Hands-on history education is needed
A few days ago, a friend texted me to meet at Jungmyeongjeon in Deoksu Palace, central Seoul. His Japanese-Korean friend wished to visit the historical sites, and he wanted me to come along. Jungmyeongjeon is a Western-style structure built in 1897 that is not within the palace complex but in a small alley behind the walls.
The red brick building is a crucial historic site. At 1 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1905, the Eulsa Restriction Treaty was unlawfully and forcibly signed there. The treaty was drafted on Nov. 17. Self-proclaimed Korean Emperor Gojong and the ministers there were forced to give up diplomatic sovereignty and the Korean Empire became a protectorate of Japan under the general.
Later in 1907, Emperor Gojong sent secret envoys to the Hague Convention to declare the illegitimacy of the treaty. Jungmyeongjeon has historic significance in the fate of the Korean Empire. While it was on the rear side of Deoksu Palace, the Japanese authorities divided and reduced the palatial site and separated it from the complex. It is a symbol of the deprivation of sovereignty in many ways.
However, the site was being managed very poorly. There was only a small sign that was hidden behind the trees, and there was no guide indicating that it was where the shameful treaty was signed. As we looked around Jungmyeongjeon, a group of visitors on a cultural heritage field trip entered.
During the guided tour, they lamented, “I’ve been to this neighborhood for restaurants dozens of times, but I’d never known that Jungmyeongjeon was here and the Eulsa Treaty was forcibly signed here.” Another visitor said, “We’ve been memorizing the dates and events in history class just like some math formula without truly understanding the significance!”
So I searched “Jungmyeongjeon” on the Cultural Heritage Administration’s Web site, which showed a picture of the building painted in white from an unidentifiable date. The picture had an absurd caption, “Detailed inquiries on Jungmyeongjeon should be directed to Deoksu Palace Management Office at (02) 771-9952.”
History education is a controversial topic today. A number of issues ranging from making it a compulsory subject for the college entrance exam to the political orientation of various textbooks are hotly debated. But there is more to history education than teaching textbook facts to middle school and high school students. The original purpose of inspiring Korean identity through in-depth understanding of Korean history seems to have been pushed aside.
A hands-on history education for all citizens can begin by investigating the sites and traces of history around us. Let’s begin by searching for vestiges of history in our neighborhoods.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.