going struggle towards democratization. Of course this can be perceived as implicit presentation of the assets of an open society, nevertheless it is done in an honest and “self-critical” manner, the “self” being the governments in South Korea after 1953. An interesting instance of this reflective approach occurred during the visit at the Demilitarized Zone when the tour guide was commenting on the efforts for dialogue with North Korea. She stated that the progress of dialogue is contingent not only to the stance to the North Korean Government but also to the willingness of the South Korean government. This is interesting because usually tour guides are echoing the official point of view and attribute lack of progress to a dialogue solely to the “other side”.

  1. What is the notion of good history education and how does it contribute to dealing with difficult past?

The emphasis on the establishment of corrected/shared perceptions of the past is prevailing in the discussions about History Education. This brings the content at the center of the discussions. The issues of history didactics and teacher training remain secondary, nevertheless there seems to be an upward trend in the interest of their development. Professor Lyu Seungreul, Kangwon National University explained that the current system is focusing on memorization and the success in particular University entrance exams leaving limited space for agency to the students. Recounting opinions withheld by some teachers which are in line with his own vision for the future of history education he says “…the way in which the learners are perceived must change: they should not be seen as passive beings accepting historical research but as main agents of historical interpretation” (p. 46).

The struggle for the “right content” is consuming much of the energy of many of the official stakeholders dealing with history and history education. The rectification of history is one of the main tasks undertaken by the NAHF. According to the line of argument expressed by the members of the NAHF a good History Education should be based on “shared perceptions” of the history of Northeast Asia. These shared perceptions should/could be established through a dialogue –of historians- between Korea-Japan-China. Such shared perception(s) will consequently allow the creation of joint textbooks which in turn will be the core of history class. The effort is difficult; however, there were attempts towards this direction, which were commented positively by Professor Lyu: “There have been active solidary movements between Korea and Japan to overcome historical conflicts and bring reconciliation. To ensure cooperation between individuals and institutions, this happened on a private, non-Governmental level: history researchers and educators have conducted joint research to bridge the gap in historical perceptions” (p. 40).

According to Professor Lyu, the quality of the “shared perceptions” sought after shall be judged not only by their historical accuracy but also by the values they would convey. They should “fulfil the universal values ultimately pursued by East Asia and even humanity, such as world peace, human rights and democracy (…), must eliminate historical perceptions that dignify invasion and colonization, justify war and rationalize violence and suppression”(Lyu, p. 41).The outcome pursued gives implications of who should have the leading role in this endeavor: “Korea may play a key role in sharing historical perceptions or promoting projects for future peace and co-prosperity, due its absence of historical sins, whereas China and Japan face difficulty in and East Asian community due to their imperial sins” (Lyu, p. 43). In any case, it is not clear whether the “shared perceptions” will be a commonly accepted narrative or “recognizing the Korean perspective and the Japanese perspective, for instance, are different and educating students to understand why these differences in perspective exist” (Lee, p. 58). On top of that, it is acknowledged that the issue of content is not covered only by the relations between Korea, Japan and China. There are open discussions about ethnocentrism, tackling of multiple identities within South Korea and the balance between national and world history.

Whereas the focus is on content, the Foundation officials, researchers and history teachers share the opinion that History Education is not only a matter of content. The discussions in the conference provided clear indications that there is a need, especially on behalf of the teachers, for more emphasis on the methodology of history teaching and the adoption of more student centered approaches. An area which seems to receive much attention in Korea concerns the so called “civic history education”. The rationale is this: “‘Education to raise citizens’ is the basic concept behind civic education, ‘history education to raise citizens’ provides civic education using historical facts and fundamentally aligns with the nature of civic education” (Kim, p. 181). A question which arises is whether history education can be used to promote civic competences without losing its original direction which is learning history for history’s sake.

While the search for the right content and the dialogue about the extent to which history education can serve other subjects outside history prober is ongoing, there are other aspects or history education considered important. The discussion with history teachers on the 27th of July revealed that there is an eagerness to explore the methodology of history teaching more and to share experience with colleagues from other regions of the world, especially Europe. It was also evident that the work of EuroClio is well respected, but not fully understood. This opens up a very good possibility for a cooperation of NAHF and EuroClio in the area of teacher training. Such trainings might, at some point in the future, include participants from other countries of North East Asia.

