Studying Under a Desk in Seoul
By Jason Lim
In the 1970's, elementary schools in South Korea were called the ``National People's Schools" and the curriculum consisted of equal parts academic subjects and anti-communist propaganda.
The Korean War was still fresh in our parents' minds who had suffered through it when they were teenagers, and everyone had several uncles or cousins who had been killed by the dreaded North Korean People's Army.
The South Korean government told us constantly that the big bad North Korean bear would soon come down to devour us once and for all and subject us to the dreaded Red Communism, which was the closest you could get to hell on earth.
Therefore, going to elementary school in South Korea in the 1970s had inevitable consequences. Not only were we subject to anti-communist diatribes and over-the-top signs warning against North Korean spies, but we also had to practice escaping the school grounds and forming cadres of Homeland Defense Youth Corps in case of a communist invasion; our homeroom teachers were also our Homeland Defense Corp captains, giving a whole new meaning to classroom discipline.
But the most fun was when we had the weekly air raid warnings. The piercing siren would go off and the race would begin.
Like Olympic finalists for the 100-meter dash, we would all bolt from our seats and run down stairs into the basement as quickly as we could and crawl under the wooden desks that lay in neat rows.
Under the desks, we would squat with our heads hunched over and our hands holding one another tightly, as we were taught. Although the teachers always yelled at us frantically to be quiet and calm, these exercises always involved a lot of giggling and outright shouts of joy.
This was our chance to break the monotony of the classroom and temporarily escape from the suffocating despotism of the teachers.
Even better, this was our chance to crawl next to that pretty girl from the class that you had the big crush on and hold her hand for a while until the all-clear siren sounded, which you couldn't hear because of the delightful pounding in your head.
You almost wished that the air raid was for real because you could get to hold on to her hand a little longer and even become her knight in shining armor against the invading communist hordes. I still remember the name of my air-drill princess in the third grade at Kyungbok Elementary School: Kim Ji-hye. Boy, was she pretty!
Then reality intruded and it was time to go back to class. But we always made a stop at the school bank after these air raid warnings. Every kid had a personal bank account and we had to deposit 10 won every week after the air raid warnings, beaming with youthful pride at the sight of the growing balance while our ears still rang with the echoes of the siren.
Our teachers told us that we were the future heroes of South Korea, entrusted with the sacred mission to pull South Korea out of its miserable poverty and surpass North Korea at all costs.
Armed with such exhortations and driven by paranoid fear and manic industry, South Korea went from the second poorest country in the world to becoming the 11th largest economy in the world today, leaving North Korea in the dust heaps of history.
But I guess we can never really leave the past behind, even when we were raised in such an atmosphere of hate and fear. Certainly not when you are connected by a bond of blood and 5,000 years of history.
So, we will soon mark the beginning of the second summit between the leaders of South and North Korea. The situation in Northeast Asia is as complicated as they have ever been, with the six-party talks trying to move forward amidst existing geopolitical dynamics and nuclear technological complexities.
But behind the present complexity seems to lay the inevitability of the brotherhood that connects the two Koreas, a connection that will ultimately define the future of the Korean people, despite the current obstacles and past hatreds that seem intractable at times.
And that's where the hope springs eternal.
Best wishes to the leaders of South and North Korea in healing this division that continues to echo in our collective soul so powerfully. Hopefully, our children won't have to hold hands crouched under their desks.
Jason Lim is a research fellow at Harvard Korea Institute, researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.