Textbook tiffs are part of our history
At the center of the debate was a new Korean history textbook published earlier this year by Kyohak Publishing Company. It was criticized by the liberal lawmakers, particularly those from the Democratic Party, for including what they consider to be a multitude of factual errors and rightist biases.
Conservatives lawmakers from the Saenuri Party countered by arguing that seven new textbooks most recently approved by the ministry from other publishers contained factual errors and left-leaning contents.
They pointed out that those textbooks, in particular, failed to illustrate Korea’s economic development.
“Korea’s democratization cannot be explained without the expansion of education under the Syngman Rhee administration and the growth of the middle class by Park Chung Hee’s economic development,” said Ahn Byong-jik, professor emeritus of Seoul National University.
The textbooks also differed in their evaluations of President Rhee. While the book by Kyohak Publishing Company gave positive views on Rhee by calling him “the most respected and trusted leader for Koreans at the time,” and praising his judgments on international affairs, the other seven textbooks highlighted his aggressive ruling style and rampant election-rigging.
The eight textbooks also take different approaches toward North Korea and its nuclear development. While the Kyohak textbook said that the North had conducted nuclear tests and made efforts to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state, while one of Kumsung stated that the North tried to overcome the crisis of its regime through nuclear development. It said the North tried to lower its military spending by acquiring security guarantees through nuclear development while securing energy.
Amid the renewed ideological debate, some experts worried that the conflict was fueled by some media and politicians.
“The leftists and the rightists fought after the liberation,” said Seo Joong-seok, a professor of Korean history at Sungkyunkwan University. “And until the end of 1980s, a strong anti-Communist ideology led by the government predominated. We never had the proper environment to study our modern history. Whether you are a leftist or a rightist, we all have to study more. And in time of historical confusion, we must rely more on the facts. The liberals and the conservatives both need to rely on facts.”
He also said the liberals should criticize what North Korea had done, just like they criticized the policies of former Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee.
But this was not the first time Korea’s history textbooks have stirred up an ideological debate. In 2004, an almost identical battle took place over a history textbook. At the time, conservatives attacked the text, published by Kumsung Publishing Company, as having left-leaning material.
Since a constitutional amendment in 1972 by President Park Chung Hee, Korean history has been subject to government approval, and only facts authorized by the government were recorded in textbooks.
Communists were depicted as “monsters,” and books on socialism were banned.
Modern Korean history quickly became untouchable in academia. The ideological confrontations between the left and the right after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, separation between the two Koreas and the rise of the military regimes were sensitive subjects. In the 1970s, historians avoided studying and lecturing on modern history.
After established scholars turned away from modern history, the subject quickly became the property of left-winged activists.
“Korea’s modern and contemporary history was dominated by the leftists,” said Lee Song-mu, former head of the National Institute of Korean History. “Eventually, no lecture or paper would be accepted unless it contained left-leaning views.”
Since the 2004 debate over the Kumsung Publishing Company’s history textbook, concerns about left-leaning biases have continued, and conservatives eventually struck back, with right-leaning scholars re-evaluating the facts behind the Republic of Korea, the 1950-53 Korean War and the administrations of past presidents, particularly those of Syngman Rhee and Park.
In 2006, a group of 28 scholars even published “Re-understanding Contemporary Korean History after Liberation” to counter the “Understanding Contemporary Korean History after Liberation,” a well-known text published by a group of liberal historians in 1979.
In the Kumsung textbook, anti-Communist initiatives of the Rhee government were described as a “tool to oppress rightful criticisms toward the misgovernment and demands for democratic rights.”
Professor Ahn of Seoul National University lamented that the latest controversy has nothing to do with academic debates.
“For the past 20 years, almost all the theses for the master’s and doctoral degrees for Korean history were about the history of movement,” he said. “You rarely see theses on socio-economic history or political history. They contain left-leaning views based on resistant nationalism.”
He added there is nothing wrong about having a leftist or a rightist view on Korea’s history.
“It is a matter of choice. Today, I believe the modern history of Korea can be written correctly based on globalism and liberalism,” he said. “We need an academic debate to end this, but we never had such an opportunity until now.”
Other experts worry that the debate over the history textbooks has been too politicized.
“It is excessively politicized because it is directly linked to the people who [currently hold] political power,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University. “Often, they are not specialists, but they use the debate on the history textbook in order to win power and presidency.”
“We need consistent debates in academia first. We have to have our discussions there,” he said. “It should work as the initial filter, and we need to find a compromise there.”
Kim Gi-bong, a professor of history at Kyonggi University, said a controversy surrounding modern history is natural.
“There is no reason to fear,” he said. “It is a step we must go through to reach a national consensus.”
However, he said a war on history, not a debate, will bring about problems.
“Politicizing history by using it as a weapon to win today’s power is undesirable,” he said. “It always comes with serious aftermath.”
The Ministry of Education announced yesterday that it has recommended publishers of all eight government-approved Korean history textbooks to revise hundreds of factual errors and imbalanced descriptions they were found to contain.
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