A high school heroine has South Koreans fighting over history textbooks

South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally supporting the revision of the publication system for Korean history textbooks in Seoul on Tuesday.

South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally supporting the revision of the publication system for Korean history textbooks in Seoul on Tuesday.

(Ahnn Young-jooon / AP)

One of the most fondly remembered historical figures in South Korea was not a ruler or military commander but a diminutive high school girl who took on an empire.

In 1919, at the age of 18, Yu Gwan-sun organized a peaceful demonstration against Japanese colonial rule. Thousands gathered to publicly display Korean flags and call for independence from Japan, which had formally annexed Korea in 1910. During Japan’s 35-year occupation, such public displays of nationalism were illegal. Yu was arrested and died the following year in a prison cell, apparently of torture.

Now Yu’s life and legacy are at the forefront again, part of a broad debate about how South Korea’s history should be interpreted and taught. Last year, South Korea’s education minister asked why Yu’s story was not included in some middle and high school history textbooks. He argued that all students should learn her heroic tale, and that the government should produce a single history textbook for all students to study.


Since 2010, South Korea has allowed publishers to commission teachers and historians to write textbooks, which they then submit to a government panel for accreditation. Schools have been free to select textbooks from the government-approved list.

But in a decision that sparked intense debate about academic freedom, educational diversity and national unity, the government announced plans last week to produce just one officially sanctioned history textbook that all secondary schools will use.

The brouhaha over the books reflects South Korea’s sharp left-right divide, and the two sides have very different takes on how the county’s history is portrayed.

“We must no longer teach our children using biased textbooks that distort historical facts,” Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said at a press conference on Tuesday. The single textbook is scheduled to be introduced in 2017.

The government maintains that a single history textbook would bridge the ideological gap by presenting all students with the same facts and analysis. But instead of fostering a unified take on its history, the government’s plan appears to have only exposed, and perhaps deepened, South Korea’s divide.

“The debate over textbooks illustrates how extremely polarized South Korean society has become,” said Han Sung-hoon, a research professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

For much of its postwar history, South Korea has been ruled by dictatorships that didn’t tolerate much, if any, freedom of expression. The system of schools being able to choose from a number of accredited books came about after educators and activists argued that history education should be left up to experts in the field instead of politicians.

The debate has special resonance for many South Koreans because it is being done under President Park Geun-hye, whose father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, was in power from 1961 to 1979. The elder Park, hardly a champion of educational freedom, still divides South Koreans along ideological lines.

The elder Park ruled over South Korea’s rapid economic rise, but suspended many key civic and political rights. Those on the right in South Korea tend to view him with reverence, as the father of an economic miracle, while liberals consider him an iron-fisted dictator.

Many scholars have raised red flags over the risk the new textbook policy presents to academic freedom. Last week, 204 overseas scholars of Korean studies signed a statement decrying the move, saying that “the state mandating the use of a single, government-issued history textbook violates the principle that a diversity of views is essential to democracy.”

The issue even bleeds over into South Korea’s relations with neighbors. The scholars also argued that, by turning to a single, state-approved version of history, South Korea weakens its “moral standing” with Japan. Every year Seoul cries foul when Japanese schoolbooks lay claim to the Liancourt Rocks, a set of uninhabited islets that both countries claim.

The political opposition and many educators argue that the government’s real objective in pushing for a single textbook is to whitewash the collaboration of Korean elites with Japanese colonizers and South Korea’s history of dictatorship following the 1950-53 Korean War. This week, the main opposition party is boycotting parliament to protest the move.

At protests, supporters of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy party hung banners that read, “A good president makes history, a bad president changes history books.” The protests, most of which have only drawn a few hundred people, have been held in cities across the country.

The reasons for Yu’s omission from some history books are not entirely clear. Some scholars have argued that right-wing historians overstated her legend to distract from their own collaboration with Japan. In response, left-wing historians played down Yu’s story.

Yu was the child of independence activists, and watched both of her parents be killed by Japanese police at an independence rally. She also drew motivation from her Christian faith.

The Seoul prison where she perished is now a museum, and interpretive signage there describes her as the independence movement’s “most outstanding leader” and a “warmhearted female.” A signboard says that when a fellow inmate gave birth, Yu shared her meager meals with the mother and washed the newborn’s diapers by hand.

Ewha Girls High School, Yu’s alma mater, also has a historical exhibit dedicated to her, and a statue of her is placed prominently on campus, her long, straight hair flowing in the wind.

“She’s meaningful in that she made bold efforts for independence while still a student, and female,” says Ko Ah-ra, a guide at the small museum. “It’s almost impossible to imagine.”

A touchier question in South Korea’s battle over its history is North Korea, with which the South is still technically at war. The ruling party argues that some of the textbooks now in use carry a left-wing bias and go too easy on North Korea. Ridding educational materials of anything that could be interpreted as pro-North Korea is part of the government’s objective in compiling a single history textbook.

At a protest in Seoul on Tuesday, dozens of graying men chanted slogans in support of the government’s plans. “We need to get rid of the leftist distortions in schools. Our country needs a unified perspective,” said one man who gave only his surname, Yoon.

At Ewha, though, many students say they don’t have any particular political leanings. Lee Min-kyung said she and her classmates are focused on preparing for the college entrance exam and have little time to pay attention as grown-ups argue.

“I guess this now means that the government can write whatever they want,” she said of the plans for a single textbook. “And we’ll have no choice but to learn it.”

Borowiec is a special correspondent.