A blueprint for Northeast AsiaPresident Park Geun-hye’s suggestion for a joint history textbook among Northeast Asian countries, made during a conference hosted by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, has drawn great interest at home and abroad. “Countries of Northeast Asia must first share a common perception on the region’s future if they want to work for regional peace and cooperation,” she said. “Just as Germany has done with France and Poland, Northeast Asian countries should build a practice of cooperation and dialogue by publishing a joint history textbook.”
Through collaborating on a textbook project, Northeast Asian countries could come to an objective agreement about historical facts, not distorted by political interests and prejudices, and pursue a reciprocal path for the future. Through dialogue and discussions about history, the president believes long-standing regional stalemates could be solved, and she hopes Korea can take the initiative in shaping that better future.
Many wonder how the region’s historical conflicts - long diplomatic stumbling blocks in the region - can be ironed out enough to make a joint textbook. Japan’s postwar status in Northeast Asia cannot be compared to Germany’s in Europe. It is not even clear what countries constitute the Northeast Asia region or what would comprise their common regional identity. International conditions simply may not be ripe to write a joint textbook for the region. It is also questionable whether South Korea, China and Japan can produce government-authorized textbooks appropriate for classrooms that can meet the curricula and education criteria as well as the needs of the respective countries.
The collaboration on history textbooks between Germany and France took 50 years, while Germany and Poland needed 30 years. Even then, the landmark works were just supplementary materials for classroom studies. Discussions on the joint study of history between South Korea and Japan, and Japan and China, have taken place for just 10 years. It would be premature to talk about writing a joint textbook at the current stage. These are all legitimate concerns.
However, history is important not because of the past, but because it provides lessons and guidance to shape the future. A national-level campaign to research and work on joint textbooks could provide the foundation for a common future for the countries in the region. There is good reason to rush the project at the current stage. “The mistrust from differences over historical perspectives and conflicts and clashes over territorial issues are escalating,” President Park observed, emphasizing that without resolving the so-called Asian Paradox - under which Asian countries get along well economically but poorly politically - peace and prosperity will be limited in the region.
China is unabashedly exposing its former imperialistic nature and seeking to recover past glories using its newfound wealth and global status, while Japan seeks to recover its pride by restoring its military to full strength through the language of protecting its collective self-defense rights. Nationalism is at the root of these pursuits. South Korea must protect its pride and viability as it sits between neighbors with renewed ambitions. There is an urgent need to breed a new historical perspective in the region, moving beyond the imperialism and rivalries that have dominated the region throughout the modern age. It may be hard and unrealistic work, but it is necessary.
Korea is the only nation in the region that has never invaded another one. History is proof that regional peace is possible when Korea plays a central role. From its place on the periphery, Korea is able to understand the central players in the region while also engaging with other peripheral players.
We must build on our experience, qualities and legacy, and persuade the other countries through joint cooperation of the government, scholars and research institutes. A regional peace and cooperation framework to expand into a cooperative network around Eurasia and the Pacific should be our dream and a long-term strategy.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a research fellow at Northeast Asian History Foundation.
By Oh Byung-soo