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After Kim Jong Il's death, a Korean language class shifts format

Students in Democracy Prep High School’s Korean classes typically learn words that boost their vocabulary and develop basic grammar — standard fare for introductory foreign language instruction. But this week the lessons took a turn for the geopolitical.

Youngjae Hur greeted his students yesterday with an unusual pop quiz in English and asked them to define words such as “despotism,” “denuclearize,” and “repressive.”

For Hur, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s abrupt death over the weekend offered the school a unique opportunity to infuse what students learn about the South Korean language and culture every day with the politics that have shaped life on the Korean Peninsula for decades.

“It’s important to let them know not just the skills to understand the language, but also the culture, the history, the politics,” said Hur, a first-year teacher who moved to the United States from South Korea three years ago. “Especially at this special moment.”

After the quiz, Hur transformed his eleventh grade class into a lecture during which he covered a broad range of topics related to Jong Il’s death: Communism, nuclear proliferation, diplomatic sanctions and human rights. Many of the students were enthusiastic about the lesson; others used the lecture-style format as a chance to catch a quick nap.

Korean culture and language is a prominent presence at the Democracy Prep high school. Passing the language class is mandatory to graduate and the country’s values are stressed in school culture.

Founder Seth Andrew, who once taught in South Korea, said that he built the language requirement into the curriculum in part because of the country’s emphasis on its education system, which ranks as one of the world’s best. For the last two years, Democracy Prep has partnered with the Fulbright scholarship program and other grants to send about 20 students to visit South Korea. This year, Andrew said, the school is planning its first ever school-wide trip and he hopes to bring the majority of the school’s 57 11th graders.

Some of Hur’s students had already visited South Korea as part of Democracy Prep’s trips and visited the 38th parallel, an area that separates the two country’s borders.

“There was a lot of tension,” said Trey Bonaparte, a student in Hur’s class. “How could they live right there and yet not have the same kinds of things as people in South Korea? I got mad.”

Hur’s specialty is in linguistics – he once taught Korean and English to American and South Korean soldiers before moving – but he seemed to revel in the opportunity to lecture on North Korean history. Hur served in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and said most of his friends remained in active duty in the army, one of the world’s largest because of its history of conflict with North Korea. Hur said his grandmother was from North Korea and hadn’t seen her family in decades because of North Korea’s self-inflicted isolation from the rest of the world.

After the class, several students stopped to consider what was next for the Korean peninsula. Some expressed concern that upcoming trips to South Korea could be in jeopardy because of the uncertainty. Steven Medina, who had already visited but hoped to return, admitted he knew little about the Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, who is the nation’s likely successor.

“It fills me with fear because we know nothing about him and probably won’t know anything,” said Steven Medina.

“I didn’t realize things could actually get worse,” Bonaparte added.

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