• Bloomberg


A 17-year-old Korean girl tortured to death for opposing Japanese colonial rulers nearly a century ago has become the latest touchstone of the nationalism that is shadowing Asia’s economic rise.

Yu Gwansun became known as Korea’s Joan of Arc after she lost her parents and was imprisoned during a 1919 uprising against Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule.

South Korean Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea wants to know why she doesn’t appear in half of the nation’s newly approved high school history textbooks. He’s considering putting the government in charge of writing history.

Textbooks have become part of the front line in East Asia’s propaganda war as recent administration changes in China, Japan and South Korea see leaders fomenting nationalism to bolster their hold on power. In South Korea’s schools, history books shape the attitude of the next generation not only toward neighboring countries but also of the legacy of former dictator Park Chung-hee, the current president’s father.

“In Asia, textbooks are already nationalistic enough,” Robert Kelly, a professor of political science and international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by email. “The last thing the region needs is officially sanctioned government histories that neighbors will inevitably call propaganda.”

Economic growth has been the catalyst for the increasing war of words in a region where U.S. military dominance is being challenged, said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history at Oxford University in England.

“You have the three biggest economic powers in the world all trying to carve out their own position,” Mitter said by phone. “The economic power of today is merely exacerbating and exaggerating frames which were formed more like 70 years ago.”

Much of the discord stems from Japan’s military expansion in the region in the 1930s and ’40s and accusations of human rights abuses, alongside territorial disputes that arose after its defeat in World War II.

In 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angered Japan’s neighbors when his government approved a textbook that omitted references to sex slaves from the Korean Peninsula and other parts of Asia who were exploited by Japanese soldiers during and before the war.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took power in February last year, says the issue of the “comfort women” prevents a full two-way summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Park says Abe should do more to address the grief of victims. Japan says it already apologized in 1993.

“Japan is moving to have more of the government perspective in textbooks even as it allows private companies to publish them,” Kwon Sung-youn, a South Korean education ministry official handling textbooks, said by phone. “Whether it’s the government or private publishers that make textbooks doesn’t matter as much as what goes in the book.”

In South Korea, the rewriting of history has been influenced by factions in the tumultuous domestic politics of the past century, including 35 years of rule by Japan, the three-year Korean War that cemented the division of the peninsula and a series of dictators in the South who oversaw rapid economic growth and fierce anti-communist campaigns.

“Modern history is extremely contentious in South Korea and almost anything since 1910 is controversial,” Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history at Columbia University, said by email. Some South Korean conservatives think the left-of-center governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008 tilted history textbooks to their side, he said.

Education Minister Hwang said after taking office in August it is “problematic” that Yu is missing in half of eight history textbooks adopted by high schools this year. He said having a single textbook would avert “sowing seeds of division in public opinion.”

Some teachers and historians said Park’s government is using Yu as an excuse to run a textbook that glosses over a 1961 army coup by her father, Park Chung-hee, and his 18 years of dictatorship.

Park Chung-hee banned private companies from publishing history textbooks and ran ones that portrayed his coup as a revolution rather than a mutiny. Publication rights were partly restored to private companies in 1982 under his successor with the government still giving guidelines.

“President Park is trying to reinstate her father historically,” Lee Jun-sik, a professor at the Yonsei University Institute for Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone. “A government textbook would tout the achievements of conservative governments and boost views that conservatives need to extend their power as long as possible.”

Kwon at the education ministry dismissed allegations that a government-led textbook would gloss over the dictatorship era. “Making a history textbook in the modern world is an open process that involves many historians in many phases. It’s impossible that those concerns will actually turn into a reality,” she said, adding her government seeks “consistency” in teaching history.

Finding a consistent history that is acceptable to all nations has never been easy. A European Union attempt to compile “The History of Europe” in 1992, written by historians from 12 nations, was abandoned after disagreements, including a British-Spanish spat over whether Sir Francis Drake was a national hero or a pirate.

China requires that all history textbooks “accord with fundamental policies of the government,” while Japan and South Korea conduct a strict screening process, Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California, wrote in a 2011 book. “It is no coincidence that textbooks have become a nexus for significant international tension in Northeast Asia.”

For Park’s administration, reverting to a government-sanctioned text would remove schools’ ability to choose which version of history they teach.

Park’s government last year approved a book by Kyohak Publishing that contained factual errors, including that South Korea’s per capita income reached $10,000 in 1977 under her father, when it was actually $1,000. The book was also accused of implying that comfort women were prostitutes because they “followed” troops.

“Textbook controversies have been going on since the democratization of the late 1980s, with the battle lines generally between the progressives and the conservatives,” Armstrong said. “It is partly a generational struggle and an attempt to shape the next generation of Koreans in their views.”

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