Why launch a history war?
The deed is done; the die is cast. Boats have been burned, the Rubicon crossed. One hoped President Park Geun-hye would see reason, but she has stuck to her guns. The lady is not for turning.
On Nov. 3, the government officially confirmed its plan to retake control of how Korean history is taught in middle and high schools. From 2017, a single state-issued textbook at each level will replace the current eight produced by private publishers.
Opinion at home and abroad is near-unanimous in denouncing this as a retrograde move and a bad idea. Time was when Park sought the middle ground. Whereas her predecessor rejoiced in the nickname “bulldozer,” Park professed to listen and sought to bridge divides.
No longer. On history, the president holds and utters strong views. Recently she even told the Cabinet that (as one headline put it) bad history teaching threatens children’s souls. Her exact words, “One would have no soul without knowing the history of one’s country, and learning it in a wrong way would turn one’s soul into an abnormal one.” Is Park a theologian now?
Startling language - but Kim Moo-sung can match it. The ruling Saenuri Party’s chairman has had some very public rows with the president, but on history, they sing in shrill harmony. Kim claims that existing textbooks “teach revolution.” On Oct. 17, he told Saenuri activists, “A history war has now begun. This is a war we must win at all costs … we can never retreat.”
True, most current school textbooks on modern Korean history lean somewhat left. That’s not so strange: teachers and academics everywhere tend to hold “progressive” views. The existing texts were all approved by the Ministry of Education, which required revisions to some. Also, this arguably forms a counterweight to other more right-wing pressures such as the National Security Law or what South Korean males are taught during military conscription.
From such contrasting inputs, young minds craft their own world-view. I call that education, but for Park and Kim this breeds - forgive the pun - confusionism. They want to teach only the right (correct) view. Their critics claim that means the Right (conservative) interpretation.
This debate has two dimensions: politics and pedagogy. Both are important. To do them even minimal justice will need a separate article on each. Here I ponder the political implications of launching a history war at this juncture. My next column will focus on the pedagogical side: offering a radically new approach to teaching modern Korean history which hopefully might unite the warring parties - if only in disagreeing with the foolish foreigner.
Politically, what is the context to this new flare-up? Let us step back a moment. The electoral cycle is coming round again. Saenuri has two elections to win: parliamentary next April, then presidential in December 2017. The former are vital for Park, lest she lose control of the National Assembly. But the latter frankly matter less to her, as she cannot stand again.
With Park’s five-year term half over, how is the ruling camp doing? Here we note a paradox. Neither of the two big challenges facing South Korea - revitalizing the economy and handling North Korea - has seen much headway. Now the clock is ticking louder.
Yet the president seems Teflon-clad. Sewol, Middle East respiratory syndrome; Blue House, Keangnam and other scandals; endless botched personnel choices - none of it drags her down. Saenuri just goes on winning local and by-elections regardless. The liberal opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, torn by internal rifts, hasn’t gained traction on any of those many issues.
Were I a Saenuri strategist, the last thing I’d be doing right now is picking fights and sweating small stuff. The ruling party is, or was, on track to retain its majority in April. To clinch this would mean doing better on the economy, which is difficult. For once, the Northern front may be easier. Lifting sanctions and resuming Mount Kumgang tourism are steps long overdue, for reasons I have argued before. A thaw with Pyongyang would also be a vote-winner at home.
Instead, they launched a history war. But why? This was no big problem, much less a crisis demanding action. Public opinion wasn’t up in arms over biased history teaching. On the contrary, polls suggest voters are puzzled by Saenuri’s stance and getting annoyed. Initially, a small majority favored the state textbook plan, but now, most South Koreans are against it.
It’s hard to see that tide changing, as the intrinsic problems are legion. First up, will reputable historians agree to author the new books? Finding such is proving difficult, as seen in Choi Mong-lyong’s abrupt withdrawal after displaying “drunken raunchiness” to female reporters. The Seoul National University ancient historian is an expert on Wiman, but on women, his attitudes are ancient.
Or was this a cunning ploy to shuck off an unwelcome task? Choi was quoted saying that the National Institute of Korean History (NIKH), the state body preparing the new texts, should thank him for being its shield. He denied saying this, then flip-flopped again. A mess, but now he is out of it - albeit in ignominy. Not an auspicious start for an ambitious rewrite of history.
Meanwhile, very predictably, liberal local education heads - who are elected, remember - and historians are threatening to write rival textbooks. If they do, will the government ban them? That would be illiberal and indeed illegal, since the law allows supplementary school texts.
Then, there is the time factor. Preparing a new state textbook from scratch typically takes two to three years. NIKH has just 14 months. Given all the controversies over who will write and what they should say, it’s very hard to see how a proper job can conceivably be done within so tight a time frame.
A March 2018 start would make more sense, logistically and politically. Park has to step down in February 2018, so implementation issues would be her successor’s problem. But with a 2017 start date, any teething troubles will play out during election year as the presidential campaigning reaches a crescendo.
Why did Park and Kim suddenly get this history bee in their bonnet? However strongly they feel, this makes no political sense. And politics is but half of it; the pedagogical pitfalls are something else again. On that, watch this space.
The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK.
by Aidan Foster-Carter