Human Rights in Korea: Through the Eyes of a Child
For over a month now I have been a hagwon (private school) teacher for an English Academy in Daegu, South Korea. This is the beginning of a yearlong contract teaching English to middle school- to high school-aged children at the end of their school day. Speaking with the students and reviewing their assignments has given me a unique insight into their lives. Most of all, I have begun to pick up on their understandings of human rights, and the different perspectives of universal human rights in Korea.
When introducing myself to my students, I told them I studied Human Rights in university. However, many of them had no idea what human rights are. In an effort to help my students understand the concept of “human rights,” I decided to describe a situation that was culturally and geographically relevant. I asked the students: “If you were to say something bad about the government of South Korea in public, would you be imprisoned or killed? But what if you were in North Korea and you insulted the government? What would happen?” Finally, the kids began to understand. This, I told them, is the freedom of expression and speech that South Korea grants to all of its citizens. I also reminded them of their rights to housing, food and water, and to education – all things that are not promised to the people of North Korea.
After getting to know my students, I believe they have an idea about some rights they want to demand from their government, and they want to see a brighter day; however, they are unaware of how to make a change, and that even the smallest step can lead to such change. One issue my students seem most passionate and concerned with is the Korean education system. I recently had my students write papers on the one thing they want to change about their country and about 90 percent wrote about the education system. The students here feel extremely overworked, which is understandable since some children study up to 15 hours a day. School begins at 7 a.m. each morning, and after school students are sent off to math or English academies until 10 p.m. In addition to this rigorous schedule, the students still must find time for homework and studying, and some even attend extra classes on the weekends. All of this schooling is designed to prepare students for the ominous Collegiate Scholastic Ability Test. Could it be that too much education violates a human right? Such a question may sound a little ridiculous until you look at the actual effects education is having on Korea’s younger population.
The overworking of Korean school children is seen by many people in Korea to have a link to the rise in the obesity rate as reported by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. With so much time spent on schooling, these children do not have room in their schedules for sports or hardly any physical activity. Besides this, South Korea is the country with the highest suicide rate, according to the World Health Organization. Also, according to Korean government reports, suicide is the main cause of death in people under 40. This report is both shocking and upsetting. My students who wrote about the education system stated that parental expectations and anxiety about grades and tests have caused incredible stress. The stress experienced by these students over school and grades can become so unbearable that many choose to take their lives. Sadly, while parents think that pushing their child to such lengths is most beneficial, millions of children are suffering physically and psychologically.
Another known cause of the high teen suicide rate is the bullying that takes place within the schools. What shocks the human rights community is the lack of government response to the suicide rate. There seems to be zero programs that help eliminate bullying in the nation. In fact, many parents will complain if teachers punish their child for bullying. These parents will assume such teachers are targeting their child and trying to hold him or her back in school. Still, the government has failed to make any attempts to reform the education system.
(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)