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South Korea - History & Background

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The Korean peninsula is situated in northeast Asia between China and Japan. Korea, one country for more than 1,000 years, has been divided between North and South since 1945. The South is officially called the Republic of Korea (ROK) (Han'guk or Taehanmin'guk) and hereafter referred to also as Korea. Korea had a population of 47,275,000 as of 2000 (KNSO 14).

Korea's strategic location amid east Asia has been a crucial factor in its political and cultural history. Korea has figured greatly in east Asian civilization, mutually prospering with her neighbors but also falling prey to their ambitions at times. Since antiquity, Koreans have studied abroad in China, India, and Japan, frequently acting as a bridge between nations. In spite of foreign invasions, Korea remained independent until succumbing to Japanese domination (1910-45). Shortly after liberation, Korea suffered the further agony of national division and a cruel civil war (1950-53), which is still not officially ended. Over the half century of division, reunification has been a constant wish for all Koreans and an important political cause in both North and South Korea. Meanwhile, rapid economic progress, accompanied by extreme patterns of migration, urbanization, and democratization, following the dissolution of the traditional class system, radically transformed Korean society.

The most important characteristic of Koreans is their zeal for education (Ch'oe et al. 380). This fervor for learning, often labeled the "education syndrome," is not a new trend but comes from the Korean people's traditional respect for knowledge and belief in continuous human development. Probably the most important characteristic of Korean culture is its tenet that only the most learned should rule the country and society. Donald S. Macdonald summarizes this tradition:

The enormous importance attached to education in Korea is a principal reason for the nation's rapid development. This attitude, however, is only partly motivated by current realities: it springs from the Confucian tradition, in which entry into government service was by superior merit obtained through years of study of the Confucian classics, proven by examination. Government position and scholarship were intimately related: the social ideal was the scholar-official, and scholarship in effect served the state. At a time when government positions were the only way to rise in the world, education thus was key to fame and fortune. (84)

Educational attainment has long been accepted as a fair measure of a person's worth, and scholars are still called upon to fill some of the highest government positions. It is also seen as an effective, essential instrument for nurturing national strength. The South Korean government thus takes a strong interest in the country's education, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) is one of the most important executive branches. In a continuous effort at amelioration, a series of governmental reforms has greatly altered the educational system over the last few decades. In January 2001 the MOE was restructured and renamed the Ministry of Education & Human Resources Development (MOEHRD), indicating its expanded scope.

Originally intended by the elite for its own edification, education was at first provided to prospective leaders from aristocratic families to ensure high quality of leadership. The graduate would gain not only wisdom but also a sense of morality in governance. It served as a check against incompetent or cruel government. Education perpetuated the elite's exclusivity through self-improvement, thereby justifying their special status even more.

Modern education, born at a time of a great influx of Western democratic ideals, has become accessible to everyone. Ironically, democratic education has now become a mechanism of creating and legitimizing new classes, albeit offering a chance of upward mobility even for people of the humblest origin. In recent times, as literacy has neared 100 percent, the focus has shifted from "basic literacy" to "life skill literacy" or "functional literacy" education.

Cultural History: Korea's recorded history goes back about 2,000 years and can be divided into four major political periods: antiquity (57 B.C.-A.D. 918); the Koryô dynasty (918-1392); the Chosôn Dynasty (1392-1910); and the modern era (1910-present). Regarding education, another tripartite division is often preferred: pre-modern (fourth to nineteenth centuries), modern (1880-1945), and contemporary (1945-present) eras (Kim-Renaud 1991).

Korean tradition has arisen in close association with various influential belief systems. Earliest was a polytheistic form of animism (shamanism), which involved finding a spiritual presence in everything living and nonliving that was thought to control people's lives. Shamanism emphasizes spirituality and ethics, especially goodness and piety. Legends, fables, and other linguistic expressions demonstrate Koreans' faith in inevitable retribution for good or bad intentions and deeds, and their optimism that a person's sincere wishes will be fulfilled.

