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[INTERVIEW] Climate change revolutionaries: Why students in Korea hit the streets

Students dance to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' in a flash mob at Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul in March 2013 to promote the World Wide Fund for Nature's 'Earth Hour' campaign. Screen capture from YouTube
Students dance to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' in a flash mob at Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul in March 2013 to promote the World Wide Fund for Nature's 'Earth Hour' campaign. Screen capture from YouTube

By Ko Dong-hwan

In March 2013, a flash mob of thousands of students from elementary to high schools across South Korea performed PSY's "Gangnam Style" at Cheonggye Stream in downtown Seoul. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature Korea, it was held to encourage people to participate in the WWF's global electricity- and energy-saving campaign called "Earth Hour," by turning off their lights March 23 between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

The same campaign led by teenagers hit the streets again in 2014. At Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul Square and Cheonggye Square all in Seoul's busy downtown, the young crowds danced to PSY's "Gentleman" informing passersby to turn off their lights during the same hour on March 29. The campaign extended to the following year under EXID's "Up and Down," a K-pop megahit with a title reminiscent of a light switch.

On March 15, 2019, hundreds of students ditched school and gathered at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District to call for the central government to implement policies aimed at carbon neutrality. The unprecedented teen movement in the country ― "Youth 4 Climate Action" ― was largely inspired by Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmental activist from Sweden who inspired many worldwide with her fearless speeches to national policymakers. Her legacy influenced the birth of "Friday for Future," a global environmental movement joined by more than 1 million teenagers from about 130 countries choosing to raise their voices outside their schools.

The March demonstrations in Seoul led to follow-ups in May and September the same year. During the September event, about 500 students marched to Cheong Wa Dae and delivered a report card and an award they made which congratulated the country for having failed to reduce carbon emissions to the level it planned following the Paris Agreement. They also delivered a letter of demands, including calls for the government to put a stop to Korean firms' plans to construct coal-powered plants in Korea and abroad by the end of 2020, and to set up a regular communication channel between the government and students committed to the climate change campaign.

In 2020, representatives of the climate action student body met Kim Byung-woo, North Chungcheong Province's superintendent of education who represented the country's 17 superintendents of education from regional school boards, at the Government Complex Seoul, to demand the country push for stronger eco-friendly measures in the energy and education sectors. Then, the students met Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye in extension from their meeting with Kim.

The meetings were fruitful. In July 2020, the superintendents and the country's Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae declared an "emergency" in the country's environmental education for young people and pledged to provide education for a sustainable future and find out ways for schools and education authorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was the moment Youth 4 Climate Action proved their efforts had not been in vain.

Students march toward Cheong Wa Dae from Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District on Sept. 27, 2019, to condemn the government for having failed to counter climate change's impacts on the country. Yonhap
Students march toward Cheong Wa Dae from Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District on Sept. 27, 2019, to condemn the government for having failed to counter climate change's impacts on the country. Yonhap

Environmental sensitivity

Environmental studies teacher Shin Kyung-jun from Soongmoon Middle School said young people tend to be more environmentally sensitive than adults. He referred to ChildFund Korea's 2020 survey that revealed 42 percent of young respondents felt climate change was a personal threat, while only 19 percent of adults did. He explained it was why the students were charged with such zeal to form Youth 4 Climate Action in the first place. And some of those students were his.

"Young people these days recognize all these extreme weather conditions that Korean media outlets say 'come every century' as a direct threat to their lives, unlike adults who tend to think the threats will pass them by and affect those in younger generations," Shin, 44, told The Korea Times. "So these kids started forming an alliance, exploding with the street demonstrations. I believe it is the first generation to take environmental threats seriously enough to handle them on their own."

