History and the State: Textbook Debate Underscores Deep Divide in South Korea

By | May 12, 2017 | No Comments

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

Following a drawn-out debate over the Ministry of Education’s role in reviewing the content of history textbooks, the Park Geun-hye administration moved to have the production of history textbooks re-nationalized. Under a national system, the government – rather than pre-approved private publishers – would produce a single history textbook for middle and high schools.1)Textbook production had become a nationalized enterprise in 1973, but was changed to an approval system in 2009, whereby the government would play a partial, gatekeeper role. Rather than produce history, the government simply decided to review it.

The move was not welcomed. So controversial was the Park administration’s new policy that all of South Korea’s major dailies expressed unity in opposition – a rare occurrence in South Korea’s otherwise sharply polarized media market. At the time, Moon Jae-in referred to the government’s plan as an “attempt to return to the Yushin dictatorship period.” During the 2017 South Korean presidential election, all prominent candidates promised to abolish the national system, with the exception of the conservative candidate who ultimately finished second, Hong Joon-pyo.

Now that Moon has been elected, he is wasting no time in rolling back Park’s policy on textbook production. Indeed, as of today, the Moon administration has revoked it. In a press briefing, chief press secretary Yoon Young-chan was unequivocal: “National history textbooks are symbols of an outdated history education that divide nations. So as to prevent any further politicization of history education, this system will be abolished.” Most historians would agree.

In his recently completed Master’s thesis on the nationalization of history textbook production, University of Toronto graduate Yun Sik Hwang explored developments in South Korean nationalism and the manifestation of differing national identities in national history. A student of the prominent Korean historian, Andre Schmid, Yun has a firm grasp of the deep historical divide that drives the textbook debate. In this essay, which draws upon his thesis, Hwang provides context and shows how difficult it was for the government to ride roughshod over a reluctant society. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

History and the State: Textbook Debate Underscores Deep Divide in South Korea

by Yun Sik Hwang

The production and dissemination of modern Korean history is politically and socially divisive in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Under the previous government, seemingly unmanageable differences over school textbooks resulted in the decision to have the state produce a single history textbook (a nationalized history textbook). The decision to retake control of the publication of history textbooks was finalized on October 11, 2015 between the Park Geun-hye administration and then-ruling Saenuri Party, and was followed by Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea’s official declaration abolishing all eight privately published textbooks on October 13. However, this declaration was widely rejected in society, with those in opposition criticizing it for a range of reasons: from the claim that the move represented the restoration of South Korea’s Yushin era (1972-1981) to the less extreme assertion that a state-produce textbook simply wasn’t practical or realizable.

At the heart of the conflict lay divergent and politically-driven views of history. While dichotomies often obviate more nuanced or complicated issues, the debate can be seen as one between the political Left and Right.2)The author has requested the capitalization of “left” and “right” so as to maintain consistency with the usage of these terms in his thesis The leftist perspective embraces the continuity of minjok/kungmim (people/citizen)3)Arguably, the concept of minjok (민족) evolves into kungmin (국민) with the introduction of a democratic regime in South Korea. Prior to the adoption of anti-Communism in South Korea, individuals who were critical of the ROK enforced the minjok identity as a means to achieve a reunification with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, this idea later evolved into kungmin to overthrow the Korean dictatorship as the idea of minjok nationalism was no longer popular among the population, who were being educated to demonize North Korean communists. achievements at the core of Korean nationalism, whereas the Right advocate the legacy and achievements of the ROK as the “true” source of Korean pride and nationalism.

In short, conservatives and those to the Right embrace anti-Communism, statism, and kukka (state) nationalism as means of protecting and promoting the nation-state (the Republic of Korea). Leftists criticize this narrative as a combination of residual Cold War features and a revival of autocracy. This side argues that without acknowledging the people as the basis of South Korean nationhood and (ethic) nationalism (rather than the state), the very foundation of the nation’s existence is distorted. A leftist historiography, then, encourages students to be critical of any militaristic or autocratic (top-down) interpretations of Korea’s history, while promoting “the people’s” achievements in bringing about bottom-up changes. These writings on this perspective explore previously neglected, and even suppressed, historical memories (e.g., the 4.3 Incident on Jeju Island in 1948). According to some conservatives and those on the hard-right, however, this specific dissent and opposition are perceived as a destabilizing factor for the ROK and its political structures, as dissenters question the legitimacy of the state.

Contention between state and society, or more specifically, the state and people is a hallmark feature of South Korean politics and society. Top-down directives are often resisted, and this contention is clearly illustrated in the case of the state-produced national history textbook. Since the directive was issued, Munmyeon High School and its principal, Kim Tae-dong, stood alone as the only school — out of 5,566 middle and high schools in South Korea — to adopt the nationalized Korean history textbook. This came at a cost: leftist groups, including members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, used a multitude of protest strategies to pressure the school into cancelling the decision, including but not limited to: protests on school grounds, attempts to break into the principal’s office, and threats that the school may end up “disadvantaged” by the choice. Joining the opposition, but using less confrontation means, both concerned parents and students pressured the school to cancel the use of the nationalized history textbook. Anyone not willing to subscribe to abolishing the nationalized textbook was classified as a dissenter against popular opposition.

It is clear that there is no simple and straightforward view of history, much less the history of a nation. Both the official and unofficial perspectives of Korean history are politicized means of producing a specific idealized nationalism. Any narrative account is based on kukka or kungmin nationalisms. Opposition to one or the other is used to bolster the legitimacy of the ROK, but these legitimacy claims are often at fundamental odds. Given South Korea’s interaction with both Communism and anti-Communism, and the fact that Korea is split into two sovereign states, certain questions are unavoidable when it comes to determining a “proper” national history. Who is a true patriot? Who is a collaborator? Is the source of national legitimacy found in opposition to Communism, or opposition to autocracy? These claims have the tendency to devolve into controversial rightism and dogmatic progressivism, with each side accusing the other of working against the nation.

In the end, what is clear is that disagreements between the two sides in the debate over “how to remember” have very little to do with the mundane telling of history. The shadows of South Korea’s past remain as present as ever, and with the politicization of national history under the Park Geun-hye administration, political and ideological disagreements over the country’s national identity intensified, affecting even – and arguably mainly – younger generations who never personally experienced military or autocratic dictatorship. But national history is a politically-motivated project, especially so in a divided nation. As such, expect the debate to continue into the new administration and beyond.

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1. Textbook production had become a nationalized enterprise in 1973, but was changed to an approval system in 2009, whereby the government would play a partial, gatekeeper role. Rather than produce history, the government simply decided to review it.
2. The author has requested the capitalization of “left” and “right” so as to maintain consistency with the usage of these terms in his thesis
3. Arguably, the concept of minjok (민족) evolves into kungmin (국민) with the introduction of a democratic regime in South Korea. Prior to the adoption of anti-Communism in South Korea, individuals who were critical of the ROK enforced the minjok identity as a means to achieve a reunification with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, this idea later evolved into kungmin to overthrow the Korean dictatorship as the idea of minjok nationalism was no longer popular among the population, who were being educated to demonize North Korean communists.