[OUTLOOK]Separating history from fiction

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[OUTLOOK]Separating history from fiction

Last year, one of my friends told me about a conversation with his son.
The son, who was a high school student, asked him over breakfast if the Korean War began with a South Korean invasion of the North. The son presented quite logical arguments to back this theory and even mentioned Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago. This breakfast, of course, turned into a debate even though they both had to hurry to go to school and the office.
My friend explained to his son that Mr. Cumings presented three theories in his book, “The Origins of the Korean War.” The first was that South Korea invaded North Korea. Second, North Korea invaded the South. The third theory was that South Korea induced North Korea to invade southward. The author explained the different types of origins while weighing the last theory. But later confidential documents from the Soviet Union were publicized, and it became clear that North Korea invaded the South, my friend concluded.
His son then picked up his bag and left home, saying, “Well, I think that is true, but if I say it, I get bullied at school.”
Why do children get bullied if they support the facts that have been validated? Does this mean that all students believe that South Korea invaded North Korea? Where did they learn that? Questions came into my head one after another, but I doubted that the situation here could be that bad.
Not long ago, however, I was reminded of the worried look on my friend’s face when I heard the controversial news about a textbook used at a seminar by a branch of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union.
It is said that the textbook called the Korean War a “war of national liberation,” exactly the same as the North Korean historical view. The union said the material was used only for debates, but that excuse was not enough to persuade the public.
Of course, there are only a few teachers in the union who teach with the textbook. I have never met any of the union members who have a revisionist view. But we cannot be sure that the theory of an invasion of the North is not taught in a few classrooms. Parents feel worried. How can they avoid having their children, who know the truth, treated as if they were zombies manipulated by the indoctrination of the former military regimes here?
These parents may feel relieved about the present history education curriculum. In junior high school, national history is part of social studies. In high school, national history is mandatory only for freshmen. For juniors, Korean modern history is optional.
Some people say this is the same as in the United States. But a country with a history of less than 300 years and a country with a history of 5,000 years cannot have the same history education system. In fact, there are many historical materials outside the classroom. Prehistoric stories abound in daily life, not only in controversial modern history.
Period movies are breaking records for ticket sales every few months. “Silmido,” “Taegukgi” and “King and the Clown” are good examples of this.
Many popular TV series also deal with historical figures such as General Wang Kon, the founder of Goryeo; Yi Sun-shin, a Korean naval leader during the Joseon Dynasty, and Jumong, the founder of Goguryeo.
As much as historical stories abound, interpretation also varies a great deal. Historical facts are decorated with fiction. The problem is that the combination of fiction and nonfiction follows the market economy. “Docu-dramas” are made depending on what the public wants; the public chooses and consumes history that suits its taste.
Entertainment involving history necessarily contains strong nationalism. This is for marketing. Historical facts are easily distorted for dramatic effect. Shameful parts are erased and heroes are blown out of proportion.
Commercialized history is as dangerous as the theory of a South Korean invasion of the North, as teenagers are exposed to and learn more about history through movies or TV series than in classrooms. Can we leave history education afloat like this, inside and outside school, particularly when South Korea has serious battles over history with China and Japan?
The Jews have never dramatized or distorted their history, although they have gone through all types of hardship. They never forget their history of hardship and shame. That is why the Jews finally founded their country and have kept it, after wandering around the world for thousands of years. That’s unlike many other nations that have disappeared from earth. South Koreans now need to have the Jews’ historical perspective.

* The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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