War by Other Means: South Korea’s Textbook Battlefield

By | October 09, 2015 | No Comments

Screenshot via FactTV (팩트TV) of the afternoon session of the National Assembly’s Education, Culture, Sports, and Tourism Committee on October 8, after the opposition stuck protest pickets to every laptop. | Image: 팩트TV/YouTube

Screenshot via FactTV (팩트TV) of the afternoon session of the National Assembly’s Education, Culture, Sports, and Tourism Committee on October 8, after the opposition stuck protest pickets to every laptop. | Image: 팩트TV/YouTube

What do the state of Texas and South Korea have in common? The unamusing answer: intense debates as to how the nation’s history ought to be portrayed in middle and high school history textbooks. While the content is different, the form is basically the same. In Texas, debate may center on how to depict the institution of slavery, whereas in South Korea it centers on the nation’s very founding. (Both debates address fundamental issues, as debates on nations often do.) Both are worthy of dispassionate analysis, but South Korea gets the spotlight here.

Does the current state trace its origins to 1919, at the time of the March 1st Movement against Japanese colonial occupation? Or was it 1948, when the Republic of Korea was established under the controversial rule of President Syngman Rhee? And how ought textbooks to depict Park Chung-hee’s military coup d’état and the legacy of Japanese colonialism? Should students be taught about Kim Il-sung and the Juche ideology? If so, how?

These are just a few of the issues that divide what are seemingly irreconcilable interpretations of Korea’s national history. This will come as little surprise to students of South Korean historiography. As Henry Em’s book The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea shows, there is a deep divide between leftist- and rightist-nationalist narratives.

While binary distinctions are often artificial, Em’s work suggests that the leftist perspective might best be represented by Korean History Before and After Liberation [해방전후사의 인식] and the rightist critique by Reconsideration of Korean History Before and After Liberation [해방전후사의 재인식]. Critics on the right find the leftist perspective questions the political legitimacy of the current republic and portrays the colonial period as a Manichean struggle between oppressor colonial rulers and independence fighters. Scholars from the “New Right” in particular have mounted a challenge to the prominence of “revisionist” historiography.

Since 2012, there has been a renewed political debate raging over which interpretation ought to be taught. Leftist want to be sure that students are taught critical histories and that Japanese collaborators and the Park Chung-hee regime are not “glorified.” Rightist, on the other hand, are worried that an overly critical history will emasculate the nation, leaving it feeling self-defeatist and lacking pride. As I have discussed in my collection of articles on the history textbook debate, the two side are at loggerheads with no resolution in sight. Sensing this, the Park Geun-hye government has asked the Ministry of Education to consider (re)implementing a national textbook system, whereby the government would produce a single history textbook for middle and high schools. Between 1973 and 2009 such a system existed, but was recently reformed, relegating the role of the government to that of gatekeeper. Rather than produce textbooks the government reviewed and approved a number of textbooks from which schools could choose.

The question of state intervention divides Korea’s political elites. Those on the right claim the partial liberalization of textbook production has resulted in “errors” creeping in, while leftists have been on the offensive since a new history textbook was approved that, they claim, whitewashes the Japanese occupation and speaks in uncomfortably positive terms about Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial rule.

The solution, the government seems to imply, is to stamp out the debate entirely. The government is set to render its decision sometime next week on whether or not to opt for a single state textbook system. In the meantime, the National Assembly, through its Education, Culture, Sports, and Tourism Committee, has conducted a series of reviews. Predictably, the conversation has been anything but civil. Translated below is a Chosun Ilbo article from October 9 describing the meeting. The attitude and comments from both side of the political aisle is reflective of the history debate writ large and is the latest manifestation in a history-long debate.

Jang Sang-jin, “’History Coup d’état’ vs ‘Balancing History’… Inspection-cum Textbook Battlefield” [“歷史 쿠데타” vs “역사 균형잡기”… 교과서 전쟁터 된 국감], Chosun Ilbo, October 9, 2015.

