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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.

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