2nd Miracle on the Han: Mass Media Unites over History by Ministerial Fiat

By | October 09, 2015 | No Comments

South Korea's government approved, privately produced secondary school history textbooks. | Image: KBS/YouTube

South Korea’s government approved, privately produced secondary school history textbooks. Soon to be removed, if the ruling party gets its way. | Image: KBS/YouTube

As represented by a collection of past events, history is little more than a pile of unstructured data. But mix in the nation and political biases and voilà! what you have is a highly politicized national narrative. Involve political elites excessively in the production process and you’ll invariably end up with nationalist history; in other words history instrumentalized for specific (occasionally nefarious) purposes. “Histories written by the state,” Benedict Anderson has concluded, “are almost always false.” 

Politely and not so politely ignoring this most inconvenient of truths, a select group of contemporary South Korean politicians want to (re)nationalize the production of middle and high school history textbooks to ensure, or so they claim, that South Korea’s history is read and taught error free! The idea that the state is able to get history “right” is so outlandish that it even caused something extraordinary to occur this week: all of South Korea’s major dailies came down more or less on the same side of a serious issue. Christopher Green reads across and in-between the lines to tell this new Miracle on the Han. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

2nd Miracle on the Han: Mass Media Unites over History by Ministerial Fiat

by Christopher Green

This week, an anonymous official from deep in the bowels of South Korea’s Ministry of Education appeared to confirm government plans to re-nationalize secondary school history textbook production. Under the plan, textbooks authorized under an existing system of government-authorized private production would be replaced in February 2017.

The move, if it happens, comes amidst vocal criticism of the content of history textbooks, most recently from the chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, Kim Moo-sung. Much of Kim’s most colorful commentary was reserved for how the eight authorized textbooks in use today treat North Korean history.

Rhetorically inquiring why “our” South Korean students should be made to study North Korea’s Juche ideology, Kim heavily criticized the way some textbooks describe the DPRK political system. “North Korea is a 3rd generation hereditary dictatorship, and yet parts of many current high school history textbooks describe their system normally,” he said, voicing fears that students might misunderstand the content as legitimizing the Kim dynasty and its Juche ideology. “It feels as if they have just cut and pasted the writings of domestic pro-North groups.”

For his part, disgusted at the proposal to re-nationalize production after it was freed from the shackles of the state little more than a decade ago, opposition leader Moon Jae-in branded the process an “attempt to return to the Yushin dictatorship period.”

Go’s Comments: Extremism Fanning the Flames of Partisan Divide | The partisan clash comes amidst a firestorm of criticism at a panoply of extreme statements made by Go Young-joo, a former public prosecutor and incumbent chairman of the board of the Foundation for Broadcast Culture (FBC), the body that sits between elected government and the management of MBC and is the broadcaster’s majority shareholder. Speaking in early October, Go declared his conviction that opposition NPAD leader Moon Jae-in is a communist, before adding on the 6th that left-wing former President Roh Moo-hyun was once a communist, and so was the charismatic former governor of Gyeonggi Province and presidential wannabe on the (new) right, Kim Moon-soo. It is therefore perhaps scarcely surprising that, on October 8, three members of the FBC board selected by the NPAD submitted a motion of no confidence in Go’s leadership. His resignation would appear to be a matter of time.

Go’s comments are tangential here, but do help to explain the fiercely partisan atmosphere into which the dispute over textbooks has (re-)emerged. They have certainly done nothing to help cool heads prevail. Away from the political jousting, however, the arguments for re-nationalization (and the rebuttals) have been made: first, that state production will eliminate historical errors in textbooks; second, that Korean History is set to be a mandatory high school exam [대학수학능력시험, or 수능; suneung] subject from 2017 and so the textbooks used to teach it should also be unified; and third, that a unified secondary history textbook can help to produce a unified population.

Misleading Numbers: How Statistics Mislead | According to statistics from the office of lawmaker Lee No-keun, the last time the so-called “textbooks controversy” bubbled to the surface in 2012-2013, the Ministry of Education found a total of 1,433 errors across eight approved texts, 179 per book. These statistics do indeed make it seem as if nationalization might be wise. However, an investigation in September this year found that state-produced textbooks also contain errors in not inconsequential numbers. For instance, one elementary school 5th grade “Society” textbook that is still produced by the state had the wrong color (red) kimchi positioned on a Koryo Dynasty dining table.

