[GLOBAL EYE]Historical slants and errorsHistory is said to be a mirror that reflects human beings. For this reason, it is said, many history books such as Jachitonggam, meaning “Mirror on Self-Governing Principles,” and Donggukbyeong-gam, meaning “Mirror on Wars in Eastern Countries,” use the word “mirror” in the title. History, a mirror of human life, should not refract or distort the past for present social purposes but reflect “the past as it was.”
Of course, historians see history from a viewpoint, a historical view. They may describe history from the viewpoint of the victor with its focus on the ruling forces, or may describe it from the stance of the oppressed masses as a process of winning freedom and democracy. But from whatever viewpoint, they should not damage historical truth. This is like a portrait that can be drawn from any particular perspective but whose essential elements of an object should not be damaged.
The recent controversy over a “slanted history textbook” is a shock in that it is a symbolic incident that conveys the general atmosphere of the present teaching community, even if it is unrelated to the “participatory” administration. It is fine to balance “a tendency to become pro-American flunkys.” The problem is that one goes beyond balancing and drives to the other extreme. This reminds us of the “anti-Korean historical view” that denies the prosperity of the Republic of Korea from the standpoint of leftist nationalism. This view is based on the beliefs that the United States and South Korea were responsible for the Korean division, that the United States and South Korea started the Korean war and that the legitimacy of the nation lies in North Korea. This is more so, given the louder voice for rewriting contemporary history based on these beliefs and the reality where not a few middle and high school students say that South Korea invaded North Korea in the Korean War.
A senior historian and professor, Cha Ha-soon, summarized in three categories the danger of a historical view that puts emphasis on the demands of the times. First, remaking history into ideology makes history an advertising tool or political tool of the ruling forces. Second, facts are chosen or discarded according to a particular historical view and distorted arbitrarily. Third, history is rewritten and corrected according to the demands of the times so that its reliability is destroyed. Rather than setting history straight, those tactics kill history.
We are free to interpret our modern history from the viewpoint of the grass roots. But it is hard to see North Korea’s yesterday and today as a history of the masses in their own independent actions. Historical development is not linear but complex, and it is the result of interactions of many factors. If ideology is given priority, the understanding of history becomes simple and superficial.
The Bruce Cumings-style intrinsic approach blindly accepts North Korea’s material, overly emphasizes the period before our liberation, and turns a blind eye to the North’s failures. This approach can easily side with the North Korean regime and rearrange historical facts in a particular direction.
The prosperity of the Republic of Korea is categorized and treated as an “exception” by U. S. liberal historians, together with that of Singapore and Taiwan. The anti-Korean historical view that completely denies the past as the “mistaken history of national traitors” is self-torment. A nation’s history is not isolated and separated but coexists as an organic part of world history. The duty of history education is to broaden students’ scope of understanding by connecting our history to world history from the international perspective. History is, ultimately, understanding human beings.
The historian Lee Ki-baek, who devoted his life to studying Korean history and passed away on Oct. 6, said in his last writings, “Today, there is a tendency to put the utmost value on a nation. But a nation is not the highest entity. The same is true with the masses. Supremacy is in the truth. If they violate the truth, a nation or the masses can never avoid destruction” (Vol. 35, Citizen Lectures on Korean History). Those who deal with the nation and the masses “for a living” should think deeply about his advice.
* The writer is the editor in chief of the monthly publication NEXT.
by Byun Sang-keun