On October 8 [Thursday], the National Assembly’s Education, Culture, Sports, and Tourism Committee (국회 육문화체육관광위원회) had planned to conduct its final parliamentary audit (국정감사) of the Ministry of Education. Instead, the ruling and opposition parties exchanged harsh words and insults concerning the ongoing parliamentary debate about the production of Korean history textbooks. Assembly hearings have become a ‘history battlefield’ (역사 전쟁터).

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea (왕우여) was the first to report on the day of the hearings. Woo Gi-hong, representative from New Politics Alliance for Democracy [NPAD; main opposition] said to Hwang, “The announcement regarding the issue of state control over Korean history textbooks is near; why aren’t you giving a proper report?” Woo demanded to know the position of the Ministry of Education. Hwang gave an ambiguous response. “A notification has yet to be issued. I cannot predict beforehand what will be said.” In response, representatives from both parties repeatedly requested a point of order (의사진행발언).

In unison, members of the opposition party voiced their opposition to the spread of state control over history textbook production. NPAD representative Yoo Eun-hye remarked, “President Park Geun-hye’s main strategy is to recover her father’s honor. Isn’t this why the state is taking control of the production of history textbooks?” Seol-hun, another NPAD representative, added, “Nazi Germany under Hitler, Imperial Japan, our country under the Yushin system, and North Korea produced [or produce] state history textbooks.” Several others piled on. “The father staged a military coup d’état, and the daughter is staging a history coup d’état,” said Bae Jae-jeong. Yoo In-tae commented, “How can the people be united by a textbook that glorifies Yushin? This is an [Shinzo] Abe-like strategy.”

In response to the criticisms, Hwang responded, “The guidelines that the president has given to the ministry are to ‘create a textbook that is balanced and correct’ [균형 잡힌, 올바른 교과서를 만들라]. Do you think a textbook produced by the Ministry of Education would glorify Japanese collaborators or glorify dictatorship?” [교육부가 만드는 교과서가 친일을 미화하고 독재를 옹호하는 게 가능하겠느냐] He did not back down, adding, “The ministry will produce a textbook that unites the people.”

The ruling party members supported Hwang. “Do not speak carelessly, calling this a coup d’état,” quipped Saenuri Party representative Ahn Hong-jun. Yun Jae-ok added, “It’s a mistake to think that the president’s approval of a state textbook is part of an effort to restore her father’s honor.” And Yoo Jae-jung observed, “Under the system of textbook review [the current system], some textbooks state that North Korea’s ‘Juche ideology was established independently and in line with the country’s circumstances’ [북한의 실정에 맞춰 주체적으로 수립한 사상].” Lastly, Saenuri’s Park Dae-chul said, “In Gyeonggi-do during a middle school math class, the teacher commented on the recent land mind provocation, saying, ‘North Korea did not plant the mines” [북한이 지뢰를 설치하지 않았다].

As representatives from both parties continued their interruptions by calling points of order, the inspection slated for that morning adjourned before it could even begin. It resumed in the afternoon, but only the opposition party members attended. They stuck pickets to front of the laptops in protest, reading, ‘A state textbook is a pro-Japanese, dictatorial textbook.’ All afternoon the opposition party members demanded ‘the analysis of the authorized textbooks [from under the current review system] provided to the ruling party representatives be released’ [여당에 제출된 검정 교과서 분석 자료를 내놓으라]. The morning filibustering went on between 10:00AM and 10:30PM. Chairperson of the Standing Committee Park Ju-seon commented, “The filibuster could go on all night.” Those slated to testify from the National Institute for Educational Research and Training and the Ministry of Education were never given the opportunity to speak.

Source: Jang Sang-jin, “’History Coup d’état’ vs ‘Balancing History’… Inspection-cum Textbook Battlefield” [“歷史 쿠데타” vs “역사 균형잡기”… 교과서 전쟁터 된 국감], Chosun Ilbo, October 9, 2015. Translation by Steven Denney with Jin Seongbak.

Correction: It was stated the “Ministry of Education is set to render its decision sometime next week on whether or not to opt for a single state textbook system.” This was, in fact, “the government,” meaning the ruling Saenuri Party and the Blue House.

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