South Korea announced last Monday, Oct. 12, that by 2017, all middle and high school students in the country will be taught history from state-written and approved textbooks.
In a move with striking similarity to its hated enemy and neighbor North Korea, South Korea has chosen to propogate a government-mandated set of historical “facts” which aim to improve the historical image of South Korea.
Harkening back to the country’s recent, authoritarian past, the move was declared by the conservative administration of president Park Geun-hye.
According to Ms. Park, the move was meant to, “inculcate the students with historical convictions and pride,” lest South Korea be, “culturally and historically subjugated by another country.”
This rather Orwellian view of history as malleable and subjective is not new to South Korea and East Asia as a whole.
Nearly every democracy in the region was, in the recent past, an authoritarian regime, and South Korea was no exception.
Under Ms. Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, South Korea was as despotic as the North, with Park Chung-hee using torture and martial law to control the population until he lost power in 1979.
At the time, the elder Park’s administration wrote and disseminated history books meant to glorify his 1961 coup and justify his long reign as dictator.
Obviously, such a declaration has drawn plenty of sharp criticism, particularly from the opposition party.
The New York Times quotes Park Han-young, a chief researcher at the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, as saying, “The father staged a military coup, and now the daughter is engineering a coup in history education … This is a history coup that supporters of pro-Japanese collaboration and the past dictatorship have been preparing for 10 years.”
The prevailing conservative view in the country which spawned this move is that private textbooks, only legalized in 2010, are too “left-leaning.”
According to conservatives, the books emphasize ethnic affinity with North Korea over South Korean pride, and view the role of the U.S. in the region with an unfavorable eye.
Ironically, Ms. Park and her conservative benefactors have repeatedly criticized Japan for using a whitewashed and nationalistic version of history to indoctrinate Japanese students.
The particular sections which the conservative faction finds objectionable are more in-depth looks at the dark, dirty side of South Koren history: collaboration with imperial Japan, the slaughter of civilians in WWII and the suppression of political dissidents during the dictatorial rule of Park Chung-hee.
Though these are certainly painful topics for the country, they are necessary ones, and a historical education of the country would not be complete without them.
Opposition party members are right to worry over this development and to view the decision as a major deviation from the standard best-practices of other advanced democracies.