Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Teaching of'Kinder, Gentler' N. Korea Stirs Wrath

Textbook author in South is indicted for giving rosy view of life in the Communist North.

As a young girl, Kim Chang Ah believed North Koreans looked like wolves and barked out another language.

South Korean Kim now knows the cartoons in her childhood textbooks were more caricatures than truths - North Koreans are humans too, and they even speak Korean.

About these ads

A cease-fire that halted the Korean civil war in 1953 has preserved an uneasy peace here. Yet education officials on the two sides of the heavily armed border between the capitalist South and the Communist North still employ textbooks in an ongoing war of words over the divided peninsula's future.

A new textbook for primary school students here is stirring a controversy because it aims to provide a more benign picture of the reclusive North.

Critics charge that even accurate criticisms of the Stalinist North's human rights abuses and failed economic policies are absent from the new book. In creating such a rosy picture of North Korea, these critics say, the writer created a pro-communist tome that backs the South's longtime enemy.

Seoul recently charged the author, Lee Chang Hee, with violating the National Security Law by aiding the North. Despite the decades-old truce, the two Koreas are still technically at war.

Lee and other liberal intellectuals say the prosecution is being pushed by conservatives here who aim to stifle any discussion over reunification with the North.

The magazine reporter who launched the first attack on the book says that to generate sympathy for the North, the book glosses over the regime's brutal dictatorship.

South Korean textbooks traditionally have portrayed North Korea as a prison camp, and some of the reports that trickle out of the secluded country back that view.

About these ads

The North portrays itself as a socialist paradise, and blames its economic woes on capitalist enemies, including the South and the United States, that want to destroy it.

Despite the anti-South diatribes that still come out of the North, some scholars say that similar rhetoric here should be toned down to lay the groundwork for a cross-Korea detente. "Current Korean education is very one-sided," says Professor Lee. "We'd like to give ... a real unbiased picture of North Korea," he adds.

Although Lee's book is now controversial, it was initially praised by South Korea's Ministry of Unification and used for radio spots promoting awareness of the North.

Reporter Lee Dong Wook says he was shocked and enraged when he heard one of the spots ask: "After unification, what will be our country's name, and where will its capital be?"

The journalist says he started investigating the new school textbook and later wrote a critical story in the Monthly Chosun, a conservative magazine.

The textbook's author began getting death threats from right-wing groups, newspaper ads called for his imprisonment, and groups held demonstrations to denounce the book.

One passage in the book reads, "If South Korea succeeds in leading reunification, it's possible a lot of things will follow in South Korean-style. If not, and North Korea succeeds in leading unification, it's possible lots of things will follow in North Korean-style."

Such a view might be akin to saying during the cold war that if the United States lost the conflict, Americans could be speaking Russian in a communist system.

Raising the possibility that the North could triumph over the South is blasphemy to conservatives here who believe Seoul will eventually absorb its impoverished cousins.

Professor Lee rejects charges that the book's neutral attitude toward unification amounts to sedition.

ONLY by taking an open attitude toward North Koreans - engaging and building trust - can the South prepare for peaceful reunification, Lee says.

Although the book attempts to legitimize the North's government, it concludes that "freedom, human rights, and social welfare must be regarded as precious" in any moves toward reuniting the Korean peninsula.

One of the novel features of the book is that some themes were proposed by South Korean children. The author asked students to write essays on what they were curious about concerning unification, published the essays, and added some commentaries.

Readers aren't given the impression that North Korea is a terrible place or that its people are suffering. Many questions the children raise concern everyday life, and chapters have whimsical titles about hair styles, TV, the lottery, whether North Koreans will have religion, and what subjects they study in school. One chapter asks, "If we reunify, will miniskirts be popular in North Korea too?"

Readers say they find this approach refreshing.

The fiercest critic of the book disagrees.

"If [someone] portrayed only good things to children about life under Hitler, wouldn't that be a problem?" asks reporter Lee. North Korea is like a car that "has mowed down millions of people. To say the tires are a little worn and the door's a little bent out of shape" is an unbalanced portrayal, he adds.

Books about North Korea should make a strong distinction between "the rulers and the ruled," he says.

A North Korean defector who spent years in a prison camp for political reeducation was shown the book and concluded that Professor Lee was crazy, the reporter says.

"I also wrote many negative sides of North Korea," the author counters.

Professor Lee ticks off summaries of pollution, train delays, pickpockets, forced homage to leader Kim Il Sung, and lack of medical supplies that plague the North. Human rights violations will be dealt with in a second volume, he says. "If [people] want information about other things, they can refer to other books about North Korea," he says.

Although Lee and his editor are now under travel bans, the writer says he has filed a $350,000 libel suit against the Monthly Chosun and a right-wing group.

Hundreds of professors have signed a petition demanding Lee's travel ban be lifted, saying the charges threaten freedom of speech. "Who dares talk about unification issues [in this atmosphere of fear]?" Lee asks.

Korean society generally supports the author, and the reporter who started the campaign against the textbook now says he feels "alienated and lonely."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.