A South Korean army parade in 1973 honoring then-president Park Chung-hee
On November 14, 2015, mass protests rocked the streets of Seoul, attracting 60,000 participants to the nation’s largest demonstration in nearly a decade. Organized by South Korea’s labor federations, the protest rallied against President Park Geun-hye and her administration’s proposals to revise labor laws and history textbooks — both seemingly to the benefit of the politically conservative Saenuri Party. Protesters attacked riot police with metal pipes and ladders, prompting them to fight back with water cannons and pepper spray. In the aftermath, Han Sang-gyun, President of the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions), was arrested for inciting unrest and violence among those involved in leading the demonstration. However, the greatest casualty may have been President Park’s reputation. Her administration’s actions and comments have only served as fodder for her left-wing opposition.
Following the November protests, President Park called for stricter measures on public demonstrations. In an unfortunate move, she alluded to the then-recent Paris attacks to make her point, stating at a cabinet meeting: “In particular, masks in protests should not be tolerated. Isn’t that what ISIS is doing these days, with their faces hidden like that?” Her comments gave birth to tantalizing headlines such as “South Korean President Compares Protesters to ISIS.” However, Park isn’t so much worried about terrorist activities by Koreans, themselves, as much as she is about “some terrorist elements that may sneak into the protests.” For decades, that threat was North Korea. Now, it’s ISIS. In both cases, the government invoked national security to justify an expansion of its power.
This rhetoric of national security has similarly come up in the government’s call to renationalize secondary school history textbooks — a large impetus for the November protest. Currently, textbooks are vetted by scholars and the Ministry of Education, leaving schools with eight options to choose from. However, as South Korean legislators worry about the representation of pro-North Korean ideologies in public education, schools must now teach from a single government issued textbook by 2017. As this new textbook is written, the government has refused to disclose its authors and methodologies.
This hard stance against press freedom occurred in response to lawsuits by several historical scholars, authors of textbooks who claimed that the government was limiting their freedom of speech. Political conservatives widely criticized their depictions of controversial events, and last year, President Park condemned these authors for their “masochistic historical views,” which supposedly communicate North Korean nationalist ideologies. Such statements may seem tritely opinionated given Park’s overuse of “Red Scare” tactics, but they do come with some merit. One commonly cited argument against the authors is how one textbook used the term “dictatorial” only twice when referring to North Korea, but as many as 28 times in regard to South Korea. Furthermore, they often described North Korea’s policies, such as “juche,” or “self-reliance,” from a propagandist’s angle: without noting the country’s failure to adhere to its ideals, given its heavy dependence on foreign aid.
However, more is at stake in this attempt to “unify the past under a single educational text” than textbook depictions of North Korea. Overly sympathetic writing on Pyongyang has given the government an excuse to change more than just that, with other historical events now at risk of over-politicization. After all, there’s a plethora of “grey” in the assessment of Korean history — points where the political left and right remain at odds. In particular, three critical contemporary junctures come to mind: Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945, postcolonial reconstruction and civil war from 1946-1954, and rapid industrialization from 1961-1979 under totalitarian president Park Chung-hee.
For example, when analyzing the impact of Japanese colonial rule, individuals credit or disparage Japan to varying degrees for its construction, or lack thereof, of economic infrastructure on the peninsula. In regards to the Korean War, left-wing intellectuals commonly assign responsibility for starting the war to both North and South, despite Russian and Chinese records containing proof of North Korea’s meticulous planning of its invasion in the face of an unprepared South Korea. However, the starkest contrast between the political left and right is the legacy of President Park Chung-hee. His policies stimulated South Korea’s economy, yet he ruled as a manipulative authoritarian who took power by force. Conservatives point to Park Chung-hee’s militarily attained presidency as the May 16 “revolution,” believing that the country would have fallen to North Korea without it. Yet since a national reassessment of history in 1992, it is now widely known as the May 16 “coup.”
Although the call for a single textbook was underlain by a national security rationale, ulterior motives may be at play. For instance, several key political leaders of South Korea’s conservative party have personal stake in these issues. Assembly member Kim Moo-sung comes from a line of pro-Imperial-Japanese capitalists, and President Park Geun-hye — lest it be forgotten — is the daughter of former president and authoritarian Park Chung-hee. Thus, the government’s move to control history textbooks, and revise them in secret, should invite suspicion, for there indeed seems to be much at stake for those implicated in the controversies of the past. Perhaps George Orwell said it best in his novel, 1984: “who controls the past controls the future.”
Park’s administration approached the issue without tact, immediately reaching for the “nuclear option” of removing independent textbooks all together — a clear affront to the norms of transparency and intellectual freedom in liberal democracy. Instead, she should have incrementally expanded the government’s power of review over the educational press, despite the numerous lawsuits brought by various textbook authors. Currently, her move could be salvaged by making the standardization process more transparent, and by establishing a review board with equal parts liberal and conservative intellectuals. Although the presentation of a “single history” can hardly be expected to come without a shred of bias, scholars could make a concerted attempt to communicate objective information that students can approach with their own critical lens. In light of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s formal apology on the issue of Korean “comfort women” (World War II human trafficking and sex slavery), President Park should similarly rise above the temptation to whitewash her nation’s history.
Andy Kim is a senior in the School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University, minoring in English and Creative Writing.