Shin, who has been teaching about the environment since 2006 at the school in Seoul's Mapo District, believes that students must learn to become sensitive to environmental concerns before learning anything else. His teaching curriculum follows an order. Starting with environmental sensitivity, it is followed by environmental knowledge, systematic thinking, environmental justice and real-life practice. Skipping any preceding steps, students in the end will never understand why they must bother reducing plastic use or using photovoltaic panels for electricity, he said.

"Kids born in the 2000s rarely feel raw soil with their feet or hands because they are used to living indoors in an apartment, going to fancy supermarkets every weekend and using heated water or cool air conditioning," Shin said. "Before learning environmental sensitivity, they were so far from knowing nature. They all thought the camellia flowers planted in our school gardens were roses. Environmental sensitivity basically teaches one's relationship with other life forms around, and furthermore enables sympathizing with people in less fortunate situations."

Under Shin's teachings, students at the private boys' school took on various projects. They made QR codes containing the names of flowers and trees near the school and displayed those codes next to them. They learned how to reduce waste by sending used smartphones to a local recycling depot and giving used eyeglasses to a cafe in Mapo's Mangwon area which sends them to Cambodia, where glasses cost almost half an average monthly wage. They also reduced plastic waste by trying not to consume bottled water for a week and saving almost 320 liters of water in plastic bottles.

Shin Kyung-jun teaches environmental studies in Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. He is the only environmental studies teacher in the city and one of 28 environmental studies teachers in the country among almost 500,000 public school teachers. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Shin Kyung-jun teaches environmental studies in Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. He is the only environmental studies teacher in the city and one of 28 environmental studies teachers in the country among almost 500,000 public school teachers. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Shin recalled a project he was particularly fond of.

"I had my students look for shops or stores in their neighborhoods that conserve energy or have any environmentally-conscious business methods. I wanted to collect the results and make a map of eco-friendly shops in Mapo. When I visited and checked each shop listed by my students, I found out that many of those shops were operated by the students' parents or acquaintances. It struck me with a delightful realization that these kids have good mentors even outside the school. The project highlighted there was sustainability in life and society of my students, the very value the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been campaigning about."

Shin's class materials also include online games and virtual reality apparatuses, which feed alternative egos of most of students these days in their cyber worlds. He said environmental studies lessons now must use such gadgets because otherwise students lose interest.

He brainstorms ideas to bring to game developers to create a game or a simulation experience that he said can effectively teach the students.

"In one game, students log in, take photos of fallen leaves under a chestnut tree on our school premises and upload them to the game. Do the same with different trees or flowers and they master their names and natural traits. In another game, they explore the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster site using smart eyewear and learn the importance of renewable energy resources instead of dangerous nuclear power."

Shin poses in front of Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. The former president and now the spokesperson of the Korea Environment Teachers Association, Shin has been at the fore of maintaining the existence of environmental studies in public school curricula in South Korea. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Shin poses in front of Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. The former president and now the spokesperson of the Korea Environment Teachers Association, Shin has been at the fore of maintaining the existence of environmental studies in public school curricula in South Korea. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Environmental studies teachers in Korea

There are 28 environmental studies teachers scattered across South Korea, including Shin who is the only one in Seoul. They form the Korea Environment Teachers Association (KETA), a tiny fraction among about 500,000 public school teachers in the country. Shin used to lead KETA and but later stepped down and became the group's spokesperson.

Established in 2013, KETA has been fighting the central government to preserve the country's environmental education in public school curricula. Since 1996 when environmental studies was introduced as a subject in South Korea, it has been largely undermined by the state authorities, often suffering from a shortage of teachers and even facing removal from school curriculums.

"South Korea's industrial growth from the 1990s, boosted by hosting of the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, largely overshadowed any need for environmental education and delayed the subject's creation in schools," Shin said.

The biggest threat to the subject came in 2015 when the central government was embroiled in a controversy after trying to revise schools' history textbooks. The debate intensified and blinded the government to the point of deciding to reduce the number of teachers for environmental studies. KETA members, led by Shin, protested the move and succeeded in blocking it, maintaining the country's environmental studies teachers at 28 ― the same number it has had since 2009.

