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[Herald Interview] Knowledge key in Dokdo, comfort women issues

‘Dokdo specialist’ says education is the first step to raising the historical awareness of students

For the past decade, Seo Kyoung-duk has waged a cultural fight against Japan’s rightists on two fronts.

The professor of general education at Sungshin Women’s University led a variety of publicity campaigns abroad to refute their claims on history and territory. At home, he has focused on education for Korean youths who appear increasingly indifferent to the painful history.

The former battle earned him the reputation as Korea’s foremost civilian public diplomacy practitioner. On the second, however, he says his endeavor still has miles to go.

“In dealing with the issues of the Dokdo Islets and comfort women, the biggest enemy is not the Japanese government. It is our own indifference,” the professor said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Last week, the Japanese government permitted a publisher to omit references to Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Asian women in its school textbook.

“Japan is clearly aware of the importance of education. The only way we can fight back is to learn the correct version of history,” said Seo,

Koreans often resort to venting fury at Japan’s blatant attempts to distort history. But the important thing is not to get emotional but to acquire facts and establish logic, he said.

“The comfort women issue, in particular, extends beyond Korea and Japan. It is a human rights issue,” he said.

Seo gained his reputation as a Dokdo campaigner in 2005, when he placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in protest against the Japanese prefecture of Sinema’s designation of Feb. 22 as “Takeshima Day.” Takeshima is the Japanese name for Dokdo.

“That’s when I realized that staying still will solve nothing. But at the same time, making a ruckus would not solve a thing either. We need to approach the issue by providing cultural content,” Seo said. Since then, he has been trying to raise awareness on the issue through ads in other big media outlets, creating a Dokdo song and producing a documentary film called “Sorry, Dokdo.”

He said that history educators needed to take a similar approach via different mediums. In 2013, he co-authored a book named “Ten Moments in Korean History You Should Know” which he said is part of an effort to make history more approachable.

“As of now, I’m working on a webtoon (Internet-based cartoon) on historical issues. We need to work on adding education content like webtoons and videos that students can easily access,” he said. 
Seo Kyoung-duk (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Seo Kyoung-duk (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Seo was shocked recently to find out how little students knew about Korean history. During his lectures, he realized that some students were misinformed about Ahn Jung-geun, one of best-known independence fighters during Japan’s colonialization of Korea from 1910-1945.

A recent survey by a local daily showed about 36 percent of middle and high school students said the comfort women system was created to provide “job opportunities for Korean women,” while 12.4 percent could not spell out the term, even confusing it with prostitute.

Over 60 percent of students were unaware of the 1993 Kono Statement, in which then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged that women from Korea and other Asian nations had been forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

“Some people say kids nowadays are selfish, because they don’t care about social issues. I don’t think so. We (adults) made them that way,” said Seo. “We can’t get mad at them for not knowing about the March 1 Independence Movement when we didn’t even provide the historical content to them.”

While he emphasized the importance of cultural content in teaching history, he added that it has to begin in the classroom.

In 2005, Korean history became an optional subject for the college entrance exam, resulting in students placing less importance on the subject.

“If we don’t even teach it in the classroom, students cannot learn anything (about our history). What do we have? A history camp? Videos about comfort women? Nothing. Take textbooks out of the equation, and it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Starting in 2016, all Korean students taking the state-commissioned college entrance exam will have to study Korean history. The measure, implemented by the Education Ministry in 2013, is a culmination of efforts by local experts and activists like Seo who campaigned for the often-disregarded subject.

Seo plans to take more direct actions, particularly when it comes to educating students about comfort women issues.

“At this stage, nothing’s been decided yet, but I want to establish an educational institute on the human rights issue of comfort women,” he said. The facility will be modeled after his “Dokdo School,” which operates educational programs on Dokdo for teenagers.

In addition to raising historical awareness in Korea, Seo plans to expand his activities in Japan.

Last year, Seo visited Tokyo to hold a lecture about comfort women. This year, he plans visit 10 cities for a survey on Japanese teens’ opinions on Korea, comfort women and Dokdo.

The survey will be conducted together with another survey in Korea to study how Korean teens view Japan. The data will be used for his projects to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence.

Recently hate protests by Japanese far-right groups has shaken the media and the animosity between two countries has deepened. Seo said that through the survey, he hoped to show it was not all like that, and to help the two peoples understand each other.

“I received a lot of hate mails from far-right groups. They even target my family and my school, urging it to fire me. But the fact that they resort to blackmail shows that they are not proud of what they’re doing,” Seo said.

However, there was progress as well. “Some students at the lecture were genuinely surprised. They told me ‘If you’re telling the truth, then Japan committed a serious crime. I’ll have to do some research.’”

“If my lecture can move even one out of 50 people, I consider it a success. It can motivate them to partake in activities. This is the power of education,” he said.

It has been 10 years since the professor began the herculean task of promoting Korea. For Seo, however, it is merely the start and a long uphill battle still awaits.

“(Japanese Premier) Shinzo Abe won’t apologize for the comfort women. Why would he? Even Rep. Mike Honda (of the U.S.) said pressuring Abe over comfort women was a waste of energy and time,” he said. “But I believe the power of truth will prevail. If we succeed in persuading those around the world, Japan will have to give in.”

If Korea successfully persuades Japan to acknowledge its past wrongdoings, Seo says it can create a path for a joint historical textbook between Korea, Japan and China, proposed in 2013 by President Park Geun-hye.

Seo added that this was still premature, especially with China laying claim on Korea’s ancient Goguryeo Kingdom.

This process would have to start with education, he said. He also said focusing on education for the young generation is very effective as they are less prone to prejudice.

“If we attempt to make (a joint textbook) with the two countries, we need to make sure we have a solid footing on our own history,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik (
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