Korea's history: What text should high-schoolers read?

Conservatives want to revise high-school texts that they say are dominated by a leftist outlook.

Roberto Candia/AP
President Lee: S. Korea's conservative leader objects to how history is taught.

Scholars and bureaucrats here are debating modern Korean history in a dispute that epitomizes differences between Korean leftists and conservatives.

At stake is whether the government should order the authors of textbooks used in secondary schools throughout the country to revise them in line with the conservative outlook of President Lee Myung Bak and his top aides as well as the Defense Ministry.

Foreign as well as Korean intellectuals have risen to the defense of the textbook authors in a statement signed by more than 660 scholars, 112 from overseas.

"It is of grave concern," says the statement submitted to the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, "that the current attempt to revise history textbooks appears to be driven by a specific political agenda to homogenize history textbooks, as demanded by the 'New Right' and parts of the governing group."

The statement charges that the ministry would allow "only one historical interpretation" – an approach that "leads to the repression of academic freedom in research and publication."

Chu Chin O, author of one of a half-dozen disputed textbooks and leader of a committee of textbook authors, says the government wants to put a positive spin on the country's often controversial history. "They want us to praise dictators," he charges, citing a request from the defense ministry "to rewrite passages on Chun Doo Hwan," the general who seized power after the assassination of the long-ruling Park Chung Hee in October 1979. Mr. Chun was later convicted for ordering the brutal suppression in May 1980 of a revolt in Kwangju in which 200 young people died. (Editor's note: The wrong name was given for the man convicted of suppressing the Kwangju massacre.)

Ministry officials say the reason for revisions is that authors distorted events after former President Kim Dae Jung, in 2003, authorized privately written versions in place of official texts.

The ministry has ordered specific changes in a textbook entitled "Modern – Contemporary History of Korea" – and is expected to mandate revisions in several others.

Underlying the ministry's criticism is the sense that the books are far too critical of the country's leadership after the time of the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

Conservatives believe the books tend to overlook the economic "miracle" of the nation's rise from the devastation of the Korean War while focusing on the dictatorial excesses of a series of leaders beginning with the country's first president, Rhee Syngman.

"Current textbooks lack positive evaluation of Korea's success in economy and democracy," the ministry said in written response to questions.

In view of the influence of textbooks on "the values of our country," the response goes on, passages "that hurt the legitimacy of the establishment of Korea will be corrected or amended."

Some academic figures see a desire on the part of the conservative president, Mr. Lee, to reverse teachings inculcated during Kim Dae Jung's presidency.

"They're blaming the leftists for troubles," says Charles Armstrong, a history professor at Columbia University, and calling for "a much less critical view of the United States."

Mr. Armstrong, a signer of the statement, concedes that "it's probably true" that the books gloss over the Korean War, covering it only briefly and playing down the North Korean role.

The books in general focus on the democratization movement, giving the impression of a national struggle against foreign oppressors, including the country's American ally.

"There's room for debate about the Korean War," says Armstrong, "but foreign scholars are worried this has become a fait accompli."

Henry Em, a visiting professor at Korea University who also supported the statement to the government, says the debate over how history is presented focuses on the occupation of Korea by American troops for three years after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Conservatives object to emphasis on the raising of "the Stars and Stripes" in place of the "Japanese imperial flag" over the central capitol building after the Japanese surrender – a portrayal, they say, that suggests one "occupation" power was replacing another. The ministry in particular disputes the inference that the Japanese surrender was "the starting point of the ordeal to achieve autonomy and independence."

The Education Ministry "finds it problematic that national division is talked about simply as a result of external pressure," says Mr. Em, rather than holding the North Korean Communists "primarily responsible."

Then there's the word "dictator," used to describe Mr. Rhee, who ruled from the founding of the government in 1948 until his ouster in April 1960. The term is also applied to Park, who seized power in May 1961 and ruled for more than 18 years.

"They would like to emphasize economic development and modernization in the context of the cold war," says Em. Conservatives argue that the books pay little heed to the realities of the cold war, the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, or the hostility between the US and China, whose "volunteers" rescued North Korea from defeat by US and South Korean forces.

The fact is, Em observes, defending the tone of the books, that the Rhee, Park, and Chun regimes were "authoritarian."

Rather than come down in favor of one viewpoint or the other, however, Em sees the issue in terms of academic freedom. He argues that "there should be a choice" under which schools and teachers can select texts free of central directives, ideally offering a range of perspectives.

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