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North, South Korea Bring Cooperation Into Classroom


North and South Koreans recently marked the anniversary of the start of efforts to bring decades of animosity to an end. Six years ago, leaders of both countries met for the first and only time. The summit ushered in a new period of inter-Korean contacts. Many Korean schools observed the anniversary by teaching children the importance of that watershed meeting. A spirit of friendship in the classroom is partly overshadowed by concerns about North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs.

It is a special day at this elementary school in the city of Ansan, near the South Korean capital of Seoul. Ask the children what the day's lesson plan is, and they have a ready answer.

The children shout "t'ong il", the Korean word for unification. Teachers in this school - and many others in both South and North Korea - are celebrating a date that gives many Koreans a sense that unification may not be so far away.

On June 15, 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held a historic summit in Pyongyang. The meeting produced a dramatic thaw in relations between the communist North and the capitalist South, which remain technically at war after a 1953 armistice halted three years of intense fighting.

To impart a sense of the historic meeting, teacher Kan Woo-yeon begins by showing a cartoon.

In the cartoon, two very different types of creatures meet each other and learn to cooperate despite their differences. The parallel to North-South relations is made obvious when teacher Kan changes the display to a photo of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il holding hands triumphantly six years ago.

About 300 kilometers further south, in the city of Gwangju, an even more ambitious reunification class takes place.

Teachers at this middle school welcome colleagues from North Korea, arriving to watch slightly older children learn about the June 15 summit.

Teacher Kwon Soo-hee uses pictures to show how inter-Korean relations have warmed since 2000. There are photos of North and South Korea's joint industrial venture in the North's city of Kaesong; emotional images of reunions between family members separated for decades; and snapshots from South Korean movies and advertisements that portray the Northerners as long-lost family members.

Kwon says the June 15 summit has made an enormous difference in teaching children about the divided peninsula. She says when she was studying to become a teacher there were no serious teaching materials available about North Korea. It has only been possible to deal seriously with the topic, she says, since the summit.

To be certain, the carefully scripted classes are more a tool of diplomacy than an examination of issues.

There is no discussion of the Korean War, which began when North Korea invaded the South in 1950. Pyongyang's refusal to return to nuclear disarmament talks is not covered, nor are concerns that Pyongyang may be preparing a long-range missile test.

North Korea's famine and brutal human-rights record also are not on the script. Absent, too, is South Korea's own past of harshly repressing those who advocated unification.

But South Korean educators say the classes are an initial step in thawing the inter-Korean rivalry of the Cold War. Following the class in Gwangju, the North Korean visitors gave speeches to South Korean parents and teachers - a scenario that would have been unthinkable before 2000.

Kim Sung Chul, a North Korean education official, says teachers in both Koreas should support the June 15 goals of reunification, avoiding war, and cooperation.

Kim Jung-ae, member of a North Korean education committee, says education in the two Koreas has been an ideological battleground for half a century. She says thanks to June 15, there is now one point in which North and South teachers can begin sharing common ground.

Flags with a blue representation of the entire Korean peninsula were visible everywhere during the June 15 anniversary celebrations. The emblem is displayed at most inter-Korean events, because it is more politically neutral than the flag of either country. Like the unification classes, it is a symbol short on detail, but emotionally resonant among Koreans who long for the day the divided country is nothing more than the topic of a history lesson.