Tea Ceremony (Image provided by Marios Epaminondas)

  1. Conclusions

History education in South Korea has received special attention during the last years because it is perceived to be closely related with the (re)search and the transmission of the “right content” regarding the past of Northeast Asia. Dealing with the past seems to be, for many Korean stakeholders, a moral, political and scientific obligation to counter unacceptable claims made by Japanese and Chinese authorities. This historiographical struggle is related indirectly but obviously to current political disputes about territory and sovereignty especially with Japan. The optimum scenario, according to the South Korean view, as portrait by speakers in the NAHF conference, is to reach “shared perceptions” of Northeast Asia, which will be accepted and adopted by Korea, Japan and China. It is understandable that this is easier said than done. There is an explicit worry that Japanese and Chinese authorities are reluctant to move towards this direction and a more implicit that should such a dialogue takes place, Korea cannot make “compromises” which are unacceptable. There is also an interrelated, pending question: will the final outcome of the aspired dialogue be a commonly endorsed narrative or the acceptance of the existence of different perspectives and an effort to learn to deal with them?

History education in South Korea is perceived and practiced as a potent way for the development of national identity and the promotion of civic competences. Learning history is about learning who “we” are, where we came from and where we should go. It is also a way to enhance social cohesion by establishing a common ground as regards to the country’s past and its relation to its neighbors. This is especially the case with children of defectors from North Korea who are welcomed to the country as compatriots but have learned a different history about Korea. In South Korea, like elsewhere, History Education is approached as a citizenship related subject. At the same time, there is an ongoing discussion about the extent to which History Education can “serve” the promotion of active citizenship without compromising its “integrity” as a subject.

While the attention was drawn to History Education because of content related controversies, new issues are brought to the foreground as soon as the issue begins to be tackled. There is a salient interest among history teachers, which is gaining ground, for better ways to teach history. A tendency for the adoption of history teaching methods which promote historical understanding, student’s agency, the use of sources and generally a more democratic, constructivist approach to learning is visible. As many of the speakers of the conference have highlighted, examples of “how to teach history” from other places in the world are welcomed. EuroClio’s work is appreciated and there is an eagerness to learn more about how history can be taught and learned especially in areas which have suffered from or are experiencing conflict. In this dialogue, South Korea seems to have the willingness to share and to learn.


All references stated in these blogposts are from the Publication “The NAHF –Euroclio Joint Conference on History Education: Multiperspectivity and Tolerance in History Teaching”.NAHF-Euroclio 2017”

It includes the following speeches:

  • Lyu, Seunreul (Kangwon National Univeristy), “Current Issues in History Education and response efforts in Korea”, p. 39-47.
  • Juhyun, Park (Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation), Issues and Challenges of History Education in Europe and South Korea, p. 51-53
  • Lee, Mimi (Hongik University), “Current Issues in History Education in South Korea and Europe-Questions for Discussion, p. 57-58
  • Kang Sun Joo (Gyeongin National University of Education, “History Teaching in Republic of Korea: Curriculum and Practice”, p. 61-75
  • Chai, Hyun Jin (Hangyeore High School), Developing a History Textbook for North Korean defector students: Introducing a different approach to Korean History.
  • Yi Yeonhee (Teacher at Chunghyun Middle School), “The significance and implementation of History classes for Peace and Coexistence: The case of Korea. p. 153-157
  • Kim Jin-sook (Researcher, Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation), “Challenges in History Education in preparation for Korean Unification, p. 161-163
  • Kim, Han Jong (Korea National University of Education), “Strategies to develop Korean History subject matter for Civic History Education, p. 177-189

This concludes the report on Marios Epaminondas’ study visit to Seoul. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page

Issues and challenges of History Education in the Republic of Korea – Part I

This is the first part of a blog post on Marios Epaminondas’ study visit to Seoul, Korea, which took place from 22-28 July 2017 (N.B.: In this report the terms Korea, Republic of Korea and South Korea are used interchangeably unless stated otherwise). It is the fourth article in a series of reports and blog posts related to the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. The previous articles, on the study visit to Cape Town, can be found here.

Report prepared by Marios Epaminondas

  1. Introduction

The study visit took place within the framework of the Northeastern Asian History Foundation (NAHF)-EuroClio joint Conference entitled “Multiperspectivity and Tolerance in History Teaching”. This gave opportunities for interaction with a variety of actors who are working or cooperating with the Foundation. These included members of the Board and the staff of the Foundation, researchers and history teachers. At the same time, the structure of the programme, which was very tight and demanding, limited the possibilities for meetings with individuals who were not part of the activities prepared by the Foundation. In addition to the information gathered from the activities prepared by the Foundation, the available, unstructured time was used for visits to Museums. This provided a broader understanding of the social mechanisms of memorialization in the South Korean Society.

