Over the last several years, battles over history textbooks have occasionally come up in the American media, with conservatives freaking out the new AP U.S. History standards that don’t explicitly celebrate American exceptionalism and Texas forcing textbook companies to downplay issues like slavery or anything positive about racial minorities. Conservatives want celebratory history taught and they see any real look at the past as a threat to their nationalist mythology feeding their right-wing obsessions. In both the AP and Texas cases, they have largely won those battles, much to the chagrin of professional historians.
But this is hardly unique to the United States (the U.S. is never actually exceptional, even in its weirdness. Except maybe for the gun obsession). For a long time now, people have expressed dismay over Japan not owning up to its imperialist past and whitewashing its behavior during World War II in textbooks. We are now seeing the history wars in South Korea.
Conservative critics say that almost all school texts present juche positively, in the language of North Korean propaganda. They worry that students might grow up admiring North Korea for a philosophy that’s observed mainly in the breach because North Korea relies on China for virtually all of its oil, half of its food and much else.
Conservatives are just as outraged by the way some textbooks explain the origins of the Korean War. They cite passages in which the authors hold both sides responsible for the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 that resulted four days later in the capture of Seoul.
Liberals, meanwhile, say conservatives want a sanitized version of history. If the government sticks with its plan, they believe that would set a terrible precedent and compromise independent scholarship.
The controversy harks back to the bad old days when dictatorial presidents with military backgrounds not only controlled what was taught in schools but also imposed censorship on newspapers and jailed outspoken foes of the regime. Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961 and ruled with increasing firmness until his assassination in 1979, was probably the toughest. He, of course, is the father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.
Park is by no means as harsh as her father. She has not suggested amending the “democracy constitution,” promulgated seven years after Park’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan, suppressed the bloody Kwangju revolt in May 1980.
Still, she is firmly identified with the conservative party that controls the National Assembly, and she personally ordered the drive to purify school textbooks. Her self-interest aligns with conservative objections to the way some textbooks describe the history of “dictatorship” in the South — a reference to her father’s 18 years and five months in power before his assassination — while playing down his contributions to the economy.
This fits the narrative I have of South Korea, which I picked up on when I spent a year in that nation during the 1990s. You have, primarily older, citizens still influenced heavily by the Korean War and fear of communism, sympathetic to the U.S. supported dictatorships of the 1950s-80s that suppressed civil liberties and a younger generation that is reasonably sympathetic with their neighbors to the north, wanting to put the past behind them as much as possible. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that but you do seem to see that playing out here in these textbook battles, with the daughter of the most notorious Korean dictator able to win election and then following as many of her father’s policies as possible, including fighting history wars. Sometimes I receive comments when I write about the past–especially about the Confederate flag–that none of this really matters. But that’s absurd. Battles over the meaning of history are battles of the meaning of a nation in a present. What could be more important than that? Those who seek to sanitize the past and promote nationalist or racist symbols and people certainly understand that, whether in the U.S., Japan, or South Korea.