[OUTLOOK]History as a matter of ‘feeling’In June, South Korean elementary school students climbed up Mount Baekdu. At the first such event since the division of Korea, television reporters, with their cameras focusing on a student, asked, “How do you feel about Mount Baekdu?”
“It is disappointing,” he said. It may have been a frank answer as he saw it, on the mountaintop covered with piles of stones in disarray.
I wished the student had been less “frank.” That is to say, I wished he had answered “as was taught at school” that Mount Baekdu was a place where our legendary forefather Dangun founded the counry and our Goguryeo ancestors displayed the spirit of Korean people. Anyway, they were not taught properly, or if they were taught, the students were not taught enough to feel.
Some people get goose bumps to hear the word “country” or “nation,” and others fume that, unlike education in subjects that will make students global citizens, such as English, national history education is anachronistic. This is the trend of society rather than a certain individual’s propensity. We must remain silent, then, even if China steals away Goguryeo history.
The height of Mount Baekdu in my memory is 2,744 meters. But its height recorded at the milestone of Janggun Peak on the summit of Mount Baekdu was 2,750 meters. “The World’s Encyclopedia” by Dong-a Publishing Co. takes the former figure while “the Visitor’s Guide to North Korea” by the Ministry of Unification takes the latter. The correction of this error is no problem, but there are other problems whose correction is hard to arrange.
A few years ago, I climbed up Mount Baekdu from China. According to the argument of the Chinese, three quarters of the Cheonji, the crater lake on Mount Baekdu which connects directly from Biryu Peak on the northeast to Macheonwu on the southwest, was Chinese territory. But according to the explanation of a North Korean guide I heard this time, two thirds of Cheonji was Korean territory. No geologist can draw a border that satisfies three quarters and two thirds at the same time.
Mount Baekdu National Boundary Monument was troublesome from the beginning when it was erected in 1712. Before representatives from the Joseon Dynasty reached the mountaintop, representatives from the Qing Dynasty unilaterally set up the monument at 2,200 meters above sea level, a point 4 kilometers southeast from Byeongsa Peak, today’s Janggun Peak. Mount Baekdu and Cheonji were completely theirs.
But Mao Zedong did not cling to the epitaph. As a reward to Koreans who dedicated themselves to fighting against Japanese rule, he allowed them to establish the Yan Bian ethnic Korean autonomous district, where they must use the Korean language and hangul, the Korean alphabet, prior to the Chinese language and Chinese characters. Zhou Enlai also apologized on behalf of his ancestors, talking about the Chinese history that persecuted the Joseon Dynasty.
In socialist China, there were still these good causes, but now the age and leaders have changed. The so-called “conquest of the Northeast” is a deviation from and betrayal of the “conquest of history” carved out by the first-generation leaders of the revolution. We should have guarded against the ambition of Sino-centrism which was to be revealed as China joined the world market, but we cheered at its clearing of socialism alone. In this context, the compilation plan of the “East Asia history textbook” is noteworthy. Bu Ping, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, announced in adva-nce that an auxiliary history textbook, written jointly by about 30 teachers and historians from Korea, China and Japan, would be published in the three countries simultaneously in May next year.
Coincidentally, there is a precedent, which is the “History of Europe” edited in 1992 by Frederic Delouche. Mr. Delouche, an English and French scholar, representing 12 writers from 12 countries, recalled his trouble in editing the book, “I used to be treated suspiciously by my colleagues, both British and French scholars, because I did not belong to either of the two completely. Which country should I have sided with in recording the Hundred Years’ War . . . or Napoleon’s war?” And then, he quoted a writer as saying, “However almighty, God cannot change the past. So he created historians.”
History is, above all, a matter of “feeling.” It is useless to see only piles of stones on Mount Baekdu or to memorize by rote only about the forefather Dangun in history class. History should be felt.
The Battle of Waterloo is a record of glory to British historians but a shameful memory to French historians. If its intrinsic limitations are unavoidable, there is a way to make the dispute over past history “useless.” As a Yugoslavian proverb goes, “What is absolutely certain is the future alone, because the past constantly changes.” If the future is useful, people will not keep digging out the past.
* The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily Staff.
by Joseph W. Chung