SEOUL — For years, the South Korean government and private Korean organizations have objected to Japanese textbooks that convey a rather sunny version of Japan's imperial and colonial history. Now a textbook controversy is turning Koreans against Koreans, and exposing deep divisions in Korean life.
All sides acknowledge that young South Koreans need some understanding of what's going on in North Korea, but how should high schools portray life on the other side of the border? Should they depict their neighbors as enemies or victims? Is objectivity even possible?
The government's National Institute of Korean History, convinced it's the arbiter, plans to replace existing textbooks with an authorized "correct history textbook" by March 2017, leading some to accuse the government of spreading propaganda while trampling on freedom of expression and discussion.
Conservatives say the liberal scholars who wrote the existing textbooks have tended to ignore the darker aspects of the North Korean dictatorship, while liberals accuse conservatives of wanting to "demonize" the North.
One particularly spirited argument revolves around what textbooks teach high school students about juche, or self-reliance, North Korea's avowed national philosophy.
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.
For liberals, battling dictatorial rule after the Korean War, winning the right to elect representatives and resisting government meddling with textbooks is all part of a continuum, an unending struggle or protest against repression.
The situation, however, is more complex than this narrative allows, more multifaceted. North Korean schools obviously do not provide young students with anything like an objective version of the Korean War or life in the South. The North vilifies Park and talks of driving her from power. More than 1.1 million North Korean troops linger above the demilitarized zone that's divided North from South since the Korean War. It refuses to stop fabricating nuclear warheads while developing missiles for launching them against targets near and far.
In this context, is it reasonable for textbook writers in South Korea to insist on a fair, even sympathetic, portrayal of North Korea? School kids, say southern conservatives, need to comprehend the dangers that confront them.
The back-and-forth is not going to stop any time soon. More than 50,000 people have signed a petition against the "correct history" plan, and textbook authors have joined in a lawsuit against the government, accusing authorities of trying to brainwash the young. The matter will also come before the people in election campaigns.
The debate bears certain parallels to textbook controversies in the United States. What should Americans be taught about the Vietnam War, or the legacy of American slavery and the civil rights struggle or, for that matter, wars against Native Americans? These questions reflect the difficulties of judging textbooks everywhere.
For Koreans, 65 years after the devastation of the Korean War, the issues are not only sensitive but ongoing, part of everyday reality on a divided peninsula.
Donald Kirk, journalist and author, has written numerous books and articles on Korea and Northeast Asia.