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History Wars. Korean Style. November 19, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in History, Korea.

Professor Ciarán Brady of TCD likes to joke, paraphrasing Henry Kissinger, that the arguments over Irish history have been so vehement because the stakes are so low. However, the writing of history can have serious implications. It has the potential to cause diplomatic rows, perhaps the best known example being the arguments between Japan on the one hand and China and the two Koreas on the other caused by Japanese school history books that fail to take account of the brutality of Japanese imperialism. The interpretation of history can also become the focus of bitter dispute within countries, as France has demonstrated over the past few decades, most spectacularly with the bicentenary of the French Revolution and more recently over a law passed by the National Assembly that demanded that the positive aspects of French imperialism be taught. Israel has also provided a good example, where the work of Benny Morris (who it seems has Irish roots) arguing that the creation of the state of Israel was facilitated partly by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs has caused outrage and major rows. We at Cedar Lounge Revolution have discussed before The Fight for Irish History, and just recently had an, ahem, lively debate on the hardly pressing topic of Soviet foreign policy in the years before World War II (perhaps proving Brady and Kissinger’s point?).

During the course of the latter debate Korea was brought up. I was pleased therefore to come across this story from the International Herald Tribune on an argument that is raging in south Korea over a high school textbook. The book has offended conservatives by arguing that the end of World War II brought not independence but a peninsula that remained under the domination of foreign powers, the USSR and the USA.

“It was not our national flag that was hoisted to replace the Japanese flag,” reads the textbook published by Kumsung Publishing. “The flag that flew in its place was the American Stars and Stripes. Our liberation through the Allied forces’ victory prevented us from building a new country according to our own wishes.”

The conservative government has become involved in the row.

On Oct. 30, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of the Kumsung book and five other textbooks currently used in high schools delete or revise 55 sections in their texts that it said “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.”
“A textbook of modern history should be written in a way that does not hurt our national pride,” it said.

Such sentiments will be familiar to anyone who reads the Aubane Historical Society’s criticisms of people like Roy Foster. As will the response of those who favour opening up the past to more critical scrutiny.

The authors rejected the interference, saying their critics were trying to “beautify” the country’s problematic history, overlooking Korean collaboration with the Japanese occupiers and postwar dictatorships. The liberal opposition in Parliament said the government’s attempt to censor the textbooks raised the specter of those dictatorships, which once controlled everything from what books South Koreans could read to the proper length of women’s skirts.
“National pride? Patriotism? They should be based on historical facts,” said Hong Soon Kwon, a history professor and co-author of the Kumsung textbook.

The textbook under fire is one of six that replaced the single textbook that was used in south Korean schools until 2003. This is not just an academic squabble, but is about the relationship that south Koreans have with their past, with the dictators who ruled the country in the past, and about how they view the nature of the relationship between Seoul and Washington. One critic has labelled the books “patricidal history” and accused them of suggesting that south Korea should never have come into being. The article gives some quotes from the books as they stand, and suggested changes.

One popular textbook, published by the Institute for Better Education, says that Rhee, revered as the nation-builder by the conservatives but detested by liberals as someone who ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the name of anti-Communism, exploited the North Korean threat to “shore up his dictatorial regime.”
The Ministry of National Defense has demanded that this be rewritten to read: “He did his best to contain Communism.”
According to the Kumsung textbook, Park Chung Hee – who seized power in a coup in 1961 and tortured political dissidents while mobilizing the nation for export-driven economic growth – was “a president who placed himself above the nation’s Constitution.”
The Defense Ministry wants this to be replaced with: “a president who contributed to the nation’s modernization.”
As for the “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea espoused by former President Kim Dae Jung, whose inauguration in 1998 ousted the conservative establishment and brought many former dissidents into positions of power, the Ministry of National Unification now suggests that this term be replaced in textbooks with the official if drier “policy of reconciliation and cooperation.”

The article offers explanation for the shift in historical emphasis. It stresses the prevalence of teachers with no experience of the Korean War and whose formative years were under the various dictatorships, which they blame the Americans for allowing to thrive.

They came of age amid other formative experiences: Many were students during campus protests against Chun Doo Hwan, who took power after the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and who, in 1980, deployed troops to kill hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Gwangju.
When the United States, which technically had command of the combined U.S.-South Korean forces, did not prevent Chun’s junta from unleashing troops against its own people, students turned against Washington. If the division of the peninsula engendered a mistrust of big powers, Gwangju helped shape views of the United States, historians say.
That resentment persists and surfaced in the huge demonstrations against American beef imports this year.

In a situation with parallels in Europe and Nazi collaborators, conservatives are angry at historians digging up nasty aspects of the past. They seek to justify – or at the least contextualise – the choices made by those involved in the dictatorships.

Conservatives seethed with anger as the Kim and Roh administrations delved into long-hidden aspects of the recent past – collaboration with Japanese colonialists (Park Chung Hee was a Japanese Imperial Army officer), mass killings of civilians during the Korean War and the abuse of political dissidents.
They argued that these liberals ignored the difficult choices faced by earlier South Korean leaders.
“In the turbulent era we lived through, no one could be completely innocent, no one could live by law alone,” Cho Gap Je, 63, a conservative columnist, said to the cheers of elderly South Koreans who gathered recently to denounce liberal teachers. “When necessary, we shed blood, sweat and tears, so that our children no longer have to shed tears.”

