Chosun Ilbo “Debates” the Production of History

By | November 10, 2013 | No Comments

A "taekukki" (대국기) on display at the National Folk Museum of Korea. | Image: Arnoldo Riker

A “taekukki” (대국기) on display at the National Folk Museum of Korea. | Image: Arnoldo Riker

South Korean Prime Minister Jung Hong-won (정홍원) has waded into the political imbroglio over Korean history textbooks. It may be that for the purpose of achieving right and proper Korean history education “there is the need to have a discussion about switching to state-control (국정; 國定) of Korean history textbooks,” Chosun Ilbo reports Jung as saying on November 5.

The “debate” is between a state-control (국정) system, wherein the state is the principle actor in textbook production, and one of state-evaluation (검정), in which the state plays the role of supervisor; the latter system is currently in place in South Korea. There is a good comparative review (in Korean) of world “textbook systems” by the Joongang Ilbo. The Chosun Ilbo summary of the two systems underscores unacceptable practices in both:

For ‘state-controlled textbooks,’ it is the government’s responsibility to select the writers and supervise the publication process. [Whereas] for ‘state-evaluated textbooks,’ the government screens the work of staff writers assembled by private publishers. Even though it is ‘evaluated,’ the publishers or writers are able to fill the books with their own ideas and preferences as they see fit; this is unacceptable. But, the government, too, cannot unruly write [history]. History textbooks based on truth will contribute to the state and society by helping raise new generations. [After all,] the intellectual development of the students… is the goal of publication.

As discussed in a previous Jangmadang post, a Ministry of Education-led review found some 829 “errors” in eight different history textbooks, all in apparent need of correction. Among these, rather predictably, Chosun finds those of “ideological bias the most severe.” It expounds: “Most textbooks closely observe the problems that arise regarding the subject of South Korea’s growth and development; but they do not observe North Korea’s hereditary dictatorship and starvation.” Referring to problems related to “Korea’s growth and development” is a blunted way of referring to the problems of authoritarian-led economic development. It could be said that modern Korean history is largely the study of society’s reaction to, and the historical treatment of, Park Chung-hee. Legacy politics abound.

Allegedly, the critical juncture happened during the first progressive administration, that of Kim Dae-jung. Chosun recounts:

Following the 1974 October Yushin [constitution] the government published history textbooks; [but] starting in 2002, the method of publication for modern and contemporary history changed to the current evaluation system. The intention was to expose students to a diversity of historical interpretations and viewpoints.

Lest the reader might imagine this to have been a positive development, the next sentence adds:

However, research on the ‘evaluation’ shows that modern history is slanted towards those with power and their particular ‘view of history’ (史觀). The reality of the evaluation system is that South Korean history education has moved from the center towards one side.

To Chosun, that side is, undoubtedly, the left. Though it portends objective “debate,” as called for by Prime Minister Jung, even an unscrupulous read exposes Chosun’s own bias and conservative presuppositions. Though it doesn’t come out and say, “Take us back to the age of government-written history,” it’s hard not to think such a message is implied.

This kind of right-left wrangle over history is brilliantly told by Henry Em in his book The Great Enterprise. One particularly appropriate passage can be found in chapter three, “Nationalizing Korea’s Past,” where Em cautions readers to “be on guard against the appropriating and totalizing power of nationalist historiography.” The warning beckons a question: Can history, when a state is involved in its production, ever be “accurate?” As Ernest Renan once said, “Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.”

But what if the nation is split many times over: North-South, South(left)-South(right)? And what if the state, a separate but not separable part of the nation-state, is mired in the legacy of its former authoritarian self? What then?

Source: “History Textbooks: Understandably, There is Talk of a “State-Control Change” [역사 교과서, 오죽하면 ‘國定 전환’ 얘기까지 나올까], Chosun Ilbo, November 7, 2013.

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