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Korea’s Flag of Learning

by | London, UK

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

tags: asia, categories, consumer culture, culture, making sense

These are typical images about war or revolution and victory. With the drama and the symbolism of the flag they show a mighty determination to win even if the cost is death. On the left Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February 1945) and on the right Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Less familiar to most of us is the middle image – which is in fact an advertisement for a private education company offering extracurricular lessons for primary and high school students after their normal classes. In this dramatic Korean ad, the bold and dynamic handwriting says 'Let’s go ahead a grade' – that is to say fight, win, move ahead with a higher mark.

Private education provision always implies social hierarchy and a competitive arena in which the stakes are high. If public education aims to provide a level playing field, the private provision tilts it and sets the odds in favour of the child and the parents who give an extra push in terms of time and resource. Our featured image for this article (on the Semionaut home page) shows scenes from a Korean university advertisement. On the left, the lady proudly states “my child is studying at the university”. On the right she questions the professor about how good the university is. So this is not just about individual students but about families, not just personal striving but a kind of team battle.

“If you sleep 5 hours you will fail to enter a university, but if you sleep 4 hours, you can enter a university” is a common adage given as advice to high school students in Korea. The education system has had a strong market dimension to it in Korea since the early days of modernization in the 1970s with the New Community Movement. Investment of time and money can lead to good results which, in turn, can get the student into a good school. Images of hard work, cut-throat competition and exhausted students are already familiar from a country like Japan but the promotional rhetoric at least seems to have escalated even further in Korea.

So far we have seen one example of the family as the student’s greatest ally and another in which educational success is metaphorically linked to military triumph. This latter association is, in fact, now an expression of an increasingly familiar code. Here are two others ads for Korean universities in which the iconography of the flag against the sky depicts the triumph of the student/warrior over all opposition, while a third (right) states “Sharp intelligence conquers the world, with the sword of this university”.

With the shelling of Yeonpyeong island by North Korean forces in November 2010 the world was reminded of a military context which has been part of Krean consciousness, language and popular culture for over half a century. Wr and fighting metaphors have had positive connotations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 and through subsequent periods of national regeneration and economic growth.

In Korea, when people want to say something like 'Let's do it together' or even 'Cheer up', they say “Fighting!”  Related to this “If you feel you cannot do it you have to force yourself to do it!” is a common attitude. The language of war and military conflict is commonplace in international business discourse with its metaphors of ‘strategy’, ‘outflanking the opposition’, the ‘coup’ and so forth. What’s distinctive about this area of Korean culture and communication is the explicitness of such warlike imagery – and its insistent presence in an arena which is so central and so critical in young people’s preparation for adult life.

© Hyaesook Yang 2010

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