In spring 2017, about a year before the end of her five-year term, President Park Geun-hye will take the first look at new Korean history textbooks for middle and high schools, satisfied with the fruition of a project she had initiated this fall. Or, will she?
It is foreseen that the major candidates for the year’s presidential election, not only from the opposition but also from the ruling party, will have included the scrapping of the new history textbooks in their respective campaign pledges. They must calculate that it would help them gather far more votes than they would otherwise.
Imagination goes further. By that time, the media will likely have strenuously followed the rugged process of producing the new history textbook from the stage of commissioning authors and through the academic debates within the compilation committee over the many controversial issues in each section of the nation’s 5,000-year history, getting more heated as they get closer to the present.
The Ministry of Education has 4.4 billion won ($3.9 million) allocated from the reserve fund in the 2015 budget for research expenses and author fees. Whether this is appropriate use of what is basically the emergency relief fund is seriously doubted. Anyway, a certain number of history professors should have been chosen by the National Institute of Korean History for their recognized expertise in the old, middle, modern and contemporary eras, all supposedly neutral as those with “far-right” and “far-left” tendencies must be excluded.
Issues such as the origin of the nation and the spheres of ancient Joseon, Goguryeo and Balhae dynasties could call for hard debates but should be relatively easy to settle, compared to the events of the 19th and 20th centuries. History is far more complex than President Park and other promoters of state compilation of history textbook would like to believe.
The demise of the Joseon Kingdom, the development of independence movements in the occupied land and overseas and the roles of the nationalists, communists and the government in exile, the confusion and atrocities before and after the establishment of the Republic of Korea government, the origin of the Korean War, the postwar dictatorship leading to a student uprising and a military coup, the contribution of the different players in economic development and democratization …
Ideological hues interfere with the description of all these subjects. We have witnessed the tiring controversies over the respective textbooks of the right-wing Gyohak-sa and the left-wing Geumseong-sa, which both contained many inaccuracies and deliberate distortions apparent even to plain readers. In truth, history education in our secondary schools has experienced confusion since the Roh Moo-hyun administration started the current “state review and authorization system” for textbooks used in middle and high schools in 2007.
Education authorities picked out seven out of the eight lines of textbooks published over the past years to request the correction of their biased content before authorizing them. The authorities’ efforts have had their limits, and they believe the left-leaning texts -- widely accepted by the teachers affiliated with the liberal “Jeongyojo” league -- have been used in the indoctrination of young students with various revisionist ideas about modern and contemporary history.
Such an understanding is reflected in the remarks of President Park in her latest meeting with ruling and opposition party leaders at the Blue House. She was quoted as saying: “Some of the textbooks these days state that South Korea shouldn’t have been born, and call North Korea a legitimate country. … The Korean War is described as the result of both sides’ (plots). We should not teach students defeatism; they feel shame for being born in the Republic of Korea.”
There must be others who share the president’s view. But I doubt that they have the correct grasp of the present situation in our secondary schools. Jeongyojo teachers are a minority in the entire teaching manpower and not all Jeongyojo members are radical leftists but many of them are ideologically balanced and dedicated to “cham” or true education. Some activist teachers’ absurd deeds in and outside classrooms are often blown out of proportion by the conservative media, I believe.
President Park should be sensitive about the portrayal of her father in school textbooks. Aware that her presidency itself is proof of Korean people’s recognition of Park Chung-hee’s greatness as a nation builder, she could not stand some historians’ focusing on his biographical blots of serving as a Japanese Army lieutenant and conviction by the military court as a pro-communist officer, and more than anything else their attempt to deny his economic development feat for his suppression of democracy.
Like in all other areas of society, there is rubbish in the arena of historical studies, stinking in both the right and left corners. Yet, we live in a place and age where and when diversity is more valued than the uniformity that beckons totalitarianism. There can be no historical version of Gresham’s Law -- an economic term in which the bad drives out the good -- because anything based on ideological bias or pursuit of sensationalism cannot survive the cold judgment of intelligence.
If a certain textbook shows the picture of Mangyeongdae, the supposed birthplace of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, and positively evaluates his alleged armed struggle against Japanese colonialists in Manchuria, the flood of information through all kinds of media about the goings-on in the North ruled by his grandson quashes the credibility of such a publication. Surveys show a high rate of condemnation of North Korean belligerence among youths who went to schools steered by Jeongyojo teachers.
Dereliction of duty is suspected of the experts who failed to rid the textbook market of the bad apples in the review and authorization process perhaps in the name of the constitutional freedom of expression. Indeed, anything akin to official censorship should be avoided, and the best alternative is for the government to support and nurture more qualified publishers to help them produce textbooks of factual, unbiased historical narrative.
Look at Japan, where textbooks containing ultra-rightist views on modern history occasionally cause the ire of Korea and other Asian neighbors. We need history textbooks that can counter foreign prejudice and distortion with truthfulness and an accurate world view. State-authored history textbooks, now a bad agenda for domestic politics, can be a weak weapon in the global war of conscience.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, served as chief of the Korea Overseas Information Service. – Ed.