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Understanding Korea in France

It’s already been 17 years since I took my first step in France. Since I’m a high school student, I’d like to begin my story by discussing foreign students’ perspective on the Korean Peninsula.

While I was on the bus to school a few days ago, a close French friend of mine in high school who was preparing for a history exam asked me, almost nonchalantly, “Which one won the Korean War? The US, or the Soviet Union?” I could not believe my ears when I heard the question. “What did this guy just ask me?” I’ve known him for almost 6 years, and it could be considered a very long time. As I had been going to school, I’ve received numerous questions and given answers about the separation of South and North Korea, about the US and Soviet Union, and the relationship between Korea, Japan, and China. The first question that I receive from anyone who meets me for the first time is, “Where did you come from? South Korea or North Korea?” or “Where is Korea?” Every time I answered this question, he was always by my side. And he knows relatively more about the circumstances in Korea than most French people. As such, I was astounded when I heard such question from him. I thought, if this kid asks me such a question, what and how would other French students or French people, or even those from other countries, know and think about Korea? More than anything else, I feel most frustrated and depressed during history classes in French schools as they discuss the Korean War and the issue of separation using such fragmentary and superficial approaches, speaking about Korean history mainly from the perspectives of Japan and the United States.

Our people have undergone numerous sufferings as long as its long history. The history of our people overcoming national crises can be deemed to be the history of our national spirit. It is no secret that, due to its special geographical location compared to other countries, our people have experienced national crises on a massive scale in the past. In order for our people -- who are separated into South and North -- to achieve unification as a single group, it would be most important for us to know correctly about the history of our country and national spirit and to promote correct knowledge on history and Korea to other countries.

Of course, it is natural for us not to know about Korean history in detail than if we study it in Korea. Still, it’s sad to see that there is no single line in textbooks that talks about the reason for separation between South and North, as well as the heartbreaking pain of separated families and the War.

People say that “History has been written by winners.” Having received education in France just like other French people, I thought this sentence might not be correct. I believe history has not been written from the perspective of winners, but of those who have power –- the “overdog.” The winner and the overdog. While they might seem similar, their intrinsic meanings seem to be very much different. It is a historical fact that Japan brutally took away people’s lives and engaged in unethical acts but became a lost country after the Second World War. Nonetheless, today’s textbooks in French and other European countries show its luminous economic power, geographical influence, and leading position in East Asia. Similarly, China is discussed in terms of its economic power, population, aspects of future growth, and history -- this is especially true in high school. It is very upsetting and frustrating for me as a Korean to see that, even after taking other countries’ systems and positions into consideration, the portion on Korea is glaringly less than other Northeast Asian countries particularly China and Japan.

In fact, “Korea” is rarely mentioned in middle and high school history classes in France. It would already be considered something even if only its name comes up along with Manchuria when talking about Japanese colonies, or if the Korean War is brought up when learning about the Cold War. In French middle schools, either the Cuban crisis or the Korean War is to be mentioned when learning about the “Cold War.” Most French teachers tend to choose Cuba, which is more familiar, than Korea. Therefore, it became controversial when one of the items in the middle school graduation exam (Diplôme National du Brevet des Collèges) in 2012 required writing about the “Cuban Crisis” or the “Korean War” with regard to the “Cold War,” as many students raised complaints to the Ministry of National Education in France due to their lack of knowledge on the existence of Korea as well as on the Korean War.

What is worse than the lack of awareness of Korea is the situation wherein people are aware of Korea but have an incorrect view of the country. This is all the more true when it is related to North Korea – questions such as “Is Korea still actively engaged in a war?” “Do South Korea and North Korea use different languages?” “Why doesn’t South Korea provide aid to North Korea?” Receiving such questions became a familiar part of my life as I’ve been living overseas. The most frequent question that I hear is “Where is Korea?” Among those who know the presence of Korea, some think Korea is still poverty-stricken, whereas some think of it as an ongoing battlefield. Of course, some people now marvel that it has achieved unprecedented economic growth. Such recognitions are truly surprising and frustrating -- such differing views on the same country.

As can be seen in such examples, Korea is not well-known or is misunderstood in France. Correct awareness of Korea is severely lacking. Though frustrating, this would be true not only in France but in many other countries as well.

Therefore, in order to promote Korea in France and in other countries and to provide correct awareness of Korea, I’d like to suggest some strategies for “Improving awareness of Korea and revitalizing the promotion of Korea.”

1. Official education on Korean language should be promoted in secondary education institutions in France.
France is currently seeing a sharp increase in the number of classes on Korean language for local French students not only in private language schools, such as Sejong Institute, but also in public, middle, and high schools. For the purpose of promoting “linked classes between high schools,” Paris is providing a Korean language course as one of the official school subjects for all students in the metropolitan area, and about a hundred students are taking the course. Local cities such as Bordeaux and Rouen also provide Korean language as an optional subject for Baccalaureate, enjoying successful operation with its growing popularity among students. This is encouraging as Italian, Portuguese, and Arabic courses are being removed -- despite enjoying relatively high demand -- due to budgeting issues.

Moreover, when Hwang Kyo-ahn, former Prime Minister of South Korea, visited France in 2016 for the opening ceremony of the 130th anniversary of Korea – France Diplomatic Relations, then French President Hollande officially announced that Korean will be offered as a secondary language course, a mandatory subject for Baccalaureate. In fact, a Korean course has been offered by Collège Gustave Flaubert in Paris as a secondary language for the first time in Europe. This means that there are now some French students who have been learning Korean since middle school to earn a Baccalaureate. Such decision can create ripple effects far greater than any other diplomatic promotions, and it comes as extremely pleasant news for Korean students like me who have been living in France since at a young age. This will serve as an important cornerstone that reinforces educational exchange between France and Korea.