As to the environment ministry's new plan announced earlier this month to improve the country's environment education system for 2021-25, Shin welcomed the news.

"After having been in danger of disappearance from school curriculum for decades, the subject has finally drawn attention from the central government for a close-up look to receive major support," Shin said. "I am now very excited to meet eight environmental studies teachers newly appointed this year. The country hasn't appointed any new environmental studies teachers since 2009."

One of the students participating in the street demonstration on Sept. 27, 2019, hosted by Youths 4 Climate Action at Gwanghwamun Square, holds a piece of cardboard showing an illustration of Greta Thunberg. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
One of the students participating in the street demonstration on Sept. 27, 2019, hosted by Youths 4 Climate Action at Gwanghwamun Square, holds a piece of cardboard showing an illustration of Greta Thunberg. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

But it doesn't mean everything is now okay for the subject. He said the ball is now on the education ministry's side to decide whether to expand the subject and provide it to more students in more schools across the country. He said it is now up to the ministry to determine whether it will use 18 trillion won ($16.3 billion) of the national budget for five years to refurbish aged schools with technical support to provide better environmental education and change the subject that has been elective in schools to a mandatory one.

He points to other countries and areas where environmental studies have already been determined as mandatory in schools, like Australia, Finland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the state of California in the United States, and the North of Tyne Combined Authority in the United Kingdom. He added the subject is also mandatory in Cambodian high schools, while Italy obligated schools to teach the subject for one hour per week. New Jersey in the United States this year followed California in introducing a climate environment subject as mandatory in the country's K-12 curriculum.

Shin is eager to engage students in school administration regarding environmental issues, inspiring them to become the next Thunberg.

"There are no official seats for teenagers to discuss public issues in South Korea," Shin said, referring to a policy in France that allows teenage students to raise voices in improving environmental issues and implement them in schools. "I plan to emulate that in my school, appointing an environment director in each classroom."


Students dance to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' in a flash mob at Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul in March 2013 to promote the World Wide Fund for Nature's 'Earth Hour' campaign. Screen capture from YouTube
Students dance to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' in a flash mob at Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul in March 2013 to promote the World Wide Fund for Nature's 'Earth Hour' campaign. Screen capture from YouTube

By Ko Dong-hwan

In March 2013, a flash mob of thousands of students from elementary to high schools across South Korea performed PSY's "Gangnam Style" at Cheonggye Stream in downtown Seoul. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature Korea, it was held to encourage people to participate in the WWF's global electricity- and energy-saving campaign called "Earth Hour," by turning off their lights March 23 between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

The same campaign led by teenagers hit the streets again in 2014. At Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul Square and Cheonggye Square all in Seoul's busy downtown, the young crowds danced to PSY's "Gentleman" informing passersby to turn off their lights during the same hour on March 29. The campaign extended to the following year under EXID's "Up and Down," a K-pop megahit with a title reminiscent of a light switch.

On March 15, 2019, hundreds of students ditched school and gathered at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District to call for the central government to implement policies aimed at carbon neutrality. The unprecedented teen movement in the country ― "Youth 4 Climate Action" ― was largely inspired by Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmental activist from Sweden who inspired many worldwide with her fearless speeches to national policymakers. Her legacy influenced the birth of "Friday for Future," a global environmental movement joined by more than 1 million teenagers from about 130 countries choosing to raise their voices outside their schools.

The March demonstrations in Seoul led to follow-ups in May and September the same year. During the September event, about 500 students marched to Cheong Wa Dae and delivered a report card and an award they made which congratulated the country for having failed to reduce carbon emissions to the level it planned following the Paris Agreement. They also delivered a letter of demands, including calls for the government to put a stop to Korean firms' plans to construct coal-powered plants in Korea and abroad by the end of 2020, and to set up a regular communication channel between the government and students committed to the climate change campaign.

