01.12.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The war over history in South Korea

165038The crisis surrounding the attempts to create a standardised history textbook for secondary schools and universities in the Republic of Korea is still ongoing. Protests against the state policy in this sphere even served as a reason for the opposition’s short-term boycott of the sessions of the National Assembly and became one of the battle-cries of the mass anti-government demonstration that took place in the Seoul city centre on November 14, 2015. We will provide more detailed information about that later. As the chairman of the opposition party, Moon Jae-in announced, if the decision to create the standardised textbook is not retracted, Korea’s population will embark on mass protests, moreover, due to the fact that the plan for the preparation of the standardised textbook was approved two days before the end of the 20-day period when the citizens’ opinions about the need to create it were being gathered. The Director of the Department of Education in Seoul, as well as teachers’ associations, including the All-Korea Teachers’ Union all spoke out against the standardisation of textbooks. The statement was signed by more than 21 thousand teachers. In connection with this, the Ministry of Education stated that the actions of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union violate the neutrality of educational institutions.

Nevertheless, the authorities are continuing their work on the project. On November 3, the Minister of Education of the Republic of Korea, Hwang Woo-yea presented the plan for the preparation of the standardised textbook, and the next day the ministry instructed a special committee to draft the textbook. The special committee should consist of about twenty to forty people – members of the public and experts on history. Some of them will be assigned to the committee, and the others will be selected on a competitive basis. Work on the textbook is set to begin at the end of November and will last for about a year. In December next year, the textbook should be submitted for approval, and it will appear in Korean schools from March 2017, and history will be a mandatory discipline, subject to the Korean equivalent of the Russian Unified State Exam.

It has also since become known that the National Institute of Korean History (a government organization) received 3.9 million US dollars for writing the textbook.

Two of the six leaders of the group of authors were appointed immediately – Professor Emeritus of Ewha Womans University Shin Hyun-sik and Professor Emeritus of Seoul National University, Choi Mong-ryong. Both are of a highly respectable age (born in 1939 and 1946). What’s more, Shin was the Director of the National Institute of Korean History from 1994 to 2003, and then the Director of the Seoul Institute of the History and adviser to the mayor of Seoul on historical matters. Professor Choi Mong-ryong is an expert on ancient art and had participated in the preparation of history textbooks for universities for 23 years (from 1988 to 2011). He was set to be responsible for the section in the textbook on the history of the ancient world, and Professor Shin Hyun-sik was to produce the materials regarding the history of the Middle Ages. Speaking at a press conference in the Ministry of Education, Director of the National Institute of Korean History, Kim Jeong-bae promised to complete the line-up of the main authors of the standardised textbook by mid-November.

However, only two days after Choi Mong-ryong was appointed as one of the lead authors of the standardised textbook, he voluntarily resigned following charges made against him for allegedly verbally abusing female journalists. According to press reports, Choi Mong-ryong was interviewed by the journalists at his home while drinking together with them. However, during the interview he allegedly committed some acts and said some words which were construed by the journalist as “sexual harassment.” After news of this broke in the South Korean media, he decided to resign voluntarily.

Korean dignitaries also bring up the theme of the textbook in almost every public speech. For example, the Prime Minister of South Korea, Hwan Kyo-ahn, addressed the nation and made it clear that the government had finally made the decision and now intends to put the contents of history textbooks under full state control. Previously the Ministry of Education only checked books that had already been written and made recommendations regarding the correction of some parts, now the state is set to carry out the entire process from preparation of the content to the publication and distribution in schools.

And as stated at the sixth session of the presidential committee for unification preparation, South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, the understanding of historical events and a sense of pride in one’s own country is the first step on the road to reunification, because before the reunification of the nation, it is important to have a sense of pride in one’s country and a correct understanding of its history. Her speech entitled “future generations should be proud of their country by receiving the correct historical education based on real facts” at a Cabinet meeting also had similar content.

What does the term “real facts” actually mean and isn’t the author dramatising the situation? The textbook has not even been compiled yet, and all the talk about its contents is nothing more than speculation. Even though the opposition are actively calling the future textbook “pro-Japanese, dressing up pro-Japanese activities as modernisation, and dictatorship as Korean style democracy”, it will only be possible to judge its content when it is released.

This is partly true, but some conclusions can already be drawn. Firstly, let’s look at the announcement of a number of scientists who, most likely, will be responsible for the preparation of certain sections of the textbook. For example, Professor Kwon Hee-young, who is likely to be the main contributor to the section on modern history, is known for his position regarding North Korea and regarding the Soviet system in general. A good polemicist, he frequently appears in discussions, which are broadcast by South Korean media.

Secondly, Korean dignitaries have clearly and repeatedly indicated what exactly does not suit them in the modern version of history textbooks. In the Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn’s address to the nation, as examples of incorrect interpretations he offered, in particular, the interpretation of the situation surrounding the emergence of the governments in South and North Korea, the question of responsibility for the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953), and the incident of the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in 2010 and some others.

Even President Park Geun-hye outlined a number of problems on October 27, 2015, when speaking in the National Assembly. She stated that “the correction of the abnormal situation that I am striving for is the attempt to correct errors and perverse representations that have become common social practice, and build the country on the right foundation.”

As she announced at the meeting with the representatives of parties on October 22, some textbooks currently taught at school say that South Korea should not have come into existence, and North Korea is a legitimate country. We should not teach children defeatism, meanwhile some passages from the textbooks make them feel ashamed that they were born in the Republic of Korea.

For reference: “some passages” – these are what have become widely known due to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The outcomes of their work were discussed in the previous article.

Furthermore, Park criticized some textbooks, because they did not place sole responsibility for the start of the Korean War with North Korea. In another speech, Park Geun-hye said that the current textbooks inspired the wrong values in children, underestimating the seriousness and consequences of North Korean provocations. They were also said to reduce the significance of labour in the country’s economic development and encourage negative sentiments against large companies.

It seems worth telling more about these and the other “difficult issues of Korean history,” at the very least for the purpose of bringing our readership not only to better understanding of what the fuss is all about, but also to distinguishing the real and serious claims and those that have been simply made up.

Our next series of articles will attempt to cover the following questions:

  • How were DPRK and the ROK created and to what extent was the formation of the DPRK legitimate?
  • Who started the Korean War and to what extent can we talk about the sudden and unprovoked aggression on the part of the DPRK?
  • Can Syngman Rhee be considered the “saviour of the Korean nation” and what was Korea like under his rule?
  • What are “pro Japanese elements”, what is their place in the modern history of Korea and why do the opposition consistently use this phrase as an adjective meaning “guilty”?
  • What is Japan’s actual role in Korean modernisation?
  • What is the crux of the debate surrounding General Park Chung-hee’s place in history?
  • When did the South overtake the North in terms of economic growth and was South Korea a “showcase of democracy” from the outset?
  • ​ Did North Korea really sink the corvette “Cheonan”?

Incidentally, we already can refer curious readers to an article addressing the last question issued two years ago. Unfortunately, from the point of view of concealing the truth, things haven’t budged an inch, so it is no wonder that even five years later Seoul’s official version is not supported, even in secondary school textbooks.

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

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