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History Wars in South Korea

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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.

More here.

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  • Vance Maverick

    Battles over the meaning of history are battles of the meaning of a nation in a present. What could be more important than that?

    I was going to raise a quibble, but even someone who would prefer not to think in terms of nations will still have some structure of understanding of society and government to slot in here. Indeed.

    • Keaaukane

      “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”

  • A little off-topic–though this may have occurred in the palace grounds behind where that picture was taken, if I remember where that was–when I was in Seoul in I think 1998, girls would stop me during the day and ask me to answer their survey of opinions about civil protest and so on. I was told later that these were middle school students doing a project for English class. (Boys were usually there on weekends trying to get pictures of English speakers, without having to talk to them.) I don’t know what happened with the results.

  • John F

    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.

    If that’s true (a big if I know) the conservatives have a legitmate beef.

    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.

    Again the might have a legitimate beef, pretty much if anything positive is written abut the regime in the North they have a legitimate beef, but knowing conservatives I suspect that what really sets them off is any perceived disparagement of them, their heros etc…

    and “disparagement” could be as simple as not whitewashing what they want whitewashed.

    • Murc

      The origins of the Korean War are genuinely fraught. The actual hostilities can be laid squarely at the feet of Kim Il Sung, Mao, and to a lesser extent Stalin, but part of what makes it troublesome is that Syngman Ree was a genuine shitbag and that MacArthur and a lot of far east army officers were doing everything they could to install a conservative government, undermine the state department, and basically gin up a war with China using any avenue they could find.

      • LeeEsq

        Given a genuine free choice, all of Korea might have legitimately ended up as a Communist country. Considering that the Kim dynasty is bat sh*t than we might have to thank McArthur for being a rabid anti-Communist.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          If there had been genuine free elections then Kim Il Sung would not even have won among the communists who were split among a number of factions before 1945. There was a domestic faction still in Korea, a Shainghai faction, a Soviet faction based in Irkutsk, a faction in Japan, and Kim Il Sung’s faction in Manchuria before he retreated to Siberia. For some reason the Soviets chose to support him over the faction already in Irkutsk. But, Soviet military support not support of even Korean commmunists is what put Kim Il Sung in power.

          • But if there actually are free and fair elections in 1950, Kim almost certainly wins.

            • J. Otto Pohl

              I am not sure how it is free if Kim Il Sung and the USSR are allowed to elimiate all of their left wing opponents from 1945-1950 leaving them to compete only against Rhee. Yes in a two man race between Kim and Rhee after all the other options had been eliminated Kim could win. But, the domestic Korean communists had more name recognition and support than Kim before he came into Korea on a Soviet tank.

            • John F

              What Otto said, there is no universe where Kim wins free and fair elections in 1950, unless when you define free and fair you ignore everything Kim and his supporters had done to “elevate” Kim before that time.

        • Jean-Michel

          One of the ironies of Korean division is that the U.S. occupied the southern half where the Korean communist movement was strongest, while the USSR got the northern half where it was almost nonexistent. (This meant “domestic” communists were weak within the North Korean communist apparatus: over half of the delegates at the founding congress of the Workers’ Party had only recently arrived in Korea from China or the USSR, including Kim Il-sung himself, and the second congress was basically a prolonged attack on the domestic faction.) The single most powerful political figure in North Korea immediately following the Japanese surrender was probably the Christian nationalist Cho Man-sik, a conservative and anti-communist man that the Soviets nevertheless tapped (without success) to head up a “popular front” government. A genuinely free and fair election held in the immediate wake of the Japanese departure (that is, before the dictatorships in both halves of the country had a chance to consolidate their rule) could’ve plausibly ended up electing a lot of communists in the south and a lot of conservative nationalists—to put it another way, Syngman Rhee types—in the north.

      • joe from Lowell

        part of what makes it troublesome is that Syngman Ree was a genuine shitbag

        So was Saddam. Do we liberals need to make our narrative of the origins of the Iraq War more complex to reflect this? I don’t consider the decision to invade Iraq to be “fraught” because of Saddam’s character; do you?

        • Murc

          Our decision wasn’t, but the origins of both Iraq Wars are, indeed, fraught. Saddam enjoyed our patronage for a long time and the only reason he suddenly became this massive evil in the early 90s is because he grievously misjudged how far he could push that; that colors all of our further interactions with him and makes the entire mess of our policies and interventions towards Iraq something I think that can be fairly characterized using that word.

          • Rob in CT

            Agree.

            • postmodulator

              I thought about that once; would he have invaded Kuwait if the US hadn’t chuckled indulgently when he fired an Exocet into the USS Stark?

          • joe from Lowell

            The sense of the word seems to have evolved since the last comment.

            No question, the origins of the Iraq War were “fraught” in a certain sense, but I’m asking about precisely the point you were making about Ree and his character making the North Korean invasion “fraught” as opposed to something that can be denounced in a straightforward manner.

            • Murc

              I’m asking about precisely the point you were making about Ree and his character making the North Korean invasion “fraught” as opposed to something that can be denounced in a straightforward manner.

