South Koreans Explain How They Were Taught About North Korea in School

Since the Korean War, North and South Korea have lived side by side and have shrouded each other in mystery. One of the more interesting aspects of this shady relationship is the way in which South Korea teaches its youth about its next-door neighbour. Here, South Koreans share what they were taught about North Korea in school.

1. If somebody didn't know the latest fads you'd ask them "are you a spy?" as a joke.

I remember propaganda cartoons on TV. There was a series called where there was a young boy who fought communists, who were shown as animals.

On one hand we were taught that reunification should be the goal, and we sang a song titled "Our Wish is Unification," but on the other hand, we were taught that communists were evil and they did horrible things, axe-murdering American soldiers at the Panmunjeom (a neutral meeting place), slicing open the mouth of a young boy who shouted "I don't like communists/the communist party" (the kid is said to have died and there was a monument at his home town or something).

The North were said to be digging tunnels to surprise-attack the south, and if you went to the borders you could visit the tunnels yourself.

Propaganda materials from the north could be found in the countryside (dropped from balloons? scattered by spies?) and if you found them and turned them in to your teacher, you could get pencils as a reward.

There were said to be undercover agents living among us, northern spies pretending to be from the south. If somebody didn't know the latest fads you'd ask them "are you a spy?" as a joke. We were taught to be suspicious of people who weren't aware of current events.


2. "I'm Korean American and came to the states after I finished 6th grade in Korea."

Basically, we were taught that we have families and friends in North Korea (NK) and its their government that needs to be taken down. Annually, we had to draw or write wishes of becoming united Korea again and was given award for making the best writing or drawing in school. We were also taught not to waste food because NK "kkotjaebi" (orphaned homeless kids who eat off spilled foods on the market grounds) do not have the luxury to eat what we eat. We were also taught that we have to alert the police or military of any suspicious individuals who may be NK spies.

My grandparents are from Kaesong before Korean conflict happened and majority of their family are in NK. We don't know if any of them is alive or well, but just hope that one day we get to see them.


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3. "The nuance for pity and sympathy is constant."

South Korean here, born and raised in Korea.

When I was in elementary school, the teachings were mostly on pity toward the North Korean general population, especially the children. We would be given assignments to write letters to our North Korean peers. I remember writing one, and all I could write about was how I'd like to send them some of my favorite snacks, because I was taught in school that they were impoverished and shut off from the rest of the world.

When I was in highschool, we learned more about the exploits of the regime, and the importance of democracy. The teachings became more about appreciating what we have in South Korea and understanding the failed government in North Korea (NK).

When I was a soldier in the Korean Army (ROK Army), we were grilled day and night on the belligerent nature of the North Korean government, and how the Kim Dynasty is slaving the NK people. Our shooting targets are still cut outs of NK soldiers.

If you can tell, the nuance for pity and sympathy toward the general North Korean public is constant throughout. South Korea's institutional stance toward NK people still has a warm spot. Movies, TV shows, and other media portraying the sorrows of a divided people are still popular.

To sum up, we are taught to feel sympathy toward the NK people and hate the dictatorship.


4. Korean living in Canada here.

It wasn't exactly hidden from kids even when they're young. I remember being aware of North Korea's existence as long as I can remember because of the whole reunification movement that is visible in everyday life, even before I started going to school.

The general vibe was that they were taken away from us, living in harsh conditions and that we should try to reunite as a favour to them.


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5. "Wow you're really from there??"

Actual Korean here.

In school, it never got too political. If anything, it was more sympathetic. What I remember is it being painted as a political problem, we were a country that was torn that should unite again someday. I remember we did see footage of what dire conditions North Koreans live through in class.

In middle school we had a student that was from North Korea that defected through China I don't remember having many specific conversations with her but the overall attitude was fascination more than anything. ("Wow you're really from there??")

I think it's also important to note there were still many people whose grandparents were from the North. My grandpa, for example, was from the North and had a whole family there. He was down south on business when it all happened and never quite made his way back I suppose. He is no longer with us and he never found out what happened to his previous family. I'd imagine there's relatively few people left who are from the North and grew up there long enough to remember a lot or have family they remember back there now.


6. Essentially, there are two ways to look at it...

Born in South Korea (SK), moved to Canada when I was 7.

Essentially, in SK in the 90's, there were two lenses through which one could view North Korea (NK):

Civic nationalist doctrine: Screw NK and their evil government, they want nukes, starve their people, and want to kill us all if they could. SK is definitely the good guys, look how rich we are now compared to them, they lost the Cold War and it's only a matter of time until they collapse.

Ethno-nationalist doctrine: North Koreans are our own blood, and they are starving (see: arduous march), we gotta help them. New liberal president of SK, Kim Dae Joong initiates the Sunshine Policy to be kinder and friendlier to the North, and the future is bright for all Koreans.

