South Korea recently announced plans for a revisionist textbook that will whitewash that country’s history and has the academic community outraged over political meddling. At least the move gives South Korean President Park Geun-hye something in common with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Park has often admonished Abe to embrace a “correct view” of history, but it was never clear what that entailed. As of 2017, however, South Korean schools will ditch privately published textbooks and replace them with a single state-produced tome conveniently titled “The Correct Textbook of History.” So Abe will now know where to look.
Park clearly rejects “Abenesia,” which downplays the suffering and indignities Japanese colonial authorities inflicted on her nation between 1910 and 1945. This year, Japan’s education ministry began imposing strict “Big Brother” guidelines that require textbook publishers to conform to the government’s views on historical and territorial controversies, alienating East Asian neighbors. But following Japan down this Orwellian road relinquishes any advantage South Korea might have enjoyed from Abe’s promotion of patriotic education.
In addition, South Korean scholars are up in arms about the move, criticizing the government’s intrusion and efforts to impose a conservative narrative that downplays the miseries inflicted by a series of postwar military dictators — including President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee.
The elder Park ruled from 1961 to 1979 and is often credited with launching South Korea’s economic miracle, but widespread political repression and human rights abuses tarnish his record. Since assuming office in 2013, his daughter has been criticized for promoting a rosy version of her father’s despotic rule, one that provokes his victims as well as prodemocracy activists who decry this recidivist rewriting of the praetorian past.
The South Korean government claims that the country’s existing crop of textbooks reflect Marxist views and are overly positive toward North Korea.
University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden, who authored “Japan’s Colonization of Korea,” says that upon hearing about the South Korean situation she immediately thought of Texas.
“Teachers there teach American history with the state’s single approved book, which recently made clear the Texas state school board’s own archaic and racist ideas,” Dudden says. “Among other things, children there are currently required to read that African-American slavery was a ‘sidebar’ to the United States’ Civil War.”
The text also focuses on the “positive” aspects of slavery. The saying goes that “everything is bigger in Texas” so it’s no surprise that when they mess up on history, it would be a doozy.
Back in South Korea, more than 500,000 people — including teachers and students — have signed petitions opposing the state textbook, and professors from more than 20 universities and over 800 members of the Korean History Research Association are boycotting Park’s textbook initiative. Protests have erupted in Seoul against the plan and more than 400 civic groups and a parliamentary coalition have voiced their opposition. The president is increasingly isolated and has managed to unite the public against her quest to distort history. Abe must be enjoying the irony.
In addition, 203 overseas scholars in Korean studies based in North America, Europe, Australia and Israel have signed a letter in support of their colleagues in South Korea, calling on the government to reverse its decision.
“The state mandating the use of a single government-issued history textbook violates the principle that a diversity of views is essential to democracy,” the letter reads. “Nationalizing history textbooks denies academic freedom.”
Moreover, a Big Brothering of history “will weaken Korea’s moral standing in the dispute over the Japanese government’s historical revisionism.”
But who will write the new textbook if professional historians are boycotting the project? I doubt the shortlist includes Sonfa Oh, a professor at Takushoku University who this year published “Getting Over It! Why Korea Needs to Stop Bashing Japan.” This book fills the niche for an asinine polemic written by an ethnic Korean that places all blame regarding bilateral problems on Seoul while relentlessly bashing Koreans.
Oh is the darling of the Japanese right, the kind of Korean they can use in the history wars with Seoul because she is an apologist for Japanese colonial rule. She blames Koreans for getting testy about the nasty aspects of subjugation and believes they are insufficiently grateful for all Tokyo bequeathed.
The writer praises Park Chung-hee for his iron-fisted rule but laments that he kept his pro-Japanese views to himself. She also slams the elder Park for stoking anti-Japanese sentiment through school textbooks and promoting a misleadingly negative narrative of Japanese colonial rule. However, Oh has overcome the “brainwashing” of her school days and is now a naturalized Japanese citizen ready to tell Japanese readers what they want to hear about Korean perfidy.
“Despite claims of ‘objectivity’ and offering a ‘balanced’ narrative, the title of the textbook, ‘The Correct Textbook of History,’ seems more like something distributed during the Cold War,” says Theodore Jun Yoo, an associate professor of Korean language and literature at Yonsei University. “Rather than acknowledging the dark, ugly underbelly of rapid industrialization or atrocities committed during the bloody civil war, the state has engaged in polemics blaming the majority of Korean historians as being left-leaning and sympathetic to the North.”
Jun believes this kind of whitewashing of history is no different from what Abe does when he downplays war atrocities.
“In my personal opinion, if both Japan and South Korea continue to go down this misguided, anachronistic path, it certainly will create an obstacle to peace in the region and we’ve all learned through history how dangerous this kind of ultranationalism can be.”
Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago professor specializing in Korean history, told the Korean Herald that a major concern is that governments do not know how to do history.
“Imagine Donald Trump deciding what should be in a history textbook — it would end up as a comic book,” he said.
Dudden observes that it’s a good time for Koreans to show the vitality of their sense of civic responsibility.
“Many already are,” she says, “by attempting to make clear that diverse and even contradictory views about history can best foster the social flexibility and creativity needed to deal with present realities and consider better futures, which is the whole point of learning from history in the first place.”
However, Jun is not optimistic that the decision can be reversed.
“Unfortunately, there is little that can be done now to prevent the publication of this textbook,” he says, “given that the ruling Saenuri Party’s control of the National Assembly will override any attempts by the opposition groups to challenge this mandate.”
Many Koreans are hoping otherwise.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.