A brief calendar of activities can be helpful for establishing the context within which data for the compilation of the Report were gathered.The EuroClio delegates had their first meeting at Seoul on Sunday the 23rd of July 2017. We got to know each other and the representatives of the host organization and we established a common code of contact. On Monday 24th five Parallel Teaching Workshops were held by EuroClio delegates at Choong-Ang High School for students 15-17 years old. In the afternoon a round table discussion on “Issues and Challenges of History Education in Europe and South Korea” was held. On Tuesday 25th the main body of the NAHF-EuroClio International Conference “Multiperspectivity and Tolerance in History Teaching” was held. It included three sessions: 1. Conflicts over History and History Education 2: Citizenship and History Education, 3: One History, Multiple Perspectives.


EuroClio delegates and NAHF representatives - round table discussion

On Wednesday 26th and Thursday 27th we had the opportunity to be acquainted with the history and the culture of Korea in a more hands-on way. On the 26th a field trip with a tour guide was organized to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea. At the morning of the 27th we had the chance to participate in a Tea Ceremony reflecting traditional Korean modes of social interaction which are, to a large extend, not practiced by new generations of Koreans. The day was concluded with the participation to a teacher training seminar with Korean history teachers hosted by Dokdo Training Institute. The session had two lectures from EuroClio delegates followed by a fruitful discussion with Korean teachers about issues and challenges in History Education in Korea and Europe.

The programme which was organized by the NAHF was enriched with visits to three important Museums undertaken by my own initiative. On Sunday the 23rd, along with a group of EuroClio colleagues, we visited the “National Museum of Contemporary History of Korea”. On Friday the 28th, I visited the “Seoul Museum of History” and the “National Folk Museum of Korea”. In addition to that, I included in my workshop with the students at Choong-Ang High School an activity to gather student’s opinions on “Why we should learn History”. I also had an in-depth interview with Assistant Professor Mrs. Mimi Lee, from the College of Education Hongik University at the time slot between the end of the Round Table Discussion on the 24th and the official dinner the same day. Finally, I used the unstructured time of the programme to hold informal discussions with EuroClio delegates and representatives of the Foundation about the issues related to this report. Their support and ideas were very valuable. It’s worth noting that direct conversations with Korean history teachers were extremely limited due to language and time barriers.

  1. Method

The information gathered during the study visit was selected with view of supporting the extraction of answers to a basic question, which is analyzed in three sub-questions:

Basic Question: How are the “difficult parts” of Korea’s past dealt with?


(a)Which parts of Korea’s past are considered difficult and/or sensitive?

(b)What educational programmes exist which deal with the past?

(c)What is the notion of good history education and how does it contribute to dealing with difficult past?

Data for the report were drawn from:

(a) Content analysis of the speeches of Conference speakers (Publication: “The NAHF –Euroclio Joint Conference on History Education: Multiperspectivity and Tolerance in History Teaching”.NAHF-Euroclio.2017.) (red. All references in this report are from the booklet “The NAHF –Euroclio Joint Conference on History Education: Multiperspectivity and Tolerance in History Teaching”.NAHF-Euroclio.2017”)

(b) Notes from the discussions which were held during the conference

(c) Analysis of the opinions of the students of Choong-Ang High School during the workshop I contacted on the 23rd of July 2017

(d) In depth interview with Assistant Professor Mimi Lee, College of Education Hongik University

(e) Information from the visits to the “National Museum of Contemporary History of Korea”, the “Seoul Museum of History”, the “National Folk Museum of Korea” and the visit to the Demilitarized Zone.

(f) Reflections from informal discussions with fellow EuroClio delegates and Foundation Representatives

  1. Which parts of Korea’s past are considered difficult and/or sensitive?

The historical issues considered “difficult” in South Korea are mainly related to the way its (historical) relations with Japan and China are presented officially, remembered and taught. Challenges also exist when organizing the education of the children of defectors from North Korea. In the former case, there is an effort initiated from the South Korean side –yet to be fruitful- to establish “shared perceptions” between Korea-Japan-China. In the latter case, there is an effort for the re-education of defectors’ children so they can adapt easier to the South Korean society. Professor Lyu Seungreul from Kangwon National University, commenting on the typical pending historical issues in Korea, referred to the following: “problems with history textbooks and education, land and territorial disputes, controversies over worshiping Yasukuni Shrine, apologies and compensations for Japan’s invasion and domination in terms of such activities as imprisonment, conscription and “comfort women” for the Japanese army and historical conflicts with China”(p. 39). The Yasukuni Shrine is a Japanese Shinto shrine to commemorate those who died serving the Emperor of Japan, installed in Seoul by Japanese authorities and considered by Koreans as one of the symbols of Japanese oppression. The issue of “comfort women” and the problems describes in this context, are related to the fact that the official versions of history in the region espoused by Japan and China, is incompatible with the Korean version of history. The Korean side aspires to a dialogue which will lead to “shared perceptions” and joint textbooks which will included the rectified version of history.

