[Outlook]History lessons

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[Outlook]History lessons

As the participatory administration’s term is to end soon, a question keeps coming into my head ― what is history?
One of the tasks of utmost importance for President Roh Moo-hyun was to clear up suspicious events in history, which shows that history was at the center of the Roh administration’s policy.
There are countless commissions devoted to the task, such as the commission to restore the honor of those who took part in the Donghak Revolution, the commission to declare acts of pro-Japanese treason, the commission to inspect the assets of pro-Japanese figures during the Japanese occupation, the committee for truth and reconciliation, the commission to find the truth about the April 3, 1948 Jeju uprising, the commission to shed light on suspicious deaths during military rule and the commission to provide compensation to those who carried out special duties.
The participatory government’s commissions to clarify suspicious events in history covered everything since the late 19th century, including the Japanese occupation and the period after our country won its independence.
The administration said that by clearing suspicious events in history, the conflicts and divisions stem-ming from the events can be overcome.
By revealing the truth, we learn a precious lesson ― not to make the same mistakes twice, the administration says.
Despite this argument, the task has stoked the fires for another type of civil war. The commissions widened the fissures in our society, instead of narrowing the gaps in our perception of history.
The administration practiced moral politics, clearly dividing people into friends and enemies, good and evil.
With this understanding of history, the government took the same values into its foreign policy and divided foreign countries into friends and enemies according to whether they do good for or harm Korean reunification.
What is history?
We can see what people living in the present want for the future by looking at how the lives of people in the past are remembered now.
Thus, history is not the same old song but a key to resolving problems in our society and a lighthouse that casts light on the future.
The participatory government’s goal of clearing up suspicious events from the past shows what can happen when leaders or political groups have a mistaken understanding of events from history.
The new administration must learn a lesson ― academia should not be subordinated to politics.
The participatory government’s logic for clearing up suspicious historic events is based on the argument by a faction of Korean historians who dream of reunification of South and North Koreans and a country that is led by the people.
The administration mobilized scholars, who should distance themselves from the powerful, as civil workers on many of the commissions, and those scholars mobilized by the powerful abandoned their integrity and worked to please the government.
Their nationalist interpretation of history served powerful politicians and justified their politics, which focus on the past. But a country must not mythologize historic events or must not think its view of history is the only one.
Koreans living in our civil society are not a stupid mass that needs to be enlightened.
They act according to their will and in accordance with their conscience and convictions.
The age of ideologies has ended and the world is moving forward to an era of creative integration, such as the Third Way or neo-moderates.
So, the Korean administration’s interpretation of history is a product of old times, when ideologies dominated everything and leaders wrote history on their own for the purpose of justifying their utopia.
The dream of the masses becoming the masters of society is clearly old-fashioned, especially when compared to the ideas of neo-leftists after the Cold War, who no longer believe socialism is an inevitable phase in the development of history.
These days, people with different goals and understandings live together in the same society just like people with different shades of skin and different cultures live together.
At a time when our society has evolved into one of multiple ethnic groups and multiple cultures, nationalism might easily be used as a tool for discrimination against people who are living with us but have slightly different ideas.
The Lee Myung-bak administration must remember an old saying, namely, that China’s ancient Yin Dynasty is reflected in the mirror of the Xia Dynasty, which came before it.

*The writer is a professor of Korean history at Kyung Hee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Huh Dong-hyun

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