The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to exclude high schools affiliated with North Korea from eligibility for a program that provides free high school education.
No school should be excluded from the tuition waiver program given that its principal objective is to create a society where all children are given access to high school-level education, regardless of the economic conditions of their families.
In explaining the government's decision, education minister Hakubun Shimomura said it is difficult to win public support for making North Korean high schools eligible for the program. Shimomura cited two main reasons: the influence of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) on the curricula at these schools and the lack of progress in Japan’s talks with North Korea over the issue of Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese citizens.
Indeed, there is a strong distrust of North Korea among Japanese not only because of the abduction issue, but also because of Pyongyang’s effective test launch of a ballistic missile in December, the latest of the isolated country’s provocative acts related to its arms programs.
The education policies and programs at North Korean schools have also aroused public suspicions. It is unacceptable if these schools are trying to educate students, in classrooms hung with portraits of North Korean leaders, to be supporters of the dictatorship in Pyongyang.
But the tuition waiver program is designed to benefit individual students, not schools. Many of the students at North Korean high schools in Japan go on to Japanese universities upon graduation. They are children who will grow up to become legitimate members of Japanese society.
The government should keep trying to make sure that these students will learn about the basic values of Japanese and international society while at the same time guaranteeing that they will be given access to education.
The education ministry has been saying that it will draw up a list of "points to note" that these schools will be required to keep in mind if they are made eligible for the tuition waiver program. The ministry has promised to urge them to make voluntary efforts to improve their curricula, such as adding Japanese textbooks on politics and economy to their teaching materials.
It will be more beneficial for society if the ministry opts to exhort these schools to take such steps to improve their education while making them entitled to the tuition waiver.
In 2011, when Kanagawa Prefecture provided prefectural subsidies to North Korean schools within its boundaries, it also raised questions about some elements of what and how students learn at these schools, such as textbook descriptions of the abduction issue and the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air jetliner by North Korean agents.
As a result, the descriptions in question have been revised partially, if not sufficiently.
Additionally, a documentary film about the abduction of Megumi Yokota, who has become a symbol of the tragedies, has been shown in classes to teach students about the abduction issue.
These improvements have been made because the prefectural government has maintained a channel to seek positive action from these schools.
The proposed procedure for excluding North Korean schools from the tuition waiver program is also questionable.
Foreign schools are able to apply to the program according to rules laid down by an education ministry ordinance. The government now plans to delete only the provision in the ordinance that makes pro-Pyongyang schools eligible to be screened for the program.
These schools applied for the program according to the provision more than two years ago.
The government has been postponing the screening of the applications and is now planning to abolish the provision itself to reject the applications without screening. This is an unfair and unreasonable way to deal with the matter.
Even if it considers changing the rules, the ministry should first complete the screening of the applications submitted by these schools and announce the results.
A government that is demanding education in line with the values of a democratic society should not make any move that arouses doubts about the fairness of its procedures.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 9
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