[Editorial] In praise of dictatorship and colonial rule

Posted on : 2008-03-25 12:15 KST Modified on : 2008-03-25 12:15 KST

Scholars of the so-called “New Right” have released an “alternative textbook” of modern and contemporary Korean history. It was three years in the making, a project they started because they believe current textbooks take away from the historical legitimacy of the Republic of Korea as a state and that they instill a left-leaning view of history.

The book’s contents are as expected. Ideology and deliberate purpose overwhelm objective fact and assessment to the point you doubt their consciences as academics.

Their version of history goes like this. There was no homegrown effort at, or “sproutings” of, modernization in the last years of the Joseon dynasty (July 1392 - August 1910). Modern civilization was something that was imported through colonial rule, and it was this that led to economic growth. The governments of Syngman Rhee (Rhee Syngman) and Park Chung-hee were the revolutionary beginnings of liberal democracy and economic development. Their condensed version of history would be that modernization began with colonial rule and was completed by the dictatorships. Given that it was the pro-Japanese collaborators who, from positions of power, sought to maintain and strengthen the dictatorships, the “values” they are trying to defend are obvious enough.

Controversy and debate is inevitable, since the book is being styled as a history textbook. There is even talk about filing a court injunction against it. While the word “textbook” is hard to reckon with, that is not what we wish to take issue with. The authors are mostly professors of economics, educational ethics, and politics and foreign affairs. All of them are in fields other than history. It is still within their rights to take issue with the facts and assessments thereof recognized by the field, and we do not wish to take issue with that. They also did a lot of cutting and pasting with their choices of sources and interpretations, going beyond clumsiness to have done so according to partisan ideology and purpose. They use history as a means of political propaganda and agitation. We have no intention of getting pulled into that, either.

What forces us to take note of this publication is the political and economic background to its making. The ideological offensive these same individuals unleashed during the government of Roh Moo-hyun was a very big influence in the change of government that took place. Even now they have the backing of the Grand National Party and the larger ruling camp, by the jaebeol club known as the Federation of Korean Industries and the rest of big business, and they enjoy the support of the conservative nepotist media. Subsequently, it is very likely this kind of social discourse is going to spread.

There is, therefore, something here that needs to be made clear. In the course of history it was democracy, that most fine of systems, that stood against totalitarianism. It was the democratic market economy that was victorious over communism. The dictatorships built by Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee were the lowest possible choices. Furthermore, Korea would have modernized even without having been ruled by Imperial Japan. In fact, we would have avoided the tragedy of a divided Korea without it. One feels forced to ask where the New Right is headed with this: A tightly run dictatorship or a nation voluntarily subservient to powerful countries?

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

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