Buddhism was introduced in A.D. 372 through China, first to the Koguryô, but was soon embraced by both aristocrats and commoners throughout the peninsula. It became the national religion for 865 years (527-1392). Buddhism, with its tenet of benevolence, its spirituality and sacredness, and its sense of democracy, has offered a respite from different forms of suffering. Chinese characters were imported with Buddhism, and art and scholarship flourished. Buddhist temples served also as centers of learning. Great scholar-monks developed important Buddhist schools in east Asia. In particular, Great Master Wônhyo, who strove to harmonize the doctrinal differences of various schools, is considered "the originator of the ecumenical tradition characteristic of East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism" (Lee 1993, xix-xx).

Confucianism arrived in the Korean peninsula much earlier, but it was the Chosôn Kingdom or Yi Dynasty (Chosôn Dynasty) that adopted the neo-Confucianism of Chu Xi (1130-1200) as the official code for maintaining social and political order and for promoting harmony. Korean Neo-Confucianists believed in the transcendent dignity and goodness of man, and in human perfectibility (Lee 1993). They laid special emphasis on education aimed at sagacity and moral rectitude. Human emotionality and rationality alike were viewed as needing cultivation and control (Ching). Koreans first established and then rigidly adhered to principles of propriety, earning the country the nickname of "the Eastern nation of etiquette."

Confucianism emphasized fairness and meritocracy. The Koryô Dynasty's official religion was Buddhism. As the dynasty advanced, however, Confucianism became the guiding principle of social organization. The civil service, for example, created to check abuses of power by the ignorant and immoral, increasingly emphasized the Confucian classics, which naturally became the focus of its examination-driven educational system. Passing the civil service examination carried great prestige and the guarantee of social success.

Taoism, an important thought system in East Asia, provided a cosmology emphasizing the cyclic, dynamic, and basically harmonious character of man and nature. Many Taoist tenets are manifest in other religious practices in Korea, not only Confucian, but also shamanistic, Buddhist, and even Christian. Taoism has thus been a guide throughout Korean history as well as east Asian history in general (Grigg).

Western ideas were first introduced to Korea by Roman Catholics in the late eighteenth century and reintroduced by Protestant missionaries in the late nineteenth. Clearly it was not through proselytizing but rather on their own initiative—bringing treatises from China, such as "First Steps in Catholic Doctrine" (Ch'ônhak ch'ôham)—that Korean Catholics developed a profound interest in the new religion (Lee 1984, 239). With it came new democratic ideals and respect for Western pragmatism. The old reverence for knowledge, traditionally identified with competence gained through humanistic and liberal education, has now come to encompass fields previously considered less noble: medicine, engineering, mathematics, manufacturing, commerce, foreign languages other than Chinese, professional (as opposed to amateur), fine and performing arts, and others.

Since the war, South Korea has been in close contact with foreigners. Many of today's leaders have had extensive experience with other cultures. Contacts with Americans have facilitated much of the fifth year globalization of Koreans. Many have gone to study in the United States and returned with terminal degrees in practically all fields. More recently elite and non-elite Koreans also have studied and lived in Japan, China, Australia, Russia, European countries, and elsewhere.

Until the sixteenth century, foreign ideas and beliefs arrived in Korea mainly through China. In modern times, however, Japan emerged as a strong modern military force in northeast Asia. By the end of the sixteenth century, not only were the Japanese equipped with long years of combat experience from the many campaigns of their Warring States period, but, unlike the Koreans, they possessed firearms. In 1592, Japan embarked a bloody campaign in Korea with the ultimate goal of conquering China. War raged sporadically for six years with a disastrous impact upon both Chosôn Korea and Ming China. Korea lost not only population but also cultural treasures, including major palace and temple structures, books, and historical records.

In the early seventeenth century, amid the numerous social and political ills following the invasion, one critical cultural development was a movement called sirhak (Practical Learning). Sirhak thinkers, mostly southerners (namin) outside the political process, meant to censure those with political power and criticize such age-old systems as the civil service examination. Serious about changing the traditional order to achieve what they viewed as an ideal society, sirhak scholars stressed the need for popular education and the promotion of realistic thinking and technocracy. Their inquiries extended to social sciences such as politics and economics and far beyond Chinese classical studies to historiography (especially Korean history), geography, linguistics, astronomy, natural sciences, Western technology, agriculture, medicine, martial arts, and many more including virtually every branch of learning (Lee 1984, 232-33).