More worringly, the Ministry for Defence in July banned soldiers from reading 23 books that it said were a threat to the security of the state because they are

“pro-North Korea, anti-government, anti-American and anti-capitalism” works, including two by the American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky.

Even if we concede for the sake of argument that there might be grounds for banning books that support a country with which the state is technically still at war, banning books that are critical of another country and of an economic system seems to go far beyond national security. Which helps explain why seven of the military’s own lawyers are challenging the ban in the Constitutional Court. Chomsky’s response? “Perhaps, for the sake of honesty, it should be renamed: ‘Ministry of Defense against Freedom and Democracy”.

This whole debate serves to remind us of the importance of revising and revising again our history, and facing up to the unpleasant aspects of it. Part of the reason for the discontent that burst out in 1968 was that much of western Europe had never seen a proper settling of accounts with the Nazi years, and in our own emerald isle, we could do worse than understand the role of sectarianism and authoritarian tendencies in the creation and bedding in of the southern state. Starting perhaps with an acknowledgement that support for the Nazis was not confined to the Blueshirts and elements of the IRA, but was widespread throughout southern society, just like in most European countries.


1. P Moynihan - November 19, 2008

South Korea’s got Seoul


2. WorldbyStorm - November 19, 2008

Seems to me though that the dynamic apparent is typical of states emerging from colonial or dictatorial rule or trying to come to terms with same. That said, precisely the same problem arises for North Korea as regards their relationship with the USSR and one wonders if there has been any effort in that society to come to terms with that, or has the possibility of same even been available.

And there is a further issue which is that the nature of NK provided a perfect excuse (and in some respects a reason by some lights) for the distortion of the SK polity until the relatively recent past (as well as the nature of the prosecution of the war on the peninsula which saw urban centres in both states devastated by the conflict).


3. Eamonn - November 19, 2008

I second what WBS says and I’d be interested to know how the struggle over the content of school books is going in the DPRK

Furthermore, the anti-imp argument about the US role in the Kwangju massacre always confuses me a bit.
A US general commands the joint ROK-Us forces for certain purposes, right?
That’s bad, right?
Right. The US has no business having troops in the ROK right?
Right, their presence in the ROK constitute a gross violation of ROK sovereignty, is an insult to the dignity of the Korean people etc.
But they should have stepped in to restrain the ROK military from carrying out the Kwangju massacre?
Of course!
But wouldn’t that have that been a gross interference with the ROK’s internal affairs, a violation of age-old cultural patterns for settling disputes, an imposition “our” values on people who don’t share them, been an attempt to force democratic values on a country that just wasn’t ready for it etc etc


4. Garibaldy - November 19, 2008

I did note that the textbooks makes the argument about domination by two foreign powers, but that was the last mention of the USSR in the report, so I’ve no idea as to whether the textbook continues to discuss that or not. I suspect though that it is a history of south Korea only as the history of the DPRK is not discussed in the report. I never even tried to look it up on the net due to my unsurprising inability to speak Korean. AFAIK, from stuff I have read in the press, the history taught in the DPRK stresses the Korean contribution to the removal of the Japanese, and the Korean War.


I take the argument over that massacre to be that seeing as the US is there and already interfering and had been propping up dictatorships for decades, it was in a position to prevent the massacre and didn’t do so.


5. Eagle - November 19, 2008

Starting perhaps with an acknowledgement that support for the Nazis was not confined to the Blueshirts and elements of the IRA, but was widespread throughout southern society, just like in most European countries.

Well, now. I railed against the fact that one of Ireland’s best known school book publishers was, apparently, a Nazi collaborator during the war.

That this was allowed is nearly unbelievable to me and I still get annoyed when my kids come home with a Folens history book, even if Albert Folens is now dead. He was the driving force behind that company and the ethos he created there still exists. No school should use a Folens history book.


6. Jim Monaghan - November 19, 2008

“Starting perhaps with an acknowledgement that support for the Nazis was not confined to the Blueshirts and elements of the IRA, but was widespread throughout southern society, just like in most European countries.”

This is absolute nonsense. The vast majority of Irish People had not got a clue about the Nazis. My mother for instance did not trust British sources on the Nazis knowing their ability to lie. AFAIR the British anyway made a decision not to stress the Holacaust anyway as they figured anti semitism was so rife it would not help.When the USA entered the war she decided the Germans were the baddies.
Even the blue shirts saw the European struggle through a prism of local animosities..
In “Wartime”, Dlijas recounts how when a clan in Montenegro joined the partisans (after Italian reprisals from an ambush staged in their territory) the other clan down the road collaborated.
“Settling of accounts”. some of this was proper, some a little dodgy. In many countries and areas the collaborator tag was a useful way of getting rid of local opposition.As regards ideological hangovers form the at era, I would sate that the colonial legacy has never been cleared up.
On North Korea. I think the lot of us would probably be in a prison camp if we were there. My son was in South Korea, from what he tells me they still have a hatred and fear of Japan. Korea is a little bit the Ireland to Japans Britain, if you like analogies.
Warts and all the struggle for Irish Independence was a good thing and opened up the way to getting other democratic rights.


