“New Right” textbooks present a distorted view of history

Posted on : 2013-06-01 15:54 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
If passed into high schools, students will have to read inaccurate accounts of important Korean historical figures and events

By Kim Ji-hoon and Um Seung-won, staff reporters

History is the battle over memory. And the Koreans who are trying to change those memories, the so-called “New Right”, have just fired the latest volley in this battle. Their target this time is high school textbooks. If the textbooks that these groups have written are selected to be used, there is no question that history education in high school will be disturbed.

The Korean history textbooks written by New Right scholars and published by Kyohak passed the first review by the history textbook reviewing committee of the National Institute of Korean History on May 10 and are currently being edited and supplemented. The final decision will be made about whether the textbooks are to be passed on August 30.

There has not been a single case of a textbook passing the first review and being rejected in the final review. It looks likely that students will soon be reading textbooks tainted with the historical views of the New Right.

The exact content of the textbooks that these groups are preparing has not yet been made public. However, if one takes into account what New Right scholars have written and said thus far, it is not difficult to guess what may be in the textbooks. In an alternate history textbook that they published in 2008, the May 16 military coup was referred to as a “revolution.” Textbooks have been calling this a “military coup” since 1996, when Kim Young-sam was president. The New Right textbook also referred to the Apr. 19 Revolution in depreciated terms, calling it a “student movement.”

Even the remarks that were made by these scholars on May 31 at an academic conference they held to reflect upon issues with textbooks offer some insight into the orientation of the New Right textbooks.

“There is not a single textbook today that says the South Korean system of liberal democracy was established along with the independence of the country from the Japanese,” said Kwon Hee-yeong, a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies and the primary author of the textbook pushed by Kyohak. “Some of the textbooks say that this system was instituted at the time of the Apr. 19 Revolution, while others say it was around the major government changes in 1987. All of these represent a denial of the founding of the Republic of Korea.”

The organization that is heading the preparation of these textbooks is the Association for Contemporary Korean History, and Kwon is the chairman of the association. Also participating in the writing of the textbooks are Lee Myung-hee, chairman of the association’s textbook committee and a professor at Kongju National University, along with four high school teachers.

“Professor Kwon approached us first with the idea of writing a textbook,” said an unidentified employee at Kyohak. “It is inevitable that the textbook that is being prepared will reflect the views of the primary writer since we have increased the number of pages that deal with specific incidents and historical figures.” This sheds some light on the general framework of the textbooks that that this group is working on.

The main area of concern about the New Right textbooks is that they could present a distorted description of historical facts by describing violence that the government perpetrated against civilians, such as the Apr. 3, 1948 massacre in Jeju and the 1980 Gwangju massacre, as “riots.” These scholars have been criticized for referring to Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, as “the founding father” and to former president Park Chung-hee as “the father of industrialization.” They are also charged with writing little about how democracy was repressed during their terms as presidents and with inflating the accomplishments of these leaders.

“Syngman Rhee was a dictator who did not rely upon the National Assembly or the political party system, and Park Chung-hee was a dictator of the same stripe,” said Han Hong-gu, a professor of Korean history at Sungkonghoe University. “The two were destroyers of liberal democracy.”

“Defending the way Syngman Rhee founded the country or Park Chung-hee ran his dictatorship seems to be politically motivated,” Han said. “It is an attempt to lend legitimacy to those who have enjoyed positions of privilege in recent history.”

There have already been premonitions of such efforts to rewrite history. Before she was elected as president in 2012, Park Geun-hye stirred up controversy over the views she expressed about the May 16 coup and other historical issues.

Even Seo Nam-su, who as Minister of Education is the person responsible for ensuring that students receive a proper historical education, has been criticized as being unfit for the job. When asked by lawmakers what he thought about the May 16 coup during his confirmation hearing in February, he said that he respects what is written in the textbooks and asked for their understanding about the fact that he could not provide a direct answer. This attracted attention when Hwang Gyo-an and Yu Jeong-bok, nominees at that time for Minister of Justice and Minister of Security and Public Administration, expressed a similar reticence.

The attempts by the New Right to distort history are little different from the behavior of the Japanese organization for making new history textbooks that has received universal condemnation from Koreans. The textbooks made by this Japanese organization, which first passed government review in 2001, were full of material that either outright denied or attempted to minimize Japan’s imperial-era crimes, such as the Nanking Massacre and the so-called “comfort women” system, which forced women into sexual slavery. In the sense that they twist history to fit their own preferences, the Korean right and the Japanese right are cut from the same cloth.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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