An outstanding scholarly activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thus was the compilation of encyclopedias, both general and specialized. Yi Su-gwang, the first Sirhak scholar to display an interest in Korean history, began the trend with his encyclopedic work called Chibong yusôl (Topical Discourse of Chibong, 1614). Yi discussed astronomy, geography, botany, and Confucianism, inserting his own views on society and government during earlier Korean dynasties (Lee 1984, 236, Han 331-32). Greatest among sirhak thinkers was Chong Yagyong or Tasan. During his 18 years of exile following the Catholic Persecution of 1801, Tasan wrote many works criticizing the conditions of his time and proposing various reforms. Had the sirhak scholars been heard by the ruling aristocrats, many Koreans feel that the nation's modern history would have been totally different.

Koreans continued to struggle to correct all kinds of societal ills until eventually they were conquered by the newly westernized, industrialized, and imperialistic Japan. In 1905, immediately after the Japanese defeated Russia—one foreign rival for hegemony over the peninsula—in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Korea became a Japanese protectorate and in 1910 completely lost its independence for the first time in its 2,000 year history. During 35 years of colonial rule (1910-45), Koreans were subject to harsh colonial policies.

The government of Japan turned to formal education as a nonmilitary means of ensuring the proper implementation of its policy of educating only as many Koreans as needed, i.e., to improve "market worth" of the colonized to the Japanese interests. The harshest policy was that of assimilation under the slogan of naesôn ilch'e ("Japan and Korea are one entity"), which the Japanese government adopted from 1930 to 1945 in a sweeping campaign to eradicate Korean national identity (Lee 1984, 353). Koreans were forced to change their names, even family names, to sound Japanese, and the Korean language was prohibited in all official situations, especially at schools and in publications. Thus, ironically, the colonial relationship brought the Japanese and Korean cultures, which already shared a good deal, including close linguistic and philosophical foundations, even closer.

Other byproducts of the Japanese occupation include the Koreans' thirst for modernization and increased appreciation of Western culture—aspects Koreans perceived as having strengthened Japan. Even before occupation, though, many Koreans had been interested in Western ideas and practices as possible solutions to the many ills in their legacy. Therefore, the question of whether Japanese rule actually helped accelerate Korean modernization or interfered with it is much debated.

The religion that has emerged as a strong new thought system in Korea is Christianity. Catholicism, introduced to Korea in 1784, was first studied as a Western philosophy and later as heterodoxy, subversive and harmful to the nation. Protestantism arrived exactly 100 years later, just as Koreans began embracing modern Western civilization. Christianity soon became a patriotic religion of the Korean people, offering them hope. The number of Christians in Korea has exploded over the recent years. In the early 1960s, there were barely one million Christians. As of 1997, there are 11 million Protestants and 3 million Roman Catholics, making up one-third of the total population (Korea Web Weekly).

Determined to rebuild following the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, the nation has undergone dramatic changes. Pragmatism, perceived as helpful to advancement, has become not only inevitable but also respectable. Economic development was the focus of the first national agenda, especially during the 30 years of military government (1961-92). As Koreans' economy and politics required constant contact with foreigners, their international awareness intensified.

The nation's division and economic agenda have often been excuses for different regimes to become dictatorial, against which the now fiercely democratic Korean populace continuously protested. With a new confidence based on their rapid economic development and the return of the presidency to a civilian, Koreans mean to be players on the world stage. In the information age, the society has given added respect to science and technology, while the gifted and talented in other specialized fields are also now esteemed.

Educational History: The Korean educational tradition has been shaped by two main cultural characteristics. First is the extreme class consciousness of the Korean people. Birth into a good family was regarded as a heavenly mandate or at least a reward for merit in a previous life. In pre-modern times nobility was strictly hereditary, and upward mobility into a higher class was not possible, except in very rare cases of merit. The second and most important characteristic is that Koreans have long believed society's leaders to be the most educated.

Formal education in Korea started in the Three Kingdoms era. It is recorded that the people of Koguryô (37 B.C.-A.D. 668), the kingdom closest to China, were already studying the Five Classics of Confucianism, as well as &NA;ı-maȈ Qiān's "Historical Records" (ShȈı jì) and Bāngù's "History of the Han Dynasty" (Hàn shū), the Yùpiān Chinese character dictionary, and an anthology of Chinese literature called the Wén xuaȈn (Lee 1984, 58).