Compare that to today, where most everyone is either apathetic or hateful towards NK, or nostalgic of the old days (see: Moon Jae-In platform). Mostly apathetic, but them North Koreans are getting close to getting ICBMs soooo...


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7. A huge difference between generations.

I am 34 and was raised in Korea until 12. North Korea (NK) was a starving communist country that always threatened and was willing to attack South Korea (SK) at any given opportunity. NK caused the Korean War that cost the peninsula dearly, but global alliance headed by America saved SK. Despite the war, South Koreans drove the economy to grow at a tremendous speed (miracle of Han river as Koreans call it), surprising the entire world while NK was still starving and forever looking for ways to attack SK.

Meanwhile, we were also taught NK and SK is one country, and that reunification is the dream of all Koreans, and that we should strive for reunification without really talking about the methods....

But my parents era is completely different. I remember my mom telling me (shes nearly 60) how she once thought North Koreans had crimson face like Dokebi (sort of Korean ogre) with horns on their heads when she was little. So there must be a change in tone somewhere in between.


8. "They have no idea where Mickey Mouse came from."

Hey! I'm South Korean; however, I was born in America. My parents were born in Korea and they've told me stories about North Korea. Actually, my grandfather has relatives there.

What my parents have told me is that everyone in North Korea is brainwashed to a point where they think the dictator can read their minds. Everything there is censored and they truly do think their country is superior than anyone else's. Their food rations are low and everything is outdated. With the censoring, a good example would be Mickey Mouse. They have no idea of where it came from and have no idea it's from Disney. They just think it's a regular mouse.

Kim Jong-il (left) Kim Jong-un (right)

They're not allowed to watch movies unless approved by the government. They're not allowed to think bad things (hence the part where they think the dictator can read their minds). They're not even allowed to say bad stuff about the dictator. Also idk if you know but there's a rule where if your (for example) sister does something bad, her future generations will also be punished #booooo


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9. With each passing year, hope dwindles.

I was born in South Korea, left when I was 5 for California, and came back to Seoul almost every summer. I wasn't taught about North Korea in school, but my family fled to the south when war broke out, and my grandpa fought for the south. He reunited with his little brother in a market place when they were both adult men--his little brother had escaped the north as some point amidst the chaos of war.

My family has always talked about the north with empathy; my mother and my uncles would not have been born had both my grandparents' families fled (both of my great-grandmothers died in the war). I've always seen it as a tragedy that the countries are separated, and my family has always hoped for reunification. Generally, as a South Korean, I feel like we hope for reunification under a democracy, but with each passing year that hope dwindles as the reality of how shockingly different our two cultures/mindsets/ways of life are now sets in.


10. "Their citizens are our brothers."

I grew up in South Korea. I guess the difference is that it gets taught at school and is brought up more often. Things like how North Koreans are suffering because of their horrible dictatorship government but their citizens are our brothers, how tragic the Korean War was, and peaceful reunification is the goal. To add a little bit more context, there was a stronger anti-Japan sentiment than an anti-NK sentiment, at least when I was growing up. This was in the late 90's early 00's.


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11. "I really believed North Koreans had a red skin."

I left S Korea about 26 years ago. When I was in Elementary school, we were taught that North Korea and its people were evil. We were given assignments to draw or paint anti-N Korea posters(a lot of them) and we always painted N Koreans as red skinned and warmongering monsters. (I really believed North Koreans had a red skin until High School) In other classes, whenever N Korea is mentioned, it was all anti-N Korea propaganda.

After elementary school, we were taught less about N Korea and more about going to the better Universities. The higher grade I was in we were taught less about N Korea. So we didn't really care about N Korea that much at the end of High School due to impending University entrance exam.

After High school, N Korea was more or less nuisance for us. Unless they did something stupid, we didn't really hear or care about N Korea that much.


12. "It was Kim Jong Il that we were supposed to hate."

I grew up in Seoul, stayed in the country until I was 15, before moving out of the country.

When I was in grade school, (this was almost throughout the 2000s), we were taught that our brothers up north were, indeed, brothers. It was Kim Jong Il that we were supposed to hate. This was, retrospectively, a reflection of our regime at the time; President Kim Dae Joong and President Roh Mu Hyeon (both are considered very liberal).


13. "It's usually the older generations that seek reunification."

Korean living in America. I think the general sentiment is that North Koreans and South Koreans are one people. Ethnically we aren't different. It's a shame that political reasons separate the countries today. South Koreans don't hate North Koreans. They just hate the government that rules over them.

I believe that the general consensus of the younger generations is that reunification isn't a priority. They believe that their country is a mess and reunifying with North Korea would further exacerbate things.

On the other hand, it's usually the older generations that seek reunification. They're the ones who actually faced the effects of civil war. They're the ones who have become separated from their families. Sadly, as this older generation dies out, I think reunification will slowly be out of the minds of South Koreans.


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