Ever since Japan approved a controversial right-wing textbook in March, the South Korean government has demanded revisions to the Japanese curriculum and stepped up long-standing accusations that Japan whitewashes the history taught in its schools.
Seoul insists that Japan admit to its own students and the world that it subjugated East Asia, forced Korean women into prostitution and jailed and killed men who resisted Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula.
Amid the furor, street protests and escalating diplomatic tension, however, this nation’s own textbook authors are coming under growing scrutiny for a kind of selective amnesia that some say resembles that of their erstwhile oppressors.
Historians, civic groups and educators say the distortions in middle and high school texts center on South Korea’s treatment of collaborators during the often-brutal Japanese occupation, credit for the independence struggle against Japan and the exact role of the U.S. military on the peninsula.
Like their Japanese counterparts, critics say, South Korean bureaucrats and politicians have resisted a close examination of the past because a measure of their legitimacy is linked to the official right-wing version of events.
“Korean textbooks sometimes say, ‘History will judge,’ ” says Ha Dae Ung, a student at Yonsei University and co-author of “Correcting the Wrongs of Korean Textbooks.”
“But in Korea, history can’t judge,” he says. “A lot of people really don’t want to look too closely at the truth.”
Granted, thorny issues of historical interpretation are found in every country, and virtually any government tries to justify its political system to its youngsters. And history, even when subject to broad-based scrutiny, can never be completely objective. But South Korea has limited debate on many sensitive issues, arguably compounding the interpretation problem.
The most politically charged--and most studiously ignored--is the way textbooks treat the issue of Koreans who collaborated with Japan and helped subjugate their compatriots.
The issue remains potent more than half a century later because many of today’s elites in every field--from law to politics to business to the arts--are descendants of this collaborator class and continue to benefit directly and indirectly from its legacy.
Critics say those in power have used their influence over school curricula and other social institutions to deflect attention and obfuscate their families’ roles during the Japanese occupation.
The spoils for those who chose to collaborate were often substantial and lasting, including wealth, social mobility and access to education that in turn provided a leg up for their offspring.
Meanwhile, those who openly resisted Japanese rule early in the 20th century often paid dearly. They faced execution, and their families were blacklisted, capping social mobility for generations.
A survey in the early 1990s by the Institute of National Affairs Studies, a Seoul-based civic group, found that half of all South Korean professionals and 90% of bureaucrats came from families with strong ties to the Japanese colonial powers. The group says the findings are still relevant.
“It’s a taboo subject,” says Bang Hak Jin, the group’s general secretary. “This whole issue is almost completely absent from the textbooks. There are a lot of people who don’t want it discussed.”
South Korea’s middle school textbook avoids any mention of the Korean role in the occupation, while its high school counterpart devotes two paragraphs, explaining that a 1945 move to punish Japanese collaborators was quickly dropped after the government failed to support it.
Spotlight Pointed at Politician’s Past
The issue has spilled over into the political arena.
Earlier this month, the ruling Millennium Democratic Party accused conservative opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang’s father, a former clerk in the public prosecutor’s office during the occupation, of having collaborated with the Japanese. Some ruling party members have even suggested that he may have helped prosecute Koreans who spoke out against Japan--potentially explosive political stuff.
“We must demand [Lee’s] retirement from politics,” a party spokesman said.
Lee’s camp quickly retorted that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has a Japanese name in addition to his Korean one. The conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper then printed a photo it said showed the president as a student in 1943 wearing a Japanese military uniform. The ruling party disputed the photo’s authenticity.
A second major blind spot, critics say, is the way the textbooks exaggerate South Korea’s contribution to the anti-Japanese independence struggle while largely ignoring that of their counterparts in what is now North Korea.
A more accurate reading of history suggests that resistance was rather one-sided and in the North’s favor. This divide has been compounded by the fact that many Japanese collaborators were ejected from North Korea after the Korean War and came south, where they had a major influence on North-South policy.
“The movement for independence from Japan was national,” says Kim Yug Hun, a history teacher at Seoul’s Sang Gye High School. “And, in fact, after 1922, most of the struggle came from the North. But the textbooks almost completely ignore the North’s achievements and laud the South’s essentially nonexistent contribution.”
The subtext here, some critics say, is a bit of sleight of hand by Korea’s elites after World War II. Many families that had collaborated with Japan quickly seized the anti-Communist mantle as a powerful tool to mask their past. Over time, the two issues became inextricably linked, so anyone who raised the Japanese collaboration charge was quickly branded a Communist.
“Anyone who even suggested that a collaborator should be removed was immediately branded a virulent Communist,” says Lee Bu Young, vice president of the main opposition Grand National Party.
The textbooks have also come under fire for their depiction of the U.S. military and political role on the peninsula. This may be less a case of denial than a reevaluation of the relationship, but one charge is that the texts have over time downplayed the U.S. role in the Korean War to the point where it’s almost a footnote, even as they bolster the Korean military’s own contribution.
Behind this is a more mixed view of the U.S. these days, analysts say, after reports of the shooting of Korean civilians by American troops during the war as well as more recent troop-related crimes and environmental damage attributed to the military. The most recent textbooks have no direct mention of the U.S. role other than a brief mention of their participation in a United Nations force that pushed back the North Koreans.
Lee Ferguson, a spokesman with the U.S. forces in South Korea, declined to comment.
Still another, more subtle theme throughout the texts, some charge, is the enduring message not to rock the boat, that protest doesn’t pay and that the government knows best. Various historically significant uprisings by farmers against government corruption and mismanagement after 1890 are routinely downplayed, critics say, or blamed on cults.
As South Korea’s historical blind spots come under review, the nation’s textbook-selection process and its potential for abuse by those in power also have come under greater scrutiny. There’s only one textbook available nationwide for each age group--and it is chosen by a committee beholden to the conservative Education Ministry.
“A single version of history based on a uniform ideology inevitably serves the interest of the state, and teachers end up acting as official mouthpieces,” says Lee Hyun Hee, a history professor and textbook committee member for the last nine years. “As a result, elements of the textbook are based on myth, not evidence, resulting in mistakes that can be compared to the Japanese distortions.”
Each Side Accuses Other of Distortion
Seung Yong Kee, an Education Ministry official, says his agency is aware of the alleged distortions and is doing its best to reflect different views.
On the collaborator issue, meanwhile, conservatives accuse their critics of starting a witch hunt, while reformers say more open treatment of these shadowy historical corners is a prerequisite for reasoned democratic debate in a country that only recently emerged from its long totalitarian past.
At the History Park museum at Sodaemun Prison, where thousands of Korean nationalists were imprisoned during the occupation, attendance has tripled since textbook tensions flared with Japan. Schoolchildren on class trips stream past displays of torture instruments used by the Japanese and squeal as they enter a mock solitary confinement chamber. “Japanese are bad and cruel,” concludes Yoon Mi Young, 10.
More reasoned voices hope the debate will show that all sides need to reflect on their past to reduce its divisive power over societies and neighbors.
“Things should improve once the government monopoly on writing textbook ends,” says Kang Man Gil, dean of Sangji University and author of several books on modern Korean history. “We need to teach as much and as truthfully as possible.”
Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.