Equally, English has long been a mandatory subject in South Korea, and yet a range of privately produced textbooks are employed in classrooms, suggesting that the requirement for unity of textbook and test is not necessarily undermined by private involvement. Finally, the disputes that went on in 1973-1974 when the government of Park Chung-hee successfully brought history textbook production under the auspices of the state evince the claim that a unified state textbook is highly unlikely to create a unified populace by default. Indeed, the textbooks of the 1970s and 1980s don’t bode well at all: they contain unabashed praise for the Yushin Constitution – which is now widely reviled for its authoritarianism – and an overabundance of respect for the Fifth Republic of Chun Doo-hwan, which was responsible for the killings in Gwangju in May 1980.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the plan is the relatively bipartisan unity of the criticism it has attracted. A rare event indeed, the five major dailies of left and right all came out more or less against it in their Thursday editorials. If the Ministry of Education were merely testing the waters of public opinion rather than announcing a fait accompli, they got their answer.

An Unlikely Event: Korean Dailies Unite! | Much of the counter-argument hinges on what constitutes “modern” education and the desire not to be seen to regress to what is felt — in the linear tale of South Korea’s development — to be a politically backward age. The conservative Chosun Ilbo, ever aware that the Republic of Korea should appear at all times to be “modern” both at home and abroad, declared, “In an era when everything is becoming more free and open, returning the compilation of history for educational use to the government would run contrary to the present trend.” It would not be at all beneficial, Donga Ilbo agreed, to go back to 1974. “Patriotic lessons are important, but it is just not appropriate to create a system where the government has a free hand over history writing.” For the centrist Joongang Ilbo, “Re-nationalization can never be an alternative.”

It was the same on the left. “The re-emergence of state history writing is returning us to the ranks of politically and educationally under-developed states,” asserted Hankyoreh. For Kyunghyang Sinmun, only undemocratic, “abnormal” states like North Korea would ever choose to adopt state production. This is not actually true: both Sri Lanka and Mongolia use state-produced textbooks, to say nothing of Greece, Iceland, and Turkey, all of which are members of the OECD. Nevertheless, the message was stark.

The left-leaning press also critiqued the fact that the eight textbooks used in schools today were in fact checked for errors and verified just three years ago by the conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, a process after which, Hankyoreh recalled, the Ministry of Education voiced the proud and apparently unrealistic hope that the revised versions would “help our future generations form an appropriate historical awareness.” All of which seems only to confirm that the existing system of oversight is the key problem to resolve — an institutionally troubling implication that the Ministry of Education was never likely to embrace, of course — whereas abandoning the private production process in its entirety will only serve to create fresh new problems.

Not least among these, the press was quick to point out, is that the South Korean government of the day has no realistic chance of producing a well constructed and mutually acceptable history textbook by the February of 2017, which is the mooted deadline for the process. Forming an editorial board, writing the editorial rules of engagement, and then debating the “truth” of South Korean, inter-Korean, and Northeast Asian history? Any one of these could take 18 months by itself. Getting to production would probably take a decade or more.

Of course, it may not matter to the ruling party whether the children of South Korea learn much about North Korea; to them, less may be more. Reducing the prominence of North Korean history and society in the South Korean education system aids in the formation of a specifically South Korean nationalism – one tied up in the state rather than the minjok, or nation. To conservatives, for whom North Korea is an implacable enemy that may need to be fought some day rather than a partner in peace and reconciliation, that has obvious advantages.

But when the vision of a future unified Korea comes under discussion, such an omission seems unwise indeed. As Hankyoreh pointed out, “You need to know the target of your criticism before you can criticize it rationally.” Instilling an impression of North Korea as an aggressive enemy state may be defensible under the prevailing circumstances, but doing so without offering any accompanying knowledge of the DPRK’s key social, political and economic characteristics is, at best, only going to make future integration even harder.

It is not clear how the South Korean state can go about depoliticizing its education system. However, that is primarily because South Korean society is politicized by variables exogenous to education. The history textbook furor is a symptom not the pathogen, and for once the country’s media seems to be united in the view that the ruling party’s prescription won’t cure it.

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