              Er, I was making no such point?

              I said that the origins of the Korean War are fraught. I lay the blame for the conflict itself on a bunch of guys who can and should be denounced in a straightforward manner. I quote myself:

              The actual hostilities can be laid squarely at the feet of Kim Il Sung, Mao, and to a lesser extent Stalin,

              The possibility exists I was communicating badly, of course.

              • joe from Lowell

                So, when you responded to John F’s argument in which he argued that the beginning of the Korean War shouldn’t be presented as a “both sides” situation, by telling us that it was “fraught” and laying out the bill of goods against Ree (the invaded side that isn’t being blamed for the war), you weren’t actually arguing that the beginning of the war was complicated, with blame being laid on “both sides,” and that straightforwardly blaming North Korean aggression is misleading. OK; it looked an awful lot like you were doing that, that you were trying to shift some of the blame onto the South and away from the North, in the furtherance of a “both sides” narrative.

                I lay the blame for the conflict itself on a bunch of guys who can and should be denounced in a straightforward manner.

                To be precise, your comment serves to “lay the blame” on the South and its allies, and you did so in response to someone saying the blame should be laid on the North. All of the blame-laying on the North has already been done; you wrote in for the purpose of shifting some of it.

                If someone responded to a comment blaming Bush’s aggression for the Iraq War by saying that the beginning of the war was “fraught” and then laying out the bill of particulars against Saddam, what would your reaction would be?

                I quote myself:

                You selectively quote yourself, truncating everything after the word “but” – which is to say, at least according to Benjen Stark, everything that matters.

                • Murc

                  If someone responded to a comment blaming Bush’s aggression for the Iraq War by saying that the beginning of the war was “fraught” and then laying out the bill of particulars against Saddam, what would your reaction would be?

                  It would depend on the precise wording of the comment and the person making it, of course, as well as if they had a history of arguing in bad faith or staking out ideologically questionable positions re: the war in question, of course.

                  You’ve made a lot of statements about what my comment was doing that I did not at all intend.

      • Had Kim Il Sung not attacked from the North, I wonder if Syngman Ree would have attacked from the South?

        • wengler

          The only difference was Stalin aggressively arming the North.

        • John F

          My understanding is that he was the type of jackass who would have if he thought he could, so his allies deliberately starved his military of equipment and support to keep him from thinking it was as an option.

      • Bitter Scribe

        Nations headed by “genuine shitbags” can be victims of aggression just like any other.

        Can any sane person argue that Korea would be better off now if the Communists had prevailed, either militarily or at the ballot box?

  • Murc

    I was actually composing a response to this saying “the conservatives kind of have a point if ostensible liberals are white-washing the utter fuckitude of North Korea” until I remembered that conservatives are never right about anything and that it is projection all the way down. So I’m going to assume they’re engaging in a gross smear of the actual liberal position on those issues.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      I am pretty sure that conservative and liberal in the Korean context differ considerably from those in the US. In fact except in the sense of conservative equaling more traditional and liberal meaning more open to change I am not sure the terms fit at all. I am sure that even “liberal” Koreans for instance are nationalists particularly with regards to Japan in a way that most liberal Americans would find rather illiberal.

      But, two things. First, not all South Korean military dictatorships were equal. Rhee relied pretty much solely on nationalism for his legitimacy and did little to develop the economy compared to his successors. Park as a former officer in the Japanese Army could not appeal to nationalism in the same way. So he became what is really a model in developmental dictatorship and planned capitalism of industrializing South Korea. The Korean economic miracle owes much of its success to Park. Park as an etatist was much closer in policies to people like Ataturk in Turkey or even Nkrumah in Ghana than American “free market” conservatives. Yes it was a dictatorship that violated human rights. But, most regimes that industrialized in the Third World were. The alternative was generally a democratic state with a stagnant economy that violated human rights like India rather than an Asian version of Sweden.

      Second, the charges about the presentation of North Korea may very well be true. Certain elements of the Korean population including the diaspora in Japan as well as some opponents of the military regime in the 1980s had an excessively positive view of the Kims. I suspect such an element still exists and they may have gotten to write the textbook sections for some reason. What ever the faults of Park, he wasn’t nearly as bad as Kim Il Sung and his industrial project for South Korea surpassed the more developed North already in 1972.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        I actually find myself agreeing whole heartedly with JOP. American leftists (and LGM is no exception) often view comparative politics through a very American centric filter. Its as if for them the partisan struggles here map exactly to foreign countries.

      • Murc

        Yes it was a dictatorship that violated human rights. But, most regimes that industrialized in the Third World were. The alternative was generally a democratic state with a stagnant economy that violated human rights like India rather than an Asian version of Sweden.

        I reject the idea that the only alternative to the jackboot that promised economic development was the jackboot that promised none.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          So where are all these post-colonial states in Asia and Africa following Scandinavian models of economic growth, democratic rule, and respect for human rights especially for ethnic minorities? The few democratic states in the region seem to be lacking in one or more of these things since the start of decolonization.

