Conservatives rally over textbooks, claiming “this is war”

Posted on : 2015-10-16 17:07 KST Modified on : 2015-10-16 17:07 KST
Early signs that the right’s real agenda with state history textbook is whitewashing dictators and Japanese collaborators

“Ladies and gentlemen of the National Assembly, I hope that you will not back down one inch or make a political decision in the face of this resistance from historians who are trying to see through their own interests in the battle to set history straight! You must stand tall against the slander that there are ‘political motives’ underlying the use of new history textbooks.”

These remarks by Center for Free Enterprise secretary-general Jeon Hee-gyeong were met with shouts of approval from the lawmakers present. “Yes!” shouted one. “Outstanding!” cried another. “Great job!”

The mood at the emergency meeting of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party (NFP) at the National Assembly on Oct. 15 was similar to a rally, with attendees pledging their full support for the “holy war” to institute state designation for middle and high school Korean history textbooks. The conservative-leaning Jeon and Cho Jin-hyeong, representative of the group Student Parents’ Alliance for Autonomous Education, delivered talks in which they evangelized on the need for designation to address “serious distortions in history textbooks today.” Their words were punctuated with applause from the roughly 100 lawmakers attending -- out of a total of 159 Saenuri lawmakers. “This is the best talk we’ve seen,” they shouted back. At some points, the speakers even encouraged attendees to fight with talk of “war.”

“So far, we’ve been led along by the need for ‘left-right balance,’ but how are we supposed to have a proper account of history when we have blocs where handfuls of left-wingers and right-wingers get together to vote?” asked Jeon.

“I implore you to get away quickly from this mechanical insistence on ‘neutrality,’” she continued.

While both the administration and the ruling party have been insisting on the need for “balance” in textbooks, Jeon’s speech suggested that even this was “going too far” -- and that a specifically right-wing perspective should be represented in accounts of history.

“When people repudiate [former President] Rhee Syng-man, it isn’t just about Rhee Syng-man,” she said. “It’s because there’s a formula operating where you need to dismiss the achievements of liberal democracy and the market economy and play up their faults so that the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea can be denied and the country can be presented as somehow ‘incomplete’ and ‘unjust.’”

Jeon went on to complain that the democratization movement “is taught as though it were completely without flaws.”

“Once you have claims that democracy is perfect and faultless, they can lay the foundation for the kind of mob rule you see at Gwanghwamun Square,” she argued.

The next speaker was Cho, who said he had “come here today as a voter to boost the morale of Saenuri lawmakers who don’t seem strongly committed to this fight [for textbook designation].”

The talks on Oct. 15 were organized to help steel lawmakers’ resolve and arm them with arguments in the face of a growing outcry after the administration‘s announcement of plans to designate official state Korean history textbooks. Indeed, lawmakers appeared energized to “fight the good fight” after hearing the remarks from two non-members of the National Assembly.

“We’ve discovered the heroes this society really needs,” said Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung. “It was really stirring.”

Kim went to say that textbooks were “carefully crafted with subtle language to hide the devil‘s toenails.”

“Normalizing history education is a historical mission that can be put off no longer,” he insisted.

Lawmaker Park Myung-jae said that “correcting and creating a history that accords with the Constitution” marks a “second founding of this country.”

“New challenges are sweeping in, and the Saenuri Party needs to accept the battle and rise to the occasion,” he added. “This is war.”

At its general meeting, the Saenuri Party added state-issued history textbooks to the party platform and adopted a resolution promising to direct all of its energy to working with the Park administration to produce correct history textbooks that can unify the public. All of the Saenuri Party lawmakers who had said that they were personally opposed to state-issued textbooks remained silent.

The mood at the party meeting is thought to offer a sneak peek at what the state-issued history textbooks that are being promoted by the Park administration and the Saenuri Party will consist of.

“The Saenuri Party claims that it will create a team of textbook writers that includes both conservatives and progressives, but when it described activists from conservative organizations as experts in its discussion of the history textbooks, it let slip its true intention of making a right-leaning textbook,” said a history professor on condition of anonymity.

Even aside from the Saenuri Party meeting on Thursday, there has been a series of actions betraying a radical ideological bias that give the lie to the Park administration’s promise that the textbooks will not whitewash Japanese collaborators or former dictators.

First of all, the historical perspective of the ruling party is quite different from the general public.

When fielding questions from the National Assembly on Oct. 13, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declined to answer opposition lawmakers who asked whether Park Chung-hee‘s takeover of the goverment on May 16, 1961, represented a coup or a revolution. In the past, President Park has described her father’s actions as a revolution that saved the country.

This is why there are continuing concerns that state-issued textbooks would whitewash the Yushin constitution and former dictators.

Another reason given for doubting the claims of the Park administration that it will make “correct textbooks” is because the government has done nothing about Koh Yeong-ju, director of the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, who openly revealed his extreme ideological bias by calling former president Roh Moo-hyun a “lapsed communist”.

“If we call for the government to take over the production of history textbooks while defending Koh, we open ourselves up to the criticism that we are trying to make textbooks that reflect Koh‘s mindset,” said Saenuri lawmaker Rep. Lee Jae-oh during a party meeting on Oct. 7.

Another factor that adds weight to the prediction that the state-issued textbooks will be biased to the right is the fact that, under the current administration, scholars who represent the “New Right” have been appointed as the directors of major government history institutes. These include Kim Jeong-bae, director of the National Institute of Korean History; Lee Bae-yong, director of the Academy of Korean Studies; and Kim Ho-seop, director of the Northeast Asian History Foundation.

“It’s obvious that a state-issued textbook backed by these figures will defend Japanese collaborators and former dictators,” the New Politics Alliance for Democracy said on Oct. 13.

By Hwang Jun-beom, Um Ji-won and Lee Kyung-mi, staff reporters

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