Jonghyun’s tweet criticising government education policy and the value of outspoken idols

Over the past couple of years, Jonghyun from SHINee has gained a reputation for going beyond the normal bounds of idolhood and speaking out on (often controversial) issues that matter to him. Today, he added education policy to his list:

They say they’re lowering school starting age for the sake of childbirth… Producing a textbook…

My confidence that I could have children and help them  grow into adults with healthy minds and bodies only disappears with policies like this.

I’m not saying I won’t have kids, I’m saying having kids [here] is terrifying.

Here he’s referring to the two biggest, most controversial hot topic education policy issues in Korea right now: Park Geun Hye’s pledge to bring history education effectively under government control with a single government-approved textbook and recently outlined plans to start children’s education earlier in order to raise Korea’s extremely low birth rate.

We’ll go back to the logical somersault needed to understand that second part in a second but, first, the textbooks.

(Sidenote) Interestingly his current profile picture is of an anti-Vietnam War protester

Side note: Interestingly, his current profile picture is of an anti-Vietnam War protester

President Park believes the current set of textbooks approved for use in state-run high schools from 8 private publishers are inaccurate, defeatist and cause unnecessary ideological divisions. Earlier in the month she announced plans to scrap the current provision in favour of a single government approved book – as is already the case for younger children.

In her most recent statement today, she said, “Some of the textbooks children are learning from these days state that South Korea shouldn’t have been born, and call North Korea a legitimate country. We should not teach students defeatism. Descriptions make students feel shame for being born in the Republic of Korea.”

Park also says she’s saddened it’s become a political issue but as the principal aim is to teach a prouder (i.e. more nationalistic) version of Korean history and remove young people’s history education from the grasps of what she sees as “predominantly left leaning” historians, there’s no way she can really be surprised at the backlash from the opposition party and various activists.

Moon Jae-in, the leader of main opposition party New Politics Alliance for Democracy, meanwhile said “The people see state-published textbooks as materials that glorify collaboration with the colonial Japanese government and dictatorship” – referring to the administration of the current president’s military strongman father Park Chung-hee.

It’s also caused rifts in academic circles with around 500 conservative academics saying “Historians seem unable to convey an objective view of history if left to their own devices” while around 600 academics have urged the government to ditch the plan.

Although most of the debate has been over the actual content of the history in schools (particularly in relation to North Korea and the Korean war), it’s a worringly authoritarian step to address the issue by putting the control of history education in schools in the hands of the government considering how our understanding of history can shape our politics.

Broadly speaking young people are against the move with some even going out to protest against the changes. Jonghyun, then, here seems to be reflecting the views of his predominantly younger fanbase.

Korean students protesting textbook changes. The caption reads "Korean history education has died."

Korean students protesting textbook changes. The caption reads “Korean history education has died.”

As for dropping the age children start school, the motivation of the government is a little more difficult to understand. The president seems to believe starting children in school a year earlier will get young people into employment sooner meaning they get married and have children younger – therefore having more opportunity to have kids. But this seems a little short-sighted. Is it really lack of time and late marriage that is causing low birthrate?

That doesn’t seem to be the consensus among the people in their 20s and 30s who should be having the babies as Claire Lee points out over at the Korea Herald:

Young Koreans born to financially struggling parents identify themselves as “dirt spoons” — the opposite of those born with a silver spoon in their mouth — with a bitter sense of limited personal control over their fate.

It’s unsurprising that Koreans in their 20s and 30s call their own country “Hell Joseon,” a composite phrase of hell and the feudal Korean kingdom that lasted from 1392 to 1897 with a strict class hierarchy that offered no social mobility.

As long as the government shows no willingness to tackle the core, no efforts to boost the nation’s birthrate would prove effective.

On top of everything else, equal opportunity is what gives potential parents a reason to believe in the prospect of a better future for their children. What we need is social justice and conscience, not free diapers and matchmaking services.

Long working hours, lack of good opportunities, lack of job security and lack of support for parents who are not married are some of the main reasons childbirth rates are so low in Korea. It’s hard to see how on earth this new policy could change that.

As a successful celebrity, Jonghyun’s life does not reflect that of his fans and yet his cynicism towards the government and his liberal views on issues like LGBT rights and gender equality speak to the opinions of many young people in Korea. This is especially true of his fans who, let’s face it, are unlikely to be the “angry young men” who hang out on websites like Ilbe and intimidate Sewol victims. Young people calling themselves dirt spoons living in Hell Joseon feel alienated and powerless about the decisions being made by the older generations in politics and business and Jonghyun makes it clear he sees that time and time again. There is a widening generational gulf on certain issues and Jonghyun represents the young (many times female) view which is so often ignored.

There is a massive generation gap in LGBT issues as can be seen here.

But given the controversy that can be caused by the tiniest misstep by an idol, why does SM let him speak so freely? Maybe it’s because SHINee are now in a place in their careers where they have a certain amount of leeway and freedom. Or because SM knows the group has a reputation for being a bit “out there” and so this actually helps his image. Or because they’ve seen how his previous comments have been well received by his fans and largely ignored by the people who would take issue. In truth it’s probably a bit of all of the above.

Whatever the case, it’s nice to see Jonghyun take the real meaning of the word “idol” to heart and try to make an impact of some kind and show the people who look up to him that he cares about their situation. It’s always cool to see an idol using their voice and their brain to talk about something other than themselves and spouting the company line. Jonghyun’s heartfelt opinions make him likeable in an industry that tends to trend towards a unnaturally-perfect, non-controversial mean.

Maybe Jonghyun will make a difference, maybe he won’t but good on him for trying.

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  • ouroboros

    Thank you for the excellent read.

    While I’m not optimistic of the likelihood of meaningful reforms on the educational system—the intense competitiveness alone has locked people into these social strata—they would be easier to effect if those in power would do more than accuse the other side of extremism (North Korea vs. Imperial Japan) and focused on South Korea instead.

  • fiercediva

    You say that as a successful idol, Jonghyun’s life is different from those of his fans, but it’s important to remember that he wasn’t born into success. It’s obvious a large part of his worldview is the result of him and his sister being raised by his mother at his grandfather’s home with his father apparently being absent or uninvolved. His mother had to work various jobs and put herself through university in her late 30s, and yet she persevered and supported Jonghyun in all his creative pursuits, including his decision to drop out of secondary school to pursue music full-time. He alludes to some of this in the second episode that recently aired of Monthly Live Connection.

    • Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

      I was more looking at it from the perspective of the person reading his comments rather than his perspective but yeah that’s a fair point! I’m sure his upbringing has affected his thinking.

    • nadia

      I think Jonghyun feels particularly involved because before becoming a
      singer he wanted to become a teacher and, anyway, he too is a college
      student and he is preparing his master degree. In fact he went back to
      school few years ago, just as did his mother, who enrolled to the
      university at the age of 36 years and now is a child psychologist. I think his family difficulties has made him very sensitive towards other people’s difficulties and then he has developed very liberal thoughts and a strong sense of Justice… However I was not aware of what is happening to the Korean educational system, is disturbing…

  • Sontoloyo

    i found a new him everyday and its fascinating. i love it ^^

  • yesIknowKimchi

    Can you do an article on the IU scandal? I know you already did one but now there’s a new one with her album and plagiarism