Alternative education to tackle militarism in South Korea

PeaceMOMO, Peace education programme photo
Photo: PeaceMOMO

Theory and Practice of Post-Division Peace Education

Seventy years after the partition of Korea, the southern part of the peninsula experiences ever-increasing military expenditure, drawing millions of Koreans into a compulsory 21-month long military service. Despite this state of affairs, the general public tends to neglect how, on an everyday basis, civil society in a post-Korean War (1950-53) context has been militarised. This article seeks to explain to what extent the militarised culture has impacted society and how the long-running effects of the Korean War have drawn society into a pervasive spiral of violence. In particular, this piece focuses on the way the conscription system has constantly shaped Korean culture in a militarised way and how security-based education has been used as a tool of manipulation and militarisation of Korean society. Lastly, it examines a case of Peace Education Project MOMO (PEACEMOMO), a peace education organisation based in South Korea, which has designed an alternative education course as part of its Peace College programme in pursuit of demilitarisation: the Theory and Practice of ‘Post-Division Peace Education.

To many, South Korea might not be seen as a country as militarised as those engulfed in civil wars and low-intensity armed conflicts. Yet, if we take a closer look, one can identify the inherited legacy of militarism in the country. According to SIPRI's1 Military Expenditure Base in 2016, South Korea has the 10th biggest military expenditure in the world. Additionally, nearly all Korean men are expected to serve in the military through military service. At least one male relative in every family has a direct experience of military service and men who have served in the military are found in every school and workplace. If a person completes military service, he often receives compliments that he has fulfilled his duty of protecting ‘our’ country. Serving the military service is a prerequisite for having an accomplished social and professional life. On the other hand, if a person is ineligible to serve or rejects military service, he is labelled by society as a ‘coward’, or even as a ‘traitor’. In other words, men who have fulfilled the duty of military service tend to gain social advantages and superior status in Korea compared to ones who do not undertake the duty of protecting the country, including the women. Because everyone is affected by military service, its culture has become engrained in society. The outcomes of a militarised society are many; they range from boastful masculinity to the enactment of strong hierarchical relations. Militarisation of society also leads to parochialism, jingoistic nationalism, “other-isation” of North Koreans and prevents full-fledged development of individual’s personalities. Over time, these features have been implemented in Korean society and this militarised culture has favoured the emergence of various forms of violence within society. These unfair and violent gender-based relations are not solely the result of a militarised society; however, militarism strengthens these pre-existing social features and favours their reproduction.

In every place where this militarised culture has taken roots, the education system has favoured the reproduction of militarism including the education of patriotism (love of country). In March 2011, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, and Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) stating that education programmes have to “foster rightful views of a country and security awareness.” Through this MoU, the education of patriotism as participatory national security education actively promoted but also encouraged the establishment of private schools – introducing students with the main features of army life. Also, most of the lecturers selected were current military officers or former military men and they often used biased contents or cruel visual materials in order to show the reality of North Korea. This education continuously exhorted citizens to protect themselves against ‘our’ enemy: North Korea. Peace activists criticised the contents of these education programmes and carried out campaigns to abolish the education of patriotism. Fortunately, the current government dramatically cut its budget on the education of patriotism in 2017 but we still need to abolish it entirely, and we campaign to raise awareness of the problematic nature of this programme within the general public.

To address this issue, in 2017 PEACEMOMO launched a new programme: Theory and Practice of Post-division Peace Education. It attracted many people such as public school teachers, educators and activists working on reunification and related education, but also students and those interested and curious about PEACEMOMO’s programme. The programme, which focuses on post-division peace education, attempts to analyse how partition moulded daily life for both genders through reinforcing militarism within society. It also tries to disclose what has not been taught about partition and how education has been used to foster militarism. Furthermore, it gives the opportunity for participants to design ‘peace education on post-division’ activities by getting involved in participatory workshops that engage with the ongoing legacy of partition. Compared to mainstream education in Korea, which focuses on reunification from a nationalistic perspective, PEACEMOMO’s approach is substantially different.

The programme is six weeks long and offers seminars and workshops so that participants are able to apply peace education principles in their daily life. Additionally, PEACEMOMO plans to develop a training course for teachers and people who are interested in becoming facilitators specialised in post-division peace education. By doing so, PEACEMOMO is keen on debunking the current deep-routed militarised culture through infusing the principles of peace activism. PEACEMOMO also took the opportunity of the inauguration of Moon Jae-In administration's, since Moon’s government is pursuing constructive relations with North Korea. Like PEACEMOMO, many peace or civic groups expect to have a better chance to raise their voices on the changing relationships between the two Koreas.

In order to challenge Korea's militarised culture, PEACEMOMO has been trying to carry out alternative and creative ways of learning about peace through the implementation of its own pedagogy. PEACEMOMO’s P.E.A.C.E pedagogy (Participatory, Exchange, Artistic-cultural, Creative, Estrange), was inspired by the concept of “critical pedagogy” and follows the core principle of ‘everyone learning from everyone else’. Our organisation strongly believes that PEACEMOMO’s programmes and activities should consist of a range of bodily and emotional expression and sharing, making learning peace a very safe experience, welcoming and creative, with equal relations between facilitators and participants, and a lot of fun. Moreover, workshops and trainings are conducted by one or more facilitators and are participant-oriented. They are designed to identify and acknowledge direct, structural and cultural violence in Korean society. Through the use of participatory programmes, participants are encouraged to build analytical tools to overcome different forms of social violence through implementing positive peace in their daily life. The organisation has conducted programmes with teachers, educators, youth, students, and activists in order to deconstruct militarism and expand the reach of peace sensitivity.

It is a quite difficult task to challenge militarism, since it appears to be an inherent feature of Korea's social culture. In order to overcome this structural problem, it is vital for Koreans to recognise how partition has enabled the emergence of militarism across generations. The launching of PEACEMOMO’s Theory and Practice of Post-division Peace Education is an important step towards the pursuance of a less conflicted society. It early seeks to join hands with other movements rejecting the militarisation of the Korean peninsula.

1 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Author information

Hanui Choi, Coordinator and Peace Education Facilitator at PEACEMOMO, a Seoul based organization providing peace education programs for teachers, civic educators, parents and students.


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