In 2020, representatives of the climate action student body met Kim Byung-woo, North Chungcheong Province's superintendent of education who represented the country's 17 superintendents of education from regional school boards, at the Government Complex Seoul, to demand the country push for stronger eco-friendly measures in the energy and education sectors. Then, the students met Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye in extension from their meeting with Kim.

The meetings were fruitful. In July 2020, the superintendents and the country's Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae declared an "emergency" in the country's environmental education for young people and pledged to provide education for a sustainable future and find out ways for schools and education authorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was the moment Youth 4 Climate Action proved their efforts had not been in vain.

Students march toward Cheong Wa Dae from Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District on Sept. 27, 2019, to condemn the government for having failed to counter climate change's impacts on the country. Yonhap
Students march toward Cheong Wa Dae from Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District on Sept. 27, 2019, to condemn the government for having failed to counter climate change's impacts on the country. Yonhap

Environmental sensitivity

Environmental studies teacher Shin Kyung-jun from Soongmoon Middle School said young people tend to be more environmentally sensitive than adults. He referred to ChildFund Korea's 2020 survey that revealed 42 percent of young respondents felt climate change was a personal threat, while only 19 percent of adults did. He explained it was why the students were charged with such zeal to form Youth 4 Climate Action in the first place. And some of those students were his.

"Young people these days recognize all these extreme weather conditions that Korean media outlets say 'come every century' as a direct threat to their lives, unlike adults who tend to think the threats will pass them by and affect those in younger generations," Shin, 44, told The Korea Times. "So these kids started forming an alliance, exploding with the street demonstrations. I believe it is the first generation to take environmental threats seriously enough to handle them on their own."

Shin, who has been teaching about the environment since 2006 at the school in Seoul's Mapo District, believes that students must learn to become sensitive to environmental concerns before learning anything else. His teaching curriculum follows an order. Starting with environmental sensitivity, it is followed by environmental knowledge, systematic thinking, environmental justice and real-life practice. Skipping any preceding steps, students in the end will never understand why they must bother reducing plastic use or using photovoltaic panels for electricity, he said.

"Kids born in the 2000s rarely feel raw soil with their feet or hands because they are used to living indoors in an apartment, going to fancy supermarkets every weekend and using heated water or cool air conditioning," Shin said. "Before learning environmental sensitivity, they were so far from knowing nature. They all thought the camellia flowers planted in our school gardens were roses. Environmental sensitivity basically teaches one's relationship with other life forms around, and furthermore enables sympathizing with people in less fortunate situations."

Under Shin's teachings, students at the private boys' school took on various projects. They made QR codes containing the names of flowers and trees near the school and displayed those codes next to them. They learned how to reduce waste by sending used smartphones to a local recycling depot and giving used eyeglasses to a cafe in Mapo's Mangwon area which sends them to Cambodia, where glasses cost almost half an average monthly wage. They also reduced plastic waste by trying not to consume bottled water for a week and saving almost 320 liters of water in plastic bottles.

Shin Kyung-jun teaches environmental studies in Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. He is the only environmental studies teacher in the city and one of 28 environmental studies teachers in the country among almost 500,000 public school teachers. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Shin Kyung-jun teaches environmental studies in Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. He is the only environmental studies teacher in the city and one of 28 environmental studies teachers in the country among almost 500,000 public school teachers. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Shin recalled a project he was particularly fond of.

"I had my students look for shops or stores in their neighborhoods that conserve energy or have any environmentally-conscious business methods. I wanted to collect the results and make a map of eco-friendly shops in Mapo. When I visited and checked each shop listed by my students, I found out that many of those shops were operated by the students' parents or acquaintances. It struck me with a delightful realization that these kids have good mentors even outside the school. The project highlighted there was sustainability in life and society of my students, the very value the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been campaigning about."