7. Garibaldy - November 19, 2008


The reason for my mentioning the authoritarianism and especially attitudes to the Nazis was the fact that this tends to get discussed only in terms of the IRA’s attitude (we’ve even had RTÉ airing programmes arguing the Blueshirts weren’t really fascists), missing out the pro-Nazi attitudes among people in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Catholic church, the free state army and elsewhere. I am talking about before the war as much as or more than during it, when information about what was going on in Germany was much more freely available.

Of course I agree the struggle for independence was a good thing. But the state that emerged afterwards was a far cry from what ought to have been. The history of that period, say 1913-1933 for the sake of argument, gets used for present politics in a way that ignores the reality of events and attitudes at the time. And it makes me cross.


8. Jim Monaghan - November 19, 2008

The Hidden History of the Korean War 1950-1951, I.F. Stone, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, © 1952, ISBN 0-316-81770-8

Recommend the above on the Korean war.Probably been superceeded by other scholarship by now, but a good start.
Taking Garibaldys point. I am worried that people and peoples are balmed for things they are not really responsible for. The vast majority of people had no idea of how awful the Nazis were. I would have no time for the apologists who should have known (the church must have known). Mind you on the so-called other side the apologists covered up for the cause. Eg Both Larkins knew about the paranoid repressions.Many knew of say the ANCs repression of its own members in exile in Tanzania and were members of Madame Mandelas fan club. (remember the mother of the nation muck about that terrible person.). Being opposed to the American war does not make me like the Taliban or Hussein and it nauseates me seeing the Taliban referred to as the Resistance. In Afghanistan there is just a carnival of reaction.
On Korea I have and read a thick volume on the history of the CP by 2 American academics. It appears that Kim senior (dead and still leader) was imposed on the local party with an invented war record.
On history generally as well as much else there is a need for critical though to be taught. I remember an ol 68er saying how his apolitical class responded to his call for a debate with the cry “just give us the facts and enough to pass the exam”.
The system here and maybe everywhere else trains people to serve up what the teacher/examiner will like.Some do it more subtly than others.
Heed Cromwells dictum about including the warts and all.


9. Garibaldy - November 19, 2008

Thanks for the recommendation Jim. Not with reference to the Nazis in particular, but generally I am sceptical about arguments that the ordinary people couldn’t or didn’t understand what was going on. I think that people are more aware than many historians wish to give them credit for, for their own reasons. A good example of this has been the turn about in our understanding of 1798. 20 years ago, it could be described as a rural riot on a grand scale, but now we see that it was the product of intense politicisation among the people. Unionist visions of NI as a peaceful idyll before 1969 also strike me as ringing very hollow.

I agree with you on rejecting the idea that opposing one thing means supporting another. Which I guess was sort of what I was trying to say in my response to Eamonn above.

The teaching of critical thought is a difficult area. I think we need less exam driven education in primary and secondary schools, though I don’t think we can blame students for wanting to maximise their success and life chances.


10. Eamonn - November 19, 2008

That it should have attempted to, I agree. There’s no way of knowing whether it would have been able to-


11. Garibaldy - November 19, 2008

Agreed on that Eamonn.


12. Omar Little - November 20, 2008

I think Garibaldy has a point re the nazis. That Germany was a dictatatorship that locked up political opponents of Hitler and had racial laws that persecuted Jews was not a secret in Ireland. It was well covered in all the press before 1939. People didn’t know about the death camps until 1945 but thats a different argument. Kristalnacht wasn’t kept secret. What you find in the discourse in Ireland during the 1930s is widespread admiration for the Germans as nationalists, re-building their country, standing up to the British and to the Communists, and also fairly open anti-semitism. There was a genuine view as well that nobody was as bad as the British and in 1943 according to Joe Lee the Irish Press argued that there was NO oppression in Europe that the Catholics in Northern Ireland were not also suffering.
So the ‘we just didn’t know’ argument is a bit more complex.


13. eamonnmcdonagh - November 22, 2008

“Starting perhaps with an acknowledgement that support for the Nazis was not confined to the Blueshirts and elements of the IRA, but was widespread throughout southern society, just like in most European countries.”

I think he has a point oo but over eggs it a bit by the use of the word “support”. What there was in conquered western Europe was indifference, at best, to the fate of the Jews and the desire to keep one’s head down and not get into trouble. It’s a big step from there to saying that Naziism had widespread support. As similar situation would proably have prevailed in Ireland, had wee been occupied


14. Garibaldy - November 22, 2008

Perhaps sympathetic to might be more accurate. Then again, there were significant portions of the right in most European countries that had been pleased to see the rise of fascism, particularly given the paranoia over Communism. The numbers of foreigners who joined the foreign SS units and the like should be recalled, as well as the number of collaborators.


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