The first public educational institution, called T'aehak (Great Learning, Highest School of Learning, or the National Confucian Academy), was founded in 372 by King Sosurim of Koguryô. This was the first formal school in East Asia outside of China (HEK). The king, who officially adopted Buddhism, embarked on a series of reforms to speed national recovery from devastating invasions by educating youth for officialdom. T'aehak was modeled upon Chinese institutions, teaching the Chinese language and the Confucian classics (Han 63).

Soon after the establishment of T'aehak, private schools called kyôngdang were erected in each locality at a main crossroads, in order to educate the unmarried, non-aristocratic youth of Koguryô. Kyôngdang, like T'aehak, emphasized a balanced education in letters and martial arts. The curriculum at both institutions typically consisted of the reading of Chinese texts as well as archery practice (Lee 1984, 58).

Paekche, the second to Sinicize of the three kingdoms, had a curriculum for the Paksa (Savant or Erudite Scholar), a term now used to refer to the holder of a doctorate, which was given to teachers of the Chinese classics, as well as philosophy and history.

Shilla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), being the farthest from China, is thought to have been the most authentically Korean kingdom. It had a well-organized and original educational system, called hwarangdo (The Way of Flower Knights), to train young men for beauty and strength of mind and body with the eventual objective of national defense; this, indeed, led to the unification of the three kingdoms by Shilla in 668. Confucianism came relatively late to Shilla as compared with Koguryô and Paekche. Not long after unification, Confucianism appeared to rival Buddhism as a distinct system of thought in the establishment of Kukhak (National Learning) in 682. Around 750, this state institution was renamed the T'aehakkam (National Confucian University) and offered three different courses of study with the "Analects" and "Classic of Filial Piety" as required subjects in each course. A kind of state examination system was established in 788 for selecting government officials (Lee 1984, 83).

The goals of the national educational institutions were twofold: (1) attainment of general knowledge, especially in Confucian classics for able leadership; and (2) training of bureaucrats. At first both aims were equal, but later, education became largely certification and test-oriented (Kim-Renaud 1991).

During the Three Kingdoms period, students went to study in China. The students typically stayed about 10 years in China and then returned home, unlike those going abroad in recent times. At least 59 students from Shilla passed the Chinese civil service examinations (Kim-Renaud 1991).

Koryô Dynasty: The Chinese-style civil service examination was first administered in Korea in A.D. 958 during the Koryô Dynasty and served for recruiting government bureaucrats who were much needed to solidify the new dynasty. The dynasty's national school was founded in 930 specifically to train future bureaucrats. A full-scale national school called the Kukchagam (National University) was established in 992. This system, although based on the Tang model again, was accessible only to aristocrats, who were further distinguished by their family's social rank. Programs training lesser bureaucrats enrolled the offspring of lower bureaucrats, while higher level trainees had a curriculum mainly involving Confucian classics. Technical fields were to be studied only by those of lower social position. The stipulation of such entrance qualifications offers still another insight into Koryô class consciousness.

The Kukchagam came to resemble a modern university at the time of King Injong (1122-46). It was comprised of a number of colleges, namely the so-called Six Colleges of the Capital: University College (Kukchahak), High College (T'aehak), Four Portals College (Samunhak), Law College (Yurhak), Writing College (Sôhak), and Arithmetical College (Sanhak). Students' familial social status rather than their interest decided in which school they would be matriculated (Lee 1984, 119-20).

New to the Koryô was the rise of private, rather than public, academies as the principal agencies for the education of aristocratic youth. The first and most famous of Twelve Assemblies was the Kuje haktang (nine course Academy), established by Ch'oe Ch'ung, called haedong kongja ("the Confucius of the East"), during Munjong's reign (1046-83). Ch'oe Ch'ung and the other masters of the Twelve Assemblies had officiated at the state examinations. These facts, together with the emphasis placed on lineage, made it a greater honor for the sons of aristocratic families to attend one of these private academies than the government's Kukchagam (Lee 1984, 129-30).

