Monday, November 17, 2008

To conservative critics, a popular textbook’s version of how U.S. and Soviet forces took control of Korea from Japanese colonialists in 1945 exemplifies all that’s wrong with how South Korean history is taught to young people today.

The facts no one disputes are that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet military swept into northern Korea and installed a friendly Communist government while a U.S. military administration assumed control in the south.

But then the high school textbook takes a direction that is raising hackles among conservatives. It argues that the Japanese occupation was followed not by a free, self-determining Korea, but by a divided peninsula dominated once again by foreign powers.

“It was not our national flag that was hoisted to replace the Japanese flag,” reads the textbook published by Kumsung Publishing. “The flag that flew in its place was the American Stars and Stripes. Our liberation through the Allied forces’ victory prevented us from building a new country according to our own wishes.”

The critics include the government of President Lee Myung Bak, the conservative who came to power this year with a pledge to overturn a decade of liberal policies that Lee said coddled North Korea and denigrated the U.S. alliance – the alliance that liberals, for their part, accused of propping up South Korean dictators in the name of anti-Communism.

On Oct. 30, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of the Kumsung book and five other textbooks currently used in high schools delete or revise 55 sections in their texts that it said “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.”

“A textbook of modern history should be written in a way that does not hurt our national pride,” it said.

The authors rejected the interference, saying their critics were trying to “beautify” the country’s problematic history, overlooking Korean collaboration with the Japanese occupiers and postwar dictatorships. The liberal opposition in Parliament said the government’s attempt to censor the textbooks raised the specter of those dictatorships, which once controlled everything from what books South Koreans could read to the proper length of women’s skirts.

“National pride? Patriotism? They should be based on historical facts,” said Hong Soon Kwon, a history professor and co-author of the Kumsung textbook.

South Korea used to teach its teenagers with a single government-issued modern history textbook. But in 2003, to encourage diversity in historical views, the government approved six privately published history textbooks for high school use.

Ever since, the textbooks have drawn criticism from conservatives, sharpening the larger debate in South Korea over how to appraise past leaders – such as the founding president, Syngman Rhee, and the military strongman Park Chung Hee – and the complicated relationship with the United States.

Conservatives say the “left-leaning” textbooks poison the minds of teenagers by reveling in dark corners of history. The books, they say, inspire a “masochistic” view of Korean history by demeaning the role of the Allied forces in Korea’s liberation from Japan, casting the United States as an imperial power and dwelling on the faults of South Korean dictators while slighting their achievements, such as their contributions to the country’s rapid economic growth.

“The textbooks are teaching a patricidal history,” said Park Hyo Chong, a professor of ethics education at Seoul National University and head of Textbook Forum, a conservative group that campaigns against the textbooks.  “They teach that South Korea is a country that should not have been born.”

Complaints like these were brushed aside by the previous liberal government. But after Lee took office in February, government agencies issued their own complaints about the books.

One popular textbook, published by the Institute for Better Education, says that Rhee, revered as the nation-builder by the conservatives but detested by liberals as someone who ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the name of anti-Communism, exploited the North Korean threat to “shore up his dictatorial regime.”

The Ministry of National Defense has demanded that this be rewritten to read: “He did his best to contain Communism.”

According to the Kumsung textbook, Park Chung Hee – who seized power in a coup in 1961 and tortured political dissidents while mobilizing the nation for export-driven economic growth – was “a president who placed himself above the nation’s Constitution.”

The Defense Ministry wants this to be replaced with: “a president who contributed to the nation’s modernization.”

As for the “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea espoused by former President Kim Dae Jung, whose inauguration in 1998 ousted the conservative establishment and brought many former dissidents into positions of power, the Ministry of National Unification now suggests that this term be replaced in textbooks with the official if drier “policy of reconciliation and cooperation.”

Park, the conservative scholar, said that in the past decade students had been inculcated with a “left-leaning” nationalism thanks to the new textbooks and a younger generation of teachers who have no memory of the 1950-53 Korean War and are readier to reconcile with the Communist North.

They came of age amid other formative experiences: Many were students during campus protests against Chun Doo Hwan, who took power after the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and who, in 1980, deployed troops to kill hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Gwangju.

When the United States, which technically had command of the combined U.S.-South Korean forces, did not prevent Chun’s junta from unleashing troops against its own people, students turned against Washington. If the division of the peninsula engendered a mistrust of big powers, Gwangju helped shape views of the United States, historians say.

That resentment persists and surfaced in the huge demonstrations against American beef imports this year.

Younger South Koreans’ view of their history was best summarized by former President Roh Moo Hyun, who inherited the liberal government from Kim in 2003. That year, the same year the new textbooks were distributed to schools, Roh said:  “Our modern history is a painful one, in which justice was defeated and opportunism gained the upper hand.”

Conservatives seethed with anger as the Kim and Roh administrations delved into long-hidden aspects of the recent past – collaboration with Japanese colonialists (Park Chung Hee was a Japanese Imperial Army officer), mass killings of civilians during the Korean War and the abuse of political dissidents.

They argued that these liberals ignored the difficult choices faced by earlier South Korean leaders.

“In the turbulent era we lived through, no one could be completely innocent, no one could live by law alone,” Cho Gap Je, 63, a conservative columnist, said to the cheers of elderly South Koreans who gathered recently to denounce liberal teachers. “When necessary, we shed blood, sweat and tears, so that our children no longer have to shed tears.”

In the months since Lee assumed the presidency, the swing back to the right is palpable, and not just on the education front.

In July, the Defense Ministry banned 23 “seditious books” from military barracks on the grounds that the country’s security was threatened by these “pro-North Korea, anti-government, anti-American and anti-capitalism” works, including two by the American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky.

After the list was leaked to the media, sales of the banned books soared. The military was further embarrassed on Oct. 22, when seven of its own lawyers appealed to the Constitutional Court, saying the book ban violated soldiers’ basic rights.

Even Chomsky chimed in.  “Perhaps, for the sake of honesty, it should be renamed: ‘Ministry of Defense against Freedom and Democracy,”’ he offered in an interview with the “Seditious Books Club,” a new Web site created to discuss the banned books.