To conservative critics, a widely used textbook’s version of how US and Soviet forces took control of Korea from Japanese colonialists in 1945 shows all that is wrong with the way South Korean history is taught to young people today.
The facts no one disputes are that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet military swept into northern Korea and installed a friendly communist government while a US military administration assumed control in the south.
But then the high school textbook takes a direction that has angered conservatives. It contends that the Japanese occupation was followed not by a free, self-determining Korea, but by a divided peninsula dominated once again by foreign powers.
“It was not our national flag that was hoisted to replace the Japanese flag. The flag that flew in its place was the American Stars and Stripes,” reads the textbook published by Kumsung Publishing.
“Our liberation through the Allied forces’ victory prevented us from building a new country according to our own wishes,” it says.
The critics include the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the conservative who came to power this year with a pledge to overturn a decade of liberal policies that he said had coddled North Korea and denigrated the US alliance — the alliance that liberals have accused of propping up South Korean dictators in the name of anti-communism.
On Oct. 30, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of the Kumsung book and five other textbooks used in high schools delete or revise 55 sections that it said “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.”
“A textbook of modern history should be written in a way that does not hurt our national pride,” it said.
The authors rejected the interference, saying critics were trying to “beautify” the country’s problematic history, overlooking Korean collaboration with the Japanese occupiers and postwar dictatorships. The liberal opposition in parliament said the government’s attempt to censor the textbooks was reminiscent of those dictatorships, which once exercised control so complete that it included what books South Koreans could read and the proper length of women’s skirts.
“National pride? Patriotism? They should be based on historical facts,” said Hong Soon-kwon, a history professor and coauthor of the Kumsung textbook.
South Korea used to use a single government-issued modern-history textbook to teach teenagers. But in 2003, to encourage diversity in historical views, the government approved six privately published history textbooks for high school use.
Ever since, the textbooks have drawn criticism from conservatives, sharpening the larger debate over how to appraise past leaders — including the founding president, Syngman Rhee, and the military strongman Park Chung-hee — and the complicated relationship with the US.
Conservatives say the “left leaning” textbooks poison the minds of teenagers by reveling in dark corners of history. The books, they say, inspire a masochistic view of Korean history by demeaning the role of the Allied forces in Korea’s liberation from Japan, casting the US as an imperial power, and by dwelling on the faults of South Korean dictators while slighting their achievements, including their contributions to the country’s economic growth.
“The textbooks are teaching a patricidal history,” said Park Hyo-chong, a professor of ethics education at Seoul National University and the leader of Textbook Forum, a conservative group that campaigns against the textbooks.
“They teach that South Korea is a country that should not have been born,” he said.
Complaints like these were brushed aside by the previous government, which was liberal. But after Lee took office in February, government agencies issued their own complaints about the books.
One textbook, published by the Institute for Better Education, says that Rhee, revered as a nation-builder by the conservatives but detested by liberals as a ruthless anti-communist, exploited the North Korean threat to “shore up his dictatorial regime.”
The Ministry of National Defense has demanded a rewrite of the Rhee passage to read, “He did his best to contain communism.”
The Kumsung textbook says that Park Chung-hee — who seized power in a coup in 1961 and tortured political dissidents, while mobilizing the nation for export-driven economic growth — was “a president who placed himself above the nation’s constitution.”
The Defense Ministry wants this to be replaced with “a president who contributed to the nation’s modernization.”
As for the “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea espoused by former president Kim Dae-jung, whose inauguration in 1998 ousted the conservative establishment and brought many former dissidents into positions of power, the Ministry of Unification now suggests that this term be replaced in textbooks with the official, drier “policy of reconciliation and cooperation.”
Park Hyo-chong said that in the past decade students were inculcated with a “left leaning” nationalism from the new textbooks and a younger generation of teachers who had no memory of the 1950-1953 Korean War and who were prepared to reconcile with the North.
They came of age amid other formative experiences. Many were students during campus protests against former president Chun Doo-hwan, who took power after the assassination of Park Chung-hee in 1979.
Chun deployed forces in 1980 that killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju.
When the US, which technically had command of the combined US-South Korean forces, did not prevent Chun’s junta from unleashing troops against its own people, students turned against Washington.
If the division of the peninsula engendered a mistrust of big powers, Gwangju helped shape views of the US, historians say.
That resentment persists and surfaced in the huge demonstrations against US beef imports this year.
Younger South Koreans’ view of their history was best summarized by former president Roh Moo-hyun, who inherited the liberal government from Kim in 2003.
That year, the same year the new textbooks were distributed to schools, Roh said, “Our modern history is a painful one, in which justice was defeated and opportunism gained the upper hand.”
Conservatives seethed as the Kim and Roh administrations delved into long-hidden aspects of the recent past — collaboration with Japanese colonialists (Park Chung-hee was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army), mass killings of civilians during the Korean War and the abuse of political dissidents.
They contended that these liberals ignored the difficult choices faced by earlier South Korean leaders.
“In the turbulent era we lived through, no one could be completely innocent, no one could live by law alone,” Cho Gap-je, 63, a conservative columnist, said to the cheers of elderly South Koreans who gathered recently to denounce liberal teachers.
“When necessary, we shed blood, sweat and tears so that our children no longer have to shed tears,” Cho said.
In the months since Lee assumed the presidency, the swing back to the right has been palpable, and not just in textbook complaints.
In July, the Defense Ministry banned what it called 23 “seditious books” from military barracks on the grounds that the country’s security was threatened by “pro-North Korea, anti-government, anti-American and anti-capitalism” works, including two by the American linguist and leftwing intellectual Noam Chomsky.
After the list was leaked to the news media, sales of the banned books soared.
The military was further embarrassed on Oct. 22, when seven of its own lawyers appealed to the Constitutional Court, saying the book ban violated soldiers’ basic rights.
Even Chomsky chimed in.
“Perhaps, for the sake of honesty, it should be renamed Ministry of Defense Against Freedom and Democracy,” he offered in an interview with the Seditious Books Club, a new Web site created to discuss the banned books.
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