Chosôn Dynasty: As the Chosôn Kingdom or Yi Dynasty adopted neo-Confucianism, the goal of education was to create moral men, who would practice proper judgment in actions—qualities thought essential in all leaders, including the king himself (Haboush 1985). Respect for knowledge and scholarship was absolute. Members of the Chiphyônjôn (Hall or Academy of Worthies), a royal research institute founded by King Sejong (r. 1418-50), the inventor of the Korean alphabet, enjoyed exceptional privileges, including the freedom to pursue their individual intellectual interests at home or in remote areas (Hejtmanek 21).

A national school called the Sônggyun'gwan (National Confucian Academy) was established in 1398 shortly after the dynasty's foundation in 1392 for reasons similar to those inducing Koryô to found a national institution at its outset. Again Confucian classics became a major educational focus. However, the system became increasingly examination-oriented and continued to serve mainly the aristocrats with the specific goal of passing the civil service examinations. Although in principle anyone could sit for these examinations, in actuality opportunities to prepare for them were available only to the offspring of yangban aristocrats.

At an early age, a yangban youth entered a private elementary school (sôdang) that could be found in any community nationwide. There he achieved literacy in Chinese characters. At the age of seven, he would advance to one of the Four Schools (sahak) in Seoul or to a county school (hyanggyo) elsewhere, which prepared students for their first examination. After a few years, youths passing the "licentiate" examination were admitted to the Sônggyun'gwan in Seoul, the highest institution of learning. Only those who attended this National Academy could sit for the highest level examination called munkwa.

The private academies, called sôwôn, emerged in the mid-sixteenth century and prospered through the late nineteenth, when their number reached about 300. These schools seem to have differed from the national college in detail and scale only. Again, liberal, humanistic, and Confucian studies were considered the ultimate, while technical subjects such as agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, mathematics, and medicine were despised as caphak or "miscellaneous learning." Practical knowledge was considered merely "functional," allowing people to perform limited and superficial activities, while a liberal education was thought to offer general competence to handle unanticipated situations.

Many sôwôn were established by ex-officials out of court favor or in retirement. Some historians see their development largely as the result of the withdrawal of the Confucian literati collectively known as the sarim (forest of scholars) from national politics to avoid persecution, pursue their studies of neo-Confucian philosophers, and lead a quiet rural life. Others view the rise of private academies rather as a manifestation of the rise of sarim, a new breed of scholar-officials, ambitiously committed to the cause of neo-Confucianism and determined to realize the goals of the Confucian thinkers. As sôwôn were perceived as centers of neo-Confucian scholarship and moral cultivation, every administrative district had at least a private academy, and many had two or more by the middle of the seventeenth century (Ch'oe 27).

Because women were supposed to stay within the boundary of the home in Chosôn Korea, they were excluded from formal education meant to prepare men for public service and scholarship. Even in an increasingly confucianized Korea, however, the notion persisted that women, as essential figures in family and society, needed proper education (Haboush 2000, 46). A textbook entitled Naehun (Instructions for Women, 1475), by Queen Sohye is an example of how elite women of Chosôn Korea sought, within the constraints of the Confucian gender system, to define a space wherein they could play meaningful social, cultural, and political roles (Duncan).

Modern Era (1880-1945): In the late Chosôn, patriotic leaders and members of the enlightenment movement saw education as a key to modernization and national independence. The government established the English School in 1883 and Yugyông Kong'wôn (Garden of Youth Education) in 1886. King Kojong authorized, in the Royal Decree of 1895, the establishment of other state-run modern schools, comprising primary, normal, and vocational schools. He emphasized the importance of education for the training of competent citizens and national revival. In 1895 the government established Hansông Normal School, a foreign language school, and a training school for various government officials and bureaucrats, including army officers, teachers, and trade officials (Han 427).

The first modern school in Korea, however, was the Wônsan Haksa (Academy), a private school founded in 1883 by Chông Hyôn-sôk, a county magistrate in Wônsan, at the request of the Wônsan traders' group and other locals. Korea's first modern school was thus established at the initiative of the residents of a newly opened port city with their own resources in response to a challenge from abroad (Lee 1984, 332).

