S. Korean cadets’ views shaped by a skewed education
April 18, 2008
This is the first in a two-day series exploring the South Korean population’s perception of the U.S. military presence.
SEOUL — When the Korea Military Academy asked its incoming cadets in 2004 to name South Korea’s main enemy, they were shocked at the answer: 34 percent said the United States while only 33 percent said North Korea.
The country’s top military leaders asked that question of the 250 cadets — among the smartest university students in the nation — because they wanted to know if a 2-year-old surge of anti-Americanism had influenced the future military officers, Kim Chul-woo said. He is a spokesman for the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, which conducted the survey.
The academy’s then-superintendent, retired Lt. Gen. Kim Choong-bae, was so concerned about the survey results he cut the cadets’ boot camp from six weeks to four.
During the two extra weeks, cadets attended classes on South Korean history to learn how the country got its independence, what happened during the Korean War, and the role the United States played in the war.
Teachers told them about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point class of 1950, whose cadets graduated less than a month before the start of the Korean War. Nearly 50 of those cadets were killed.
“The [KMA] cadets were shocked. They said, ‘We didn’t know that,’” Kim said.
The cadets told academy officials they had leftist teachers in middle and high school who told them the United States was trying to dominate South Korea.
“The young cadets were kind of victims of the wrong education. They were kind of indoctrinated by the wrong education, the wrong textbooks,” Kim said. “Youngsters have no idea what was the Korean War, what was the contribution by the United States. They’ve been educated with a different perspective for the past 10 years.”
Because of the survey, the academy began using a more U.S.-friendly history textbook that Kim said was “based on facts rather than opinions.”
Today, more than half of South Korean high schools are still using the old textbooks, published by a company called Golden Star, said Shin Sun-ho, an education researcher for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Shin said a few South Korean politicians have criticized the book for being sympathetic to North Korea, but he said that wasn’t the case.
“If it was, it wouldn’t have been adopted as a textbook by the government,” he said.
The textbook is used in elective history courses for 11th- and 12th-graders.
Kim said the anti-Americanism of four to six years ago has died down, but many South Koreans still believe North Korea wants to use its nuclear capabilities against the United States or Japan, not South Korea.
Some favor reuniting with North Korea so the South can have access to those capabilities, he said.
Kim said Korea Military Academy officials asked incoming freshmen in 2005 and 2006 the same question, but the United States didn’t make the top three countries viewed by cadets as South Korea’s main enemy.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said the academy survey was conducted only in 2004, and declined to comment on what the school teaches its cadets.