          • Murc

            I have literally no idea what you’re trying to say with this comment. You’ve asked a rhetorical question and then stated a rather banal fact I don’t dispute. If you have a point in there, or a rebuttal, it eludes me.

            • John F

              I have literally no idea why his response baffles you, he stated a more or less banal fact, you objected essentially by saying how the world IS is not how you want it to be, and he reiterated by essentially saying show me, what is your better ACTUAL alternative.

              Maybe you two are talking past eachother to some extent, but his point is so pretty obvious I can’t quite credit your claim that it eludes you.

      • My father was in the US Army in Korea around 1963.

        He said he was in Seoul once when a ROK soldier suddenly pushed him up against the wall with a rifle (sideways not the muzzle) because Park Chung-hee’s motorcade was passing by.

        Don’t know much about the guy but that was always one of my Dad’s stories.

        • John F

          My father turned 18 in 1945, all his classmates were drafted but him… Years later he gets called up during Korea- graduation day everyone gets an initial assignment but him, Captain walks up to him, “…. hmmm, Ok Private, where do you want to go, Korea or… Germany”

          He picked Germany (and I now exist)- that was my Father’s Korean War story.

    • LeeEsq

      I think that your projecting your ideas about American conservatives on Korean conservatives without knowing much about them.

      • Murc

        Could be. I know a lot about Korean politics up to the death of Rhee and not a ton after that. But the mapping was accurate up to that point, because Rhee’s conservative-nationalism blueprint and the oppressive measures he adopted to make it happen are directly analogous to those espoused by western conservatives, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the decades Rhee spent in the state.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          As I mentioned above Rhee was very different than Park who is more important in this case since the chief critic of the text books is his daughter. Park had stress his role in using the state to develop the economy for his legitimacy rather than his nationalist credentials because he had been a military collaborator with the Japanese colonial authorities. This meant he had no credibility along the traditonal Korean nationalist measures. Because these all focused on who hated the Japanese the most in order to create an independent Korea. What Park did instead was use the Korean state to direct the industrialization of South Korea. The heavy involvement of the state in the economy by Park has nothing in common with American conservatives today. It more closely resembles other developmental dictatorships in the Third World none of which were “free market” fundamentalists.

      • Korean conservatives are pretty awful, with deep ties to American evangelicalism, patriarchal values, and a Cold War mentality. No, they aren’t exactly the same as American conservatives, but in this case, the situations do bear comparison.

        • LeeEsq

          Korean conservatives are complaining about an actual real state with an actual ideology rather than a bogeyman though. The Kim dynasty and juche deserve about the same amount as respect as the Confederacy and the Lost Cause ideology.

          • wengler

            Yeah but it would be like whitewashing Northern history because the Confederacy exists.

            • J. Otto Pohl

              They are two different complaints. One is that the text books are too lenient on the North Korean regime. The other is that they are too critical of the military regimes of Park and those that came after him. To be fair both Kim Il Sung and Park Chung Hee were authoritarian rulers with bad human rights records. Although the authoritarianism of the North was Stalinist and that of the South your garden variety military dictatorship. They also both had significant economic achievements. The distinction here is that the economic growth strategy in the South had a long terms sustainability that the North did not have and that the authoritarianism ended in the South and not the North a couple decades ago.

    • joe from Lowell

      until I remembered that conservatives are never right about anything and that it is projection all the way down.

      Hold on; American conservatives are never right about anything and it’s projection all the way down.

      But there are still lots of places in the world where “conservative” is somewhat comparable to what it meant in America in the 50s-70s, as opposed to the post-Gingrich era.

  • Keaaukane

    No discussion of North Korea is complete without this documentary

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwoSFQb5HVk

    Hat tip to Bill Murrey and Murc for helping me with the mysteries of the internet. You will regret it!

  • postmodulator

    I lived in Seoul from 1983 to 1985 as an army brat, and formed a pretty definite opinion of the place. Ten years ago, my wife and I took a honeymoon cruise, and for some reason the cruise was maybe forty percent South Korean nationals, and I remember being astonished that there that many middle-class South Koreans in the whole world. Not the case, when I was there. I wondered if they were all gangsters, or in the government, or both.

  • Ronan

    “that none of this really matters”

    As the Marxists (j Otto?) here might note

    “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”

  • GregSanders

    Prof. Loomis:
    Your 1990s narrative was fairly accurate at the time, but might be a bit out of date now. Younger South Koreans have grown more skeptical of the North and less hostile towards the United States. (See Dan Drezner for more including polling data https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/07/16/the-stylized-facts-about-south-korea-are-changing/)

    “So was the stylized fact about young South Koreans wrong? Not exactly. What’s happened is that those young South Koreans have now become middle-aged South Koreans. They’ve mellowed a bit in their anti-American attitudes, but that age cohort remains the most suspicious of the United States — because of its support for pre-1988 authoritarian rulers in the country, and for the Bush administration’s hostility to the Sunshine policies of the previous decade.

    Currently, young South Koreans, however, have a different view. They appear to be more suspicious about China’s rise and are way more suspicious of North Korea’s intentions. For both of these reasons, it’s understandable that they value the alliance with the United States.”

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