Grumpy old man’s advice
What is the difference between a mentor and a grumpy old man? They both give advice. But a mentor offers advice when requested, while a grumpy old man likes to give unsolicited advice. A mentor talks about the future, while a grumpy old man sticks to the past. A mentor discusses his failures, but a grumpy old man repeatedly boasts about his successes of the past. Today, I want to talk about the history textbook, risking being called a grumpy old man. I think the more fundamental problem is not the state authorship or approval system, but the perspective on modern and contemporary history.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University Prof. James Robinson compared the cases of successful and failing nations in the book “Why Nations Fail.” Both Ghana and Korea had been colonies and produced a secretary general of the United Nations. But the book asks why Ghana’s per-capital GDP remains at 850 dollars while Korea’s is 28,000 dollars. The book also compares two border cities, Nogales in Mexico and Nogales in Arizona.
In 1853, the United States purchased a chunk of land from Mexico, which belongs to Arizona and New Mexico today, and the border was drawn through the city of Nogales. The two cities with exactly the same demography, geographical environment and culture came to have completely different fates. Nogales, Arizona, is a stable, small town with per capita income of $30,000. But on the other side of the border, Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, is a crime-ridden town with per capita income of $10,000. The book finds the secret is political and economic systems. They conclude that countries whose ruling class and elites adhere to exclusive economic policies for their own interests,
obsess over passing on their wealth and power, and prevent people’s participation with a closed political system fail without exception.
I have no intention of beautifying Korea’s modern history. But being ashamed of it is also a self-deprecating view. Leaders like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee have both faults and accomplishments. But according to the standards given in that book, they were not the presidents who pursued their own interests only. The two professors classify the modern history of Korea as an “inclusive system.” In contrast, an “exploitative” system can be found very close to us. They described that power is passed on, people are exploited and abused, and the elites rule over them. They are talking about North Korea.
Of course, not just the elite class made Korean history. From the 1960s to 1980s, young factory workers operated sewing machines day and night, being paid meager wages. Miners and nurses were sent to work in Germany. From 1966 to 1987, crew members on deep-sea fishing vessels went all the way to Las Palmas in Spain and fished $900 million worth of tuna. According to the International Contractors Association of Korea, 1.41 million construction workers have been sent to the Middle East and other regions since 1978. I would like the progressive scholars to include this history of the people. There are other events worth mentioning other than the resistances like the April 19 Revolution, the Gwangju Democratization Movement and the June Democratic Uprising.
Former President Lee Myung-bak is no historian. But I remember his experience that he shared over drinks when he was the mayor of Seoul. “I used to go around the construction sites in Vietnam and the Middle East. Tears well up when I think about the Korean workers back then. But historically, it is a great blessing. The Koreans in their 50s and 60s [now in their 60s and 70s] have had global experiences as a group. Going to the United States and Europe to study is not the only global experience. Looking at Korea objectively from another country is very precious. They have become the solid backbone of our society and made the modern history,” Lee said.
For your reference, I view May 16 as a coup. But whether a history textbook is authored or approved by the government, I would like it to have detailed records of lights and shadows of the modern history. Korean historians also need to review how Korea’s modern history is evaluated by world historians. The colonial view of history is problematic, but the populace-centered view on history or the perspectives based on national division may also be outdated. Korea has written an unprecedented drama of development in the past 71 years. So today, I would gladly be a grumpy old man.