Koreans also welcomed foreign missionaries who brought modern medicine and the liberal arts. In 1886, under King Kojong's patronage, American missionaries started three private schools: Paeje haktang (Hall of Learning), Kyôngshin School, and Korea's first educational institution for women, Ewha(Ihwa) haktang, which is today's Ewha Women's University. In 1890, Chôngshin Girls' School was added.

In 1905, Posông College, which is today's Korea University, was founded by Yi Yong-ik. The first two departments—Law and Commerce—were intended to introduce Western legal, commercial, and technical knowledge to the Korean people struggling to maintain their country's independence (MOE).

By 1908, two years before the country succumbed to Japanese colonial domination, Korea's 5,000 vocational schools enrolled about 200,000 students (Kim-Renaud 1991). Of these schools, 796 were established by Christian missionaries; schools for girls outnumbered those for boys (HEK). Modern-style education thus began for women at the same time as for men in Korea (Kim-Renaud 1991).

The medical school of today's Yonsei (a portmanteau name originating from Yônhûi-Severance) University goes back to 1885, when King Kojong opened the first modern hospital, the Kwanghoewôn, under the direction of Dr. Horace N. Allen of the Korean Mission Presbyterian Church in the United States. In March 1886, the Kwanghoewôn accepted 16 students to be trained as Korea's first modern medical doctors. In 1904 the medical center was renamed the Severence Union Medical College and Hospital. In 1915, the Chosun Christian College was founded through the efforts of Dr. H. G. Underwood, a pioneering Protestant missionary and the College's first president. Two years later, renamed Yônhûi College, it became Korea's first modern college.

Throughout the colonial period, the democratic ideals and individuals' self-esteem heralded by private schools offering Western-style education became a catalyst for Korea's independence movement. Conservative elements, which comprised the great majority of the society, considered the new education inappropriate and corrupting, especially for women; nevertheless, private schools for both genders continued to flourish, producing a new elite class, as the traditional belief in educated leaders persisted. Thus, even for women, education became a means of upward social mobility. New fields besides Confucian classics became important, such as medicine, mathematics, geography, and foreign languages. Women began to have a professional life outside the home. Women participated fully in the 1919 independence movement, which was initiated by Yu Kwansun, a young woman from Ewha Haktang. Taking notice of the private schools' nurturance of nationalist thinking, the Japanese Government General began controlling them and closed many.

After the aborted 1919 independence movement, however, the Japanese established new schools to prove their "cultural administration," which was adopted under the pressure of world opinion, to make deceptive gestures in the direction of liberalizing their rule in Korea (Han 479). The most significant was Kyôngsông Imperial University, which is today's Seoul National University, founded 1924. Even there, however, more than twothirds of the students (68-70 percent in 1935) were Japanese (Ono). Furthermore, secondary schools emphasized menial skill training; the majority of boys' schools had adjoining land for farming practice, and sewing and embroidery occupied much of girls' curriculum (HEK). However eager Koreans were to learn, they could not meet the challenge of Japanese imperialism, and the harsh Japanese rule of 35 years left the majority of Koreans illiterate.

Contemporary Era: No sooner were Koreans liberated from the Japanese than the country was artificially divided. There were new occupational forces on the peninsula: Soviets in the north and Americans in the south. To overcome Japanese influence, the U.S. military occupation (1945-48) undertook a drastic revision of the basic educational structure and curricula using the American system and democratic ideology as a model. Initially Koreans ardently studied American educational theory by scholars such as John Dewey, E. L. Thorndike, William Kilpatrick, and Harold Rugg. Equal educational opportunity for all was their primary concern (HEK). Since 1945, the Korean language has been used exclusively for classroom instruction, except in foreign language classes.

Once the Korean War (1950-53) ended, Koreans embarked on a major recovery. The explosive expansion of Korean education at all levels in less than 50 years produced drastic changes in both the quantity and the quality of education. Whereas once the goal was to make education available to everyone, now the aspiration is to produce enlightened and efficient future citizens who will contribute to national welfare and reconstruction.

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almost 3 years ago


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5 months ago

The article is very informative. It is almost similar to South African situation when the Nationalist Party took over. The education system that they brought along was in their favour.

The different is that when ANC took over from the Nats, the education system was worse than that of the Nats in more ways. I congratulate Koreans for their foresight. Education was their core, key and the cornerstone. it was education or nothing

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9 months ago

Great article.