A dangerous idea

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A dangerous idea

 During his visit to a memorial site for Gwangju democracy movement activists last week, Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), vowed to pass an act to penalize comments and behavior that distorts history through the National Assembly as soon as possible. Lee promised to disallow distortions of the history of human rights violations. Under his plan, slander on independent movement against Japanese colonization, a praise for past Japanese aggression, a denial or distortion of Japanese crimes during the colonial period and the May 18 Gwangju democracy movement all can be punished.

His comment came after Lee Sun-ja, the widow of former president Chun Doo Hwan, apologized on behalf of her late husband for causing pain during his reign at the funeral for Chun. An aide of Chun said the apology was not referring to the crackdown on the Gwangju democracy movement.

Lee would have been courting the residents of Gwangju and its surrounding area. But the bill is a dangerous idea. It is outrageous for the state to decide what is right and wrong about history. Penalizing differing thoughts could seriously impair the freedom of ideas and expression.

The National Assembly has already passed a special act to revisit the Gwangju movement and motioned a bill to prevent distortion in history. The Korea Bar Association finds the lawmaking only possible in a totalitarian state. The Justice Ministry also disapproved, saying discussion on history must ensure freedom in expression and academy and should be addressed through social debate. Yet Lee wants to pass the controversial bill as soon as possible, without going through a social debating process.

Historians strongly protested the former Park Geun-hye administration’s move to nationalize publication of school history textbooks. They accused the government of excess intervention to punish a certain historical view by defining it distortion. They linked the move to the oppressive censorship of the authoritarian military regimes.

History interpretation could differ by the ruling power. The bill therefore could be susceptible to political abuse. The DP bill proposes to set up a review committee to judge whether an act is tantamount to distortion. But the judgment can differ depending on who is seated on the committee. The Gwangju democracy movement was a struggle to defend individual freedom. But a move to suppress the freedom of expression to uphold the spirit cannot make sense. The DP and Lee must withdraw the dangerous thought of trying to guide individual interpretation of history.
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