Shin's class materials also include online games and virtual reality apparatuses, which feed alternative egos of most of students these days in their cyber worlds. He said environmental studies lessons now must use such gadgets because otherwise students lose interest.

He brainstorms ideas to bring to game developers to create a game or a simulation experience that he said can effectively teach the students.

"In one game, students log in, take photos of fallen leaves under a chestnut tree on our school premises and upload them to the game. Do the same with different trees or flowers and they master their names and natural traits. In another game, they explore the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster site using smart eyewear and learn the importance of renewable energy resources instead of dangerous nuclear power."

Shin poses in front of Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. The former president and now the spokesperson of the Korea Environment Teachers Association, Shin has been at the fore of maintaining the existence of environmental studies in public school curricula in South Korea. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Shin poses in front of Soongmoon Middle School in Seoul's Mapo District. The former president and now the spokesperson of the Korea Environment Teachers Association, Shin has been at the fore of maintaining the existence of environmental studies in public school curricula in South Korea. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Environmental studies teachers in Korea

There are 28 environmental studies teachers scattered across South Korea, including Shin who is the only one in Seoul. They form the Korea Environment Teachers Association (KETA), a tiny fraction among about 500,000 public school teachers in the country. Shin used to lead KETA and but later stepped down and became the group's spokesperson.

Established in 2013, KETA has been fighting the central government to preserve the country's environmental education in public school curricula. Since 1996 when environmental studies was introduced as a subject in South Korea, it has been largely undermined by the state authorities, often suffering from a shortage of teachers and even facing removal from school curriculums.

"South Korea's industrial growth from the 1990s, boosted by hosting of the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, largely overshadowed any need for environmental education and delayed the subject's creation in schools," Shin said.

The biggest threat to the subject came in 2015 when the central government was embroiled in a controversy after trying to revise schools' history textbooks. The debate intensified and blinded the government to the point of deciding to reduce the number of teachers for environmental studies. KETA members, led by Shin, protested the move and succeeded in blocking it, maintaining the country's environmental studies teachers at 28 ― the same number it has had since 2009.

As to the environment ministry's new plan announced earlier this month to improve the country's environment education system for 2021-25, Shin welcomed the news.

"After having been in danger of disappearance from school curriculum for decades, the subject has finally drawn attention from the central government for a close-up look to receive major support," Shin said. "I am now very excited to meet eight environmental studies teachers newly appointed this year. The country hasn't appointed any new environmental studies teachers since 2009."

One of the students participating in the street demonstration on Sept. 27, 2019, hosted by Youths 4 Climate Action at Gwanghwamun Square, holds a piece of cardboard showing an illustration of Greta Thunberg. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
One of the students participating in the street demonstration on Sept. 27, 2019, hosted by Youths 4 Climate Action at Gwanghwamun Square, holds a piece of cardboard showing an illustration of Greta Thunberg. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

But it doesn't mean everything is now okay for the subject. He said the ball is now on the education ministry's side to decide whether to expand the subject and provide it to more students in more schools across the country. He said it is now up to the ministry to determine whether it will use 18 trillion won ($16.3 billion) of the national budget for five years to refurbish aged schools with technical support to provide better environmental education and change the subject that has been elective in schools to a mandatory one.

He points to other countries and areas where environmental studies have already been determined as mandatory in schools, like Australia, Finland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the state of California in the United States, and the North of Tyne Combined Authority in the United Kingdom. He added the subject is also mandatory in Cambodian high schools, while Italy obligated schools to teach the subject for one hour per week. New Jersey in the United States this year followed California in introducing a climate environment subject as mandatory in the country's K-12 curriculum.

Shin is eager to engage students in school administration regarding environmental issues, inspiring them to become the next Thunberg.

"There are no official seats for teenagers to discuss public issues in South Korea," Shin said, referring to a policy in France that allows teenage students to raise voices in improving environmental issues and implement them in schools. "I plan to emulate that in my school, appointing an environment director in each classroom."


Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr


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