This reference by Professor Lyu Seungreul, reflects potently the omnipresent fact that the “historical issues” are interrelated to current political antagonisms.

According to the presentations of the Korean speakers, the way in which Japan is currently presenting and interpreting the period during which it held Korea as a colony (1910-1945) is highly problematic. It was inferred by the speakers that the Japanese official stance is that the Japanese colonial rule brought about modernization, while it completely obscures the suppression that Korean people went through by Japanese authorities. The most sensitive part of the suppression is the “issue of ‘comfort women’ compulsory mobilized by Japanese army” (Lyu, p. 39) as sex slaves. South Koreans call, through governmental and civil society initiatives, for a dialogue. So that a narrative, which includes both modernizing attempts and suppression practices by the Japanese authorities, can be jointly established.

In addition to the above, historical controversies are unearthed due to the on-going dispute about the island on Dokdo. Japan is laying claims on the island whereas Korea is working towards the collection of historical evidence which underpins its Korean past and demonstrates the irrefutable ownership of the island by Korea. Another issue of historical/geographical character concerns the name of the Sea between Korea and Japan. Korea considers the right name to be “Eastern Sea” whereas Japan calls it “Japan Sea”. On this issue possibilities for dialogue are more limited since historical claims are directly linked with issues of sovereignty. Each side is working for the promotion of their claims trying to convince third parties about their validity. A way to measure success in this effort, according to information gathered from NAHF staff is the increase in the percentage of maps worldwide presenting the sea between Korea and Japan as “East Sea”.

It is obvious that the current political tensions between South Korea and Japan are feeding the debate/conflict over history. Vice versa, the historical issues under dispute impede the dialogue on current issues from being fruitful. From the statements made by Korean colleagues, as well as from the narratives presented in the National Museum of Contemporary History of Korea and the Seoul Museum of History, there seems to be openness within society to discuss critically various issues related to modern history of Korea (especially the developments within South Korea after the war of 1950-1953). However, such dialogic approach is not easy to be adopted with the official Japanese claims about their rule of Korea. As Assistant Professor Mimi said, there are debates from different points of view on many issues of modern history but “when it comes to confronting Japanese claims, we stand as one”.

A quite particular public action encapsulating vividly the trauma existing within Korean society from the Japanese rule concerns the fate of a landmark building constructed during Japanese colonial period: the Japanese Government-General Building. It was erected in the Gyeongbokgung Palace during 1916-1926 at the expense of the Palace’s architectural integrity. This building served, after Korea’s liberation, as the main building of the Republic of Korea central government (1948-1982) and then it housed the National Museum of Korea. On August 15th, 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Korean liberation, the building, which was considered a symbol of the Japanese rule, was torn down. At a plaque outside the Seoul Museum of History this action’s rationale is explained like this: “Its demolition was part of an initiative to remove the vestiges of Japanese colonial rule and the restoration of the national spirit of Korea”.

Tensions exist also with the Chinese presentation and interpretation of ancient/pre-modern History. Mrs. Sun Joo Kang explained in her speech that “Koreans consider themselves the heirs of Koguryo state which occupied much modern Northeast China from the seventh to eleventh century (…). However, Chinese historians claim that Koguryo is part of Chinese history”(p.71). In an unofficial discussion, a Korean colleague explained that Koreans are bitter by the Chinese attempts to “steal their history”. As the colleague pointed out, it is unquestionable that the areas which were under the control of Koguryo Dynasty, are currently Chinese territories. However, it is not right on behalf the Chinese authorities and historians to deny the fact that these areas were once ruled by a Korean Dynasty. Researching the ancient history of the region of Korean Peninsula and beyond to locate and highlight its Korean heritage are among the activities undertaken by Korean researchers to support the abovementioned effort.

This concludes the first part of this report on Marios Epaminondas’ study visit to Seoul, the full report will be uploaded in two parts. More information about the project “Dealing with the Past in History education” is available here.