Dogfight over history roils politics

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Oct 6, 2013 - 20:18
  • Updated : Oct 6, 2013 - 20:18
Rival parties are sharply divided over a new chief of the national history textbook screening body, who is seen to be less critical of Japan’s colonialism and explicitly eulogistic of controversial former national leaders.

Conservative scholar Lew Young-ik took office last Tuesday as chief of the National Institute of Korean History amid protests by progressive academics and opposition politicians.

The opposition Democratic Party accused President Park Geun-hye of committing herself to a “historical coup d’etat” by appointing Lew to head the panel which oversees the nation’s secondary school history education system

Lew Young-ik, chief of the National Institute of Korean History, attends a session of the National Assembly’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee on Friday. (Yonhap News)
Lew, 77, is considered by some to be a far-right historian who exaggerated Japanese colonialists’ contributions to Korea’s modernization and the achievement of former leaders Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.

He is alleged to have deified first President Rhee, comparing him to the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and calling him the “father of his country.”

Critics fear Lew would serve as Park’s right-hand man in force-feeding middle and high school students “pro-Japanese”, “pro-Park Chung-hee” and “pro-Rhee” content.

This move, DP lawmakers said, would unfairly influence the “underdeveloped thought processes and minds” of middle and high school students.

“I cannot see why President Park has to pick this particular scholar from a pool of tens and hundreds of very capable academics for that particular position,” said DP Rep. Kang Chang-il, who is also a former history professor at Pai Chai University in Daejeon.

“Lew is a Rhee expert. I cannot see how that man can also take in and administer all aspects of Korean history, playing the role of a generalist. The NIKH is supposed to administer the education of the entirety of Korean history, not just the portion that covers the past 100 years,” Kang added.

Despite the latest denouncements headed against him, Lew is credited with deepening the understanding of Rhee and Korea’s recent past by studying the related materials for over 40 years. He also has degrees from Harvard and has written several well-read Korean history books.

“I think the very fact that his research sparked the historical debates about Syngman Rhee and our recent history arms Lew with the scholarly authority and right to serve as the NIKH chief,” said Chung Yoon-jae, professor of political thinking with The Academy of Korean Studies.

In fact, Lew was honored with the Kyung Ahm Academic Award in 2006 in the humanities and society category. The awards were instituted in 2005 by a foundation of the same name, which appoints a commission of experts in sociology, philosophy, history, and economics to decide who will win the accolade and an accompanying grant of 200 million won ($186,783). Three other co-awardees are commended in the life & science, engineering, and arts categories.

“The commission that picked Lew for the award is not full of stupid people. Those people are experts who know what they are doing,” said Huh Dong-hyun, professor of history at Kyung Hee University. “I think he is more than capable of managing his role at that post,” he added.

But the most pointed accusation against Lew was that he had participated in the writing of the Kyohak Publishing Company’s Korean history textbook, which caused uproar among historians for supposedly containing pro-Japanese colonialism, pro-junta dictatorship, and even wordings that implicitly denied the stories of the comfort women.

DP spokeswoman Bae Jae-jeung called the textbook a “monster that shouldn’t have been born” while DP Rep. Kang said that the Kyohak book was “a comedy.”

Kyohak capitulated to public pressure last month, and announced the company would revise the text while three of the original six authors asked that their names be removed.

The war of words continued Friday at the National Assembly’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee when it received briefings from Lew and Minister of Education Seo Nam-soo.

DP lawmakers lashed out over the conservative textbook while their Saenuri counterparts attacked seven other textbook publishers for being overly “anti-American” and “pro-North Korean.”

But something was far more amiss.

“History is a science that bases its arguments on facts. Once the facts are established, it is okay to have a difference in their interpretations as long as they are based on those facts,” said Park Tae-gyun, professor of modern Korean history at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies. “Once you confirm the facts it is everyone’s right to independently judge figures such as Park Chung-hee and Rhee Syngman. What’s going on is a political debate, not an academic one,” he added.

“When these politicians argue over what textbook is right or wrong, I think they are forgetting something. Textbooks are for future generations to examine and ponder thereafter. Politicians are forgetting who they are fighting for,” said Huh.

“It is not their own views lawmakers should be expostulating but rather the views of those future generations. Something is wrong here.”

By Jeong Hunny (