South Korea is a tale of two societies divided deeply and evenly between a conservative and liberal view. How the history of that tale is told to young Koreans is a subject of great disagreement among parents, professors, teachers, and school departments.
Now, a plan by President Park Geun-hye to impose an official interpretation on the teaching of school history, one that favors the ideological right, is inflaming old conflicts about the Korean war and the legacy of past dictators, including the president's own father.
Conservatives argue that strong authority figures kept the country safe from North Korea and created prosperity. Liberals see a history of democracy opposition against dictators and of civic activism aimed at reuniting with the North.
By 2017, under President Park's initiative, all public middle and high schools must use official history curriculum with textbooks written by a government-appointed panel. Under the current system, schools can choose from among several textbooks that have been criticized by conservatives as harboring a liberal bias.
Academics and liberal politicians accuse the president of wanting to whitewash repression by past dictators such as her father, Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a coup in 1961, and of burying the contributions of past democracy movements.
More than 1,000 academics have lined up to publicly oppose the government’s plan. In a particularly symbolic rebuke, 91 professors at Seoul’s Sogang University, the president’s alma mater, released a statement protesting the move earlier this month.
Many of Park's critics say the president's policy is mostly about buffing the image of her late father.
"Although the government is seeing huge opposition toward the policy, the reason why they are focused on it is greatly linked with assessing the Park Chung-hee administration," says Hur Young-ran, an associate history professor at the University of Ulsan, a college in the country’s southeast.
Like other academics, Prof. Hur believes history education should present multiple interpretations of the past but says, “the government's history book policy blocks this. So I think it is a historical retrogression."
To be sure, South Korea is hardly alone in its history textbook battles. How history is interpreted for coming generations is hotly contested in education departments around the globe. US school districts run into heated battles over presentations of everything from race to religious history. Chinese and Japanese intellectuals debate curriculum that may slant or omit material having to do with their own failings or policies, particularly the vexed history of World War II, when Japan's military overran China and South Korea.
In South Korea, a lack of consensus on the past is so pronounced that the opening of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul several years ago was repeatedly delayed after political strife over the ideological bent of its content.
Differing interpretations on the national narrative have also sired insecurity over the South’s identity and its founding.
Conservatives emphasize how strongmen thwarted subversion by North Korean communists, aided by China and the Soviet Union, who in 1950 launched a fratricidal war with the South. The divided peninsula remains a flashpoint in East Asia.
Liberals have tended to revere activists and dissidents that resisted South Korean dictators and who, through struggle and sacrifice, carved out space for democracy and civil society, and who seek reconciliation with their ethnic brothers and sisters in the North.
Among the strongmen, Park’s father looms the largest. He governed the country for 18 years until his assassination by his spy chief in 1979. In a country that bitterly remembers colonization by Japan, the former dictator is also a target of nationalistic scorn from the left for having enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army.
Robert E. Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, says recurring conflict over the country’s modern history reflects a crisis of identity arising from the division of the “minjok,” or Korean race, between North and South Korea.
“South Korea has this big national identity problem because it’s basically in a nationalist competition with the North,” says Kelly. “And so it’s a real struggle for South Korea to find its national identity and who it is because it is faced with a direct competitor that emphasizes ‘minjok’ themes and stuff like that really relentlessly.”
Conservatives have long complained of textbooks that are unduly sympathetic to North Korea. They point to liberal texts that suggest the South is responsible for the Korean War or that favorably cite North Korea's state ideology, “juche,” which reveres the Kim family dynasty in Pyongyang.
“The government is pushing for the normalization of history education to give our children, the leaders of the future, a correct awareness of history and to raise them to have pride in being citizens of the Republic of Korea,” Park told the National Assembly, the country’s legislature, on Tuesday.
In her speech to parliament, Park appealed to a sense of national pride that has often rallied Koreans to bigger causes. “If we don’t know our identity and history, we could be dominated by other countries, culturally and economically, and have our ethnic consciousness eroded,” she said.
Prof. Kelly says that nationalism, which cuts across party lines, is a powerful unifier in South Korea. He says a powerful executive, narrow ruling class and a relatively short experience with free elections combine to create a deficit of democratic legitimacy.
Public opinion is split on the revision of the history curriculum. Among two opinion polls taken in mid-October, one found South Koreans to be in favor by a three-point margin, while the other reported a dead heat.