The War over History in the Republic of Korea

29.12.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

345234234234In our previous publication on the war over the history of South Korea we covered the heated discussions around the attempts to create a unified national history textbook for junior and secondary schools, which was composed “in order to form a correct and well-balanced view of history and the state”, as “the existing textbooks have liberal and sometimes even pro-North Korean content.”

There were many rumours, and the author postponed this topic until the publication of the first editions so that it would be possible to use them to judge the textbook’s focus based on fact not assumptions. On November 28, 2016, the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea published an online version of the textbook. It is planned to conduct closed discussion of it by December 23. In theory, anybody can comment on the new version after registering and, at the end of January next year, the final version will be presented.

Notwithstanding the opposition’s idea that the main motive of the textbook will be apologist content about Park Chung-hee or vindication of the Japanese period of domination by looking at the colonial modernization issue in a positive light, the most controversial aspect is the passage that states that the 15th of August 1948 is the date of creation of the Republic of Korea, but not of the government as previously stated. Thus, the position of conservatives on the non-recognition of the Provisional Government acting in Shanghai long before Korea’s liberation from the Japanese protectorate is highlighted. This episode of Korean history should be covered in detail since the question of whose “project” the Republic of Korea is troubles the South Korean public opinion greatly.

In 1919, in the forefront of a nationwide movement for the country’s independence, the so-called Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (PG RK) was established in Shanghai which successfully operated till 1945. Even though its connection with the national liberation movement in Korea was small, the contribution of this organization cannot be questioned. The modern name of the Republic of Korea (Korean Daehan Minguk) copies the term used there.

The first head of the PG RK was Rhee Syngman, who tried to use it for his personal ambitions, after which he was expelled and the PG leadership passed to Kim Koo, who was a nationalist opposing both communism and the capitalism.

Unfortunately, the PG RK army didn’t manage to enter the war with Japan officially, taking up a role similar to that of the Polish Army, and the government in exile had no opportunity to exercise significant political influence in Korea after the liberation. Moreover, the odiousness of Rhee Syngman was the reason for the bias on the part of Moscow, and Rhee’s activity in the United States formed a similar bias on the part of America. As a result, the leadership of PG RK had to return to the country as individuals, and it constantly faced the opposition of Rhee Syngman and the US administration.

At the time of the Cold War, Rhee Syngman proposed conducting separate elections in the South of the Korean peninsula. Kim Koo was strongly against it, therefore he and his supporters did not take part in the electoral process and they were almost not represented in the legislative and executive branches of the new state. Moreover, Kim Koo became the victim of political murder in 1949 committed at the order of the supporters of Rhee Syngman.

Thus, on the one hand, the Republic of Korea declared in 1948 was similar to the Republic of Korea declared in Shanghai in name alone. They had quite a different (less liberal) system of power, quite different people in leadership positions, and very different policies (Kim Koo was a strong opponent of external interference in Korean affairs). On the other hand, the account of the Republic of Korea’s history since 1948 wipes out the glorious history of the Korean people’s struggle for their national independence, to which Rhee Syngman was indirectly linked. For the South Korean left wingers this means that the key moment in the history of the Republic of Korea is not the struggle of the Korean people for liberty and democracy that is reflected in the overthrow of Rhee Syngman in 1960 or the Kwangju rebellion in 1980, but the path from one dictator to another: Rhee Syngman – Park Chung-hee – and so on.

At the same time, this vindication of Rhee Syngman is entirely unprofitable for the supporters of Park Chung-hee. The image of Park Chung-hee as the architect of the “economic miracle” is largely based on Korea’s opposition, which he led, to the chaos and devastation that reigned in the Republic of Korea under Rhee. The theoretical works of Park (which have been withdrawn from public access in modern-day Republic of Korea, incidentally) contain a lot of justifiable critical attacks against Rhee Syngman, and the attempt to present his rule as the “dynamic development of democracy and the free market” reduces the merits of Park, who did not create a “miracle” from the ground up, but extended and deepened the foundations of Rhee. It is no coincidence that the discussion of the need to rewrite the history was continued under Park Geun-hye and it started under Lee Myung-bak when there were a lot of supporters of the first President of the Republic of Korea in government.

The second significant set of corrections concerns the stricter position in respect of the North: the phrasing “creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” has been changed to “creation of the North Korean regime” (i.e. non-recognition of the DPRK as the state). The description of events in the Korean War contains a more precise phrasing of the illegal invasion by the North of the territory of the South. It clearly states that the South Korean Cheonan corvette was wrecked by the North, while “the military provocative actions, violation of the human rights, development of nuclear weapons, and other unsolved issues regarding the DPRK” are covered in a separate chapter.

As for Park, the material on the economic boom of the Republic of Korea is described in more detail and in a more positive manner (the information about the difficult state of the working class and the cost of modernization is excluded). The volume of data on the Republic of Korea’s sovereignty over the Dokdo Isles has increased.

It is no surprise that the textbook immediately provoked objections. Even the conservative Chosun Ilbo had to admit that 17 heads of the Departments of Education in the country’s cities and provinces had addressed the government with a request to suspend the project announcing that the Ministry of Education was acting against the people’s will. The results of the opinion poll conducted by the Gallup Korea from November 29 to December 1, also demonstrate that 67% of the South Koreans are against it. Only 17% of the respondents approve the textbook, while 15% abstained. Among the supporters of Saenuri, 51% supported the project and only 18% opposed it.

The topic of the textbook has played a certain role in the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Amid the attempts to shift the responsibility for any faults of the regime on to Choi Soon-sil, “the opinions on the involvement of the President’s friend in this issue are on the rise.”

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea continues its work so that school children can study history using the unified textbook from March 2017. Public dissatisfaction is not likely to subside and it has to adopt the final decision by the end of December. The Minister of Education Joon Sik Lee announced that the date would be shifted to March 2018, but the experts did not rule out the possibility that after Park’s final resignation (especially after non conservatives enter into power), the project might be terminated.

Therefore, we will continue to inform our readers as the topic of “wars over history” concerns not only Korea but also other countries and regions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.