01.11.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

War Over the History of South Korea

685005222The political forces in the Republic of Korea continue a bitter dispute over the Ministry of Education decision to transition to a unified national history textbook for intermediate and higher school levels.

Formally, from 2017 the national history will be taught in the Republic of Korea by a single textbook, the content of which will be based solely on real facts. Since there have been repeated scandals in the country over incorrect facts or biased interpretation of events in the textbooks used today, the authorities intend to create a balanced textbook. The official statement by the Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea was made on October 12, and the process of preparing the textbook is to start on November 5.

The initiative was immediately met with criticism both from the academic community and the opposition. Most of the professors of the largest universities in the country -“Hanguk” and “Yonsei” – as well as 15 thousand history teachers across the country spoke out against government intervention in the preparation of textbooks.

A powerful South Korean newspaper “Hanguk Ilbo” called the government measures the “start of the war on history.”

Moon Jae Ying, the leader of the opposition, Democratic Coalition for new policies, said that the ruling forces most certainly intend to create a textbook that will embellish the pro-Japanese forces, traditions of the authoritarian Yushin regime that existed under former Republic of Korea (RK) President Park Chung-hee, as well as promote the interests of the current government. In response, the leader of the ruling party, Kim Mu Son noted that the establishment of a unified national history textbook has been initiated for the benefit of future generations and the opposition’s attempts to hold back its implementation can cause a loss of confidence on the part of the people. Then Kim Mu Son went on to say that most of the current Korean textbooks reflect pro-North Korean views, rejecting the values ​​of democracy, in response to which Moon Jae Ying retorted that a single history textbook is used only in countries with dictatorial regimes.

The case reached the presidential level, especially since the opposition almost immediately launched the slogan: “A good president makes history, a bad one – rewrites history books.”

On October 22, Park Geun-hye held a meeting with the leaders of political parties; however, the parties have not reached a consensus. Moon Jae Ying again said he could not understand why the president was so stubbornly in favor of the introduction of a single textbook, which, in his opinion, would downplay the dictatorial regime and the relations between Korea and Japan. Park Geun-hye, in turn, said that 80 percent of the professionals involved in compiling the alternative textbooks have a biased view of history, and almost all of the existing books are leftist.

The opposition believes that it is primarily President Park Geun-hye who stands behind the process of introducing a single textbook, seeking to establish a new positive view of her father, President Park Chung-hee’s contribution to the country. In actuality, the most active are not the moderate conservatives like her, but the more conservative leaders, especially Kim Moo-sung who, by the way, is now considered the most likely candidate from the Saenuri for the future presidential elections.

What is the history of this issue and why does it make everyone bristle? From 1946 to 1974 the country had a system of alternative textbooks, and then until 2010 single textbooks were used. The old system was reverted to in 2010, and today the schools can use any of the 17 textbooks, approved by the government.

Cancellation of the single textbook in 2010 was due to the fact that by doing so, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration tried to deal with the interpretation of history, “imposed” by the “left” President Kim Dae-jung and PresidentRoh Moo-hyun. It is worth remembering that in the RK, as in other East Asian countries, history is perceived as a subject with huge indoctrination potential, and ensuring its proper understanding at home and abroad – is an important part of public policy.

However, the majority of South Korean teachers, who were responsible for the preparation of textbooks, hold left-wing views. Some of them were even members of the disbanded Lee Myung-bak National Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the history of objectification and revised a number of accepted propaganda myths.

Here is a good example – the so-called “Korean Katyn”: a mass grave of civilians, including women and children with signs of torture dating back to the 1950-1953 Korean War. Prior to the XXI century, it was believed that they had been killed by the Communists, and no one dared to question this. However, the Commission hosted a search of the archives and documents and found that they were not victims of the North Koreans, but rather of the so-called “youth corps” which were paramilitary, semi-criminal militias in the service of the Syngman Rhee regime. In general, the effect was comparable with “ripping off the covers” of the perestroika years, and, besides, the not-so-pleasing interpretations of right-wing history were also very well supported by facts. As a result, the textbook of Korean history, written by the Conservatives was chosen by less than 1% of the schools, and because “pluralism did not help”, now there are attempts to straighten out the situation with the help of the administrative resource and loud statements that even if the existing textbooks are not “red”, then they are at least “pink” and that if this is not stopped, our children will all soon be learning Juche.

What can be expected from the new textbook, based on the composition of the authors? In short, the new textbook will include a full array of nationalist and anti-communist myths – any positive information about the DPRK (for example, that up to the mid-70s the North was ahead of the South in terms of economic growth) will be removed. Also, clearly visible is the attempt to eradicate from the young generation’s memory any work that the Commission on National Reconciliation managed to make in the early 2000’s. According to Kim Moo-sung, “because the future is built on history, it is essential to avoid a negative view and self-abasement.”

As for the allegations of pro-Japanese sentiment – here the opposition is dissembling somewhat, since anti-Japanese sentiment remains the backbone of the South Korean myth that it is the Japanese legacy that is responsible for all historical problems, and public criticism is leveled more at the fact, that they are not blamed nearly enough. In some cases this aspect of Korean ideology even resembles the “small-state chauvinism” found in some countries of the former CIS.

Besides, the accusations of whitewashing the pro-Japanese elements is also a blow to General Park Chung-hee, who until the liberation of the country even managed to serve in the Japanese army, and, like many other Koreans, changed his name to Japanese. The controversy over the role of Park Chung-hee is reminiscent of disputes in Russia over Stalin’s role in history, and much of the left-wing does not accept Park Geun-hye as Park Chung-hee’s daughter, based simply on the surname, although, his dictatorship was based largely on nationalist rhetoric. According to the left wing, it was an unworthy nationalism – too much borrowing from the Japanese political culture.

So, in the debates about the history textbook, the opposition has run into the desire to take a shot at the president, once again reminding the daughter about her father, as well as the authorities’ attempts to tighten the screws in the process, which can be called the new conservative offensive.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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