History, Textbooks, and “Truth” in South Korea

By | October 25, 2013 | 1 Comment

South Korea's Military Revolutionary Committee four days after the May 16 Coup. Park Chung-hee is on the right, at the shoulder of the nominal head of the committee, ROK Army Chief-of-Staff Chang Do-yong. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

South Korea’s Military Revolutionary Committee four days after the May 16 Coup. Park Chung-hee is on the right, at the shoulder of the nominal head of the committee, ROK Army Chief-of-Staff Chang Do-yong. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a recent talk at the University of Toronto’s Munk School on “Cutting Off History at the Pass: The Rise of Homogenous Empty Time in Asia and Its Consequences,” Benedict Anderson commented on the “truth” of “national histories.” “Histories written by the state,” he remarked, “are almost always false.” But such is the act of “constructing” a national history, especially from the top-down. Even so, Anderson’s comment alludes to the “problem.” It is who decides the “nation’s history” that is a point of disputation and disagreement. In South Korea, the writing of national history is a contentious enterprise, no doubt a consequence of its tumultuous modern history. A recent textbook controversy illuminates the point well.

The recent approval of a new history textbook, and an order from the Ministry of Education (교육부) for a plethora of changes to seven more textbooks, has precipitated what some papers are calling a “left-right ideological dispute” (좌우 이념 논란) over textbook content and what the Hankyoreh has branded “the distortion of history textbook scandal” [교과서 역사왜곡 논란].

The dispute unfolded as follows. Earlier this year, the National Institute of Korean History (NIKH; 국사편찬위원회), a national organization responsible for overseeing the compilation and study of materials related to Korean history, approved for publication a new high school history textbook written by scholars from what is called the “New Right.” The approval caused a backlash from civil society and progressive groups. Those upset by the book point to what they believe is a blatant and deliberate distortion of history, including, among others things: rebranding the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement a “riot” and the April 19 Revolution a “student movement.” One Hankyoreh editorial said many of the book’s critics see it as the “work of pro-Japanese collaborators that explicitly glorifies the dictatorships of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.”

The response prompted the Ministry of Education to review the content of the new book. But instead of looking into just one issue—the new textbook—the ministry took it upon itself to review seven additional history textbooks for historical accuracy. The result, contrary to the wishes of those who originally protested the approval of the new book, was an order for 829 changes to seven older history textbooks—and not in a way that those upset by the new textbook would find satisfying. In fact, the order to rewrite post-independence “government formation,” delete any mention of the Gochang Massacre, and refrain from using a photo from the  first North-South summit is interpreted by some as proof that the Ministry of Education has a “rightist bias.”

What makes the history question far more political and contentious in South Korea is partially explained by institutional design. A recent Joongang Ilbo article comparing “textbook systems” (교과서 제도) across the world shows that Korea’s system is institutionally more prescriptive than in other countries, particularly England and France—the developed countries. In these countries schools are free to choose textbooks from private publishers without interference from the state. In Korea, however, the government both screens and approves textbooks for use in primary and secondary schools, a task overseen by the Ministry of Education (교육부) with plenty of assistance on thorny historical issues from NIKH, as illustrated above. The outcome is similar to that in the state of Texas, where a comparable system exists: the politicization and, some would argue, deliberate manipulation of history.

If the state is incapable of telling a straight tale, then who is? Anderson had something to say on this point, too. He believes that it is in the everyday actions of ordinary people, and the telling of oral histories, where those stories—though not likely 100% “true”—are at least not intentionally manipulated.

Sources: “Writers of 7 Korean History Textbooks Say ‘The Ministry of Education’s Recommended Changes Show That It Is Meddling and Has a Rightist-bias’” [7종 한국사 교과서 저자들 “교육부 권고는 우편향·트집잡기”], Hankyoreh, October 23, 2013.

Ministry of Education Aimed to Revive Pro-Japanese, Dictatorship-Glorifying Textbooks” [친일·독재 미화 교과서 살리려고 ‘물타기’ 한 교육부], Hankyoreh, October 23, 2013.

“Analysis of the Korean History Textbook Dispute: Textbook Systems of Various Countries” [한국사 교과서 논란 대해부] 각국의 교과서 제도], Joongang Ilbo, October 22, 2013.

All translations by Steven Denney.

One Comment

  1. As the new and controversial museum shows, contemporary history in Korea remains a minefield. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Korea bridged some of the gaps, but was too soon torpedoed.

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