S. Koreans renew old debate on education of Chinese characters By Kim Young-gyo

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SEOUL, Sept. 19 (Yonhap) -- One of South Korea's oldest debates reopened in the education sector this week, after a district education office in southern Seoul announced it would reintroduce the mandatory study of Chinese characters in elementary schools.

The education office in Seoul's upmarket Gangnam district, which is thought to be home to the country's best schools, announced Wednesday that it is set to resume in October the study of Hanja -- as Chinese characters are known in Korea -- after dozens of years of suspension.

"Study will focus on the understanding of Korean vocabulary, rather than the grammatical use of Hanja," the Seoul Gangnam District Office of Education said in a statement. "We would expect students who graduate from the elementary schools within the district to know at least the 900 most used characters."

Korea, Japan and Vietnam historically shared a large part of Chinese culture represented by Chinese characters and Confucianism, while forming independent and concrete nation-states.

The pronounciation of the Chinese characters in each country is localized, but the meanings are almost the same throughout the region.

Chinese characters were introduced to Korea more than two thousand years ago.

Since Koreans did not have their own writing system until 1446 when King Sejong and the scholars in his Royal Academy invented the original version of Hangeul, the Korean script, Hanja were employed as the official writing system throughout early Korean history, and the use of the characters continued even after Hangeul was introduced.

It was not until 1948 when the Korean government was formally established, after some 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, that a law mandated the use of the Korean alphabet in official documents.

The Korean language has thus received a vast influence from Chinese over the long period of time, especially in terms of its vocabulary.

Scholars estimate there are more than 30,000 existing Chinese characters.

Since the presidency of Park Chung-hee, who was in the post from 1961 to 1979 and strongly drove a Korean-characters only policy, Chinese characters are not taught in the elementary schools.

Middle and high school students are only recommended, but not required, to learn the most fundamental 900 characters.

"A considerable portion of the Korean language comes from Chinese characters.

Learning Chinese characters will elevate students' ability to understand and use correctly the Korean language itself," officials at the Gangnam education office said.

Debates have raged in South Korea over the government policy, which is more than 30 years old.

In 2002, 13 former education ministers recommended to the presidential office and the Education Ministry that classes for the Chinese characters be revived from the first year of elementary school.

Jin Tae-ha, one of the leading scholars who promoted Chinese character education in the nation, argued it was frustrating to see when words, obviously based in Chinese characters, were written simply in Hangeul.

"Some 1.7 billion people use Chinese characters. China is an emerging economic
giant. Isn't it obvious that we have to know Chinese characters even for the sake
of future national competitiveness?" he said.
The Korean Language Society released a statement early Thursday, saying the move
is retrogressive.
"Our spoken and written language is already slighted by the incumbent
government's focus on English education. Our language will be shaken even more,
if the Seoul Gangnam District of Education executes their plan," said Kim
Seung-gon, head of the society.
"Our children will feel confused, not able to develop proper linguistic senses,"
he said.
Some parents are getting worried, saying it will spur another obsession in South
Korea's hyper-competitive private education sector.
"I am definitely against it. My son has already been privately tutored in English
and Korean. Will he now need a Chinese-character tutor?" Kim Su-jin, a mother in
the Gangnam area, said.
Her worry is not misplaced, as the Gangnam education office said whether the
students pass the Chinese courses or not will be recorded on their transcripts.
Even office workers wonder if they would be affected by this new education
policy. Some of the large corporations in South Korea recently have been asking
their potential employees to submit their certificates of proficiency in Chinese
"I am sure the younger kids will be able to manage two different (Chinese and
Hangeul) characters. Japanese kids start using three different characters when
they are very young -- Hiragana, Katakana and Chinese characters," said Rim
Wu-jay, an office worker in Seoul. "But I really hope that those educators stick
to the object of the teaching, and not let those children learn just because of
China's economic boom,"