Therefore, if we make more efforts to promote Korean language education in France on a national scale, we would be able to see greater outcomes for education, which has now seen the light, supported by all of such passion and efforts. Students who have been formally studying Korean language since middle and high schools can become “preachers” who promote Korea in France and will serve as important linkages that can contribute to exchange and cooperation between the two countries.

2. Target “Food, clothing, and shelter” of the French people
The fundamental importance of “food, shelter, and clothing” for humans would not be any different in other countries. These are the basic factors that should be satisfied with priority in human lives. Still, what would happen if people go beyond thinking about familiar things that they’ve been eating, drinking, and wearing for survival, start to eat, drink, and wear something that have the unique air or mood of other countries, and come to like them? They would surely become more interested in the country, become familiar with it, and gain a more favorable impression of it.

Therefore, it would be effective to introduce our culture on clothes, food, and shelter actively through events such as “Korean cooking contest,” “Hanbok contest,” or “Photo exhibition on Korean architecture.” More than anything else, Korean foods already enjoy a favorable reputation among French people who have experienced them. Moreover, the French have the impression that Korean foods are “good for the health.” Therefore, Korean food, which seems similar to Chinese or Japanese food, which is already popular in France or other countries but has its own uniqueness, will come to be more attractive to foreigners. This is especially true since traditional foods such as Gujeolpan (platter of nine delicacies) or Sinseollo (royal hot pot) have excellent appearance and style, inspiring awe just by looking at them. In fact, Hanbok is already highly evaluated due to its beautiful appearance, lovely color, and uniqueness. Using it as daily clothing through “fusion” style via more contests or designer collaborations will be able to trigger interest among the French people who have artistic sensitivity. In addition, introducing indoor ornaments using the unique decorations of Korea, such as traditional patterns and wooden engraving, or ondol house by emphasizing its characteristics, functionality, and effects on health could enhance awareness of Korean traditions all the more.

3. Approach young generations through the immensely popular K-Pop
A few years ago, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” gained huge popularity, helping promote Korea. While there are extensive analysis data on this astonishing success, I think one of the reasons for such success is “heung (Excitement),” or the traditional inclination of Korean people toward fun, as well as passion. Many foreign singers recall how Korean people are the hottest and most passionate audience in music concerts. What is interesting is that K-Pop fans also show such passion and heung. Such spirit of “heung” by Korean people is working really well. Furthermore, as cultural events using music, drama, radio, and concerts are tangible experiences wherein people can go and feel them, or since people can be immersed in their own roles through dramas, using such flow will provide easier and more convenient access to the younger generation. Revitalizing such cultural exchanges will be able to wield a positive influence on both countries. Since what is natural for Koreans may be difficult to understand for foreigners, however, it would be good to have catalogue, explanations, or subtitles for foreigners.

4. Nurture Korean experts in France
What have previously been mentioned all relatively aim to enhance interest and awareness among the younger generations. Taking the older and middle-aged generations into consideration, however, it would be inevitable to nurture experts on Korea in France. Such population needs people who will be able to explain and promote the excellent technology, economic power, and traditions of Korea. Likewise, to promote such factors more efficiently, we need to go beyond words and rumors; instead, they should be supported by practical books, professional lectures, and statistics. Therefore, we need to nurture excellent human resources who are French and who love Korea and support them on a consistent basis in order to prepare for economic and multilateral cooperation between Korea and France in the future.

5. Young foreigners should come across correct knowledge naturally through the medium of education
As a female high school girl living in France, I feel very sad to see that French textbooks show inadequate information on Korean history, and that its importance is being neglected. Since schools in France use different textbooks from one another, there may be difficulty in unifying the contents of the textbook. Still, I hope that the Academy of Korean Studies, targeting middle and high school students not only in France but also all over the world, would write a one to two-page summary for items that would be included in textbooks or books that introduce Korea by grade, which can easily be accessible and understood by foreign students. While it would be impossible for textbooks in all countries to discuss Korean history in depth, perhaps only five countries mentioning Korean history in detail would be able to start a chain effect that would provide correct information and awareness with regard to Korea in a more accurate, effective manner, promoting proud Korea all around the world.

Our people have experienced numerous sufferings in proportion to its long history. The spirit of “han(deep-rooted melancholic pain)” and other national spirits of the Korean people are difficult to understand for those who do not belong to our ethnic group. Each generation has their own responsibilities. Just as the previous generation achieved remarkable and unbelievable economic development, we have responsibilities as well as the next generation. We should not forget our identity and, in keeping with globalization, strive for social welfare, have individuals attain happiness and nurture their talents, and overcome the suffering of the ongoing separation in order to pursue the union of our people who are currently separated into South and North.

Furthermore, we should broaden our perspective and play an active role in promoting a correct view on our history as well as the excellence of our tradition and culture. In addition, in keeping with the flow of world history, we should show interest in foreign languages and cultures in order to manifest the wisdom of succeeding, developing, and globalizing our words and writings.

If we do not stop at merely emphasizing the economic importance of Korea but promote the culture of Korea as a truly developed country and view ourselves through global lens with love for humanity from a broader perspective, Korea will surely become the “torchlight of Asia” that can discuss visions for the world with other developed countries.
Photo - University job fair
Photo - University job fair

Noh Yujin
(Country of Activity: France)

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