Korean Heroine Tortured by Japan Haunts Pages of Asia’s History

A 17-year-old Korean girl tortured
to death for opposing Japanese colonial rulers nearly a century
ago has become the latest touchstone of the nationalism that is
shadowing Asia’s economic rise.

Yu Gwansun became known as Korea’s Joan of Arc after she
lost her parents and was imprisoned during a 1919 uprising
against Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization. South Korean Education
Minister Hwang Woo Yea wants to know why she doesn’t appear in
half of the nation’s newly approved high-school history
textbooks. He’s considering putting the government in charge of
writing history.

Textbooks have become part of the front line in East Asia’s
propaganda war as recent administration changes in China, Japan
and Korea see leaders fomenting nationalism to bolster their
hold on power. In South Korea’s schools, history books shape the
attitude of the next generation not only toward neighboring
countries but also of the legacy of former dictator Park Chung Hee, the current president’s father.

“In Asia, textbooks are already nationalistic enough,”
Robert Kelly, a professor of political science and international
relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by
e-mail. “The last thing the region needs is officially
sanctioned government histories that neighbors will inevitably
call propaganda.”

Economic growth has been the catalyst for the increasing
war of words in a region where U.S. military dominance is being
challenged, said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese
history at Oxford University in England.

“You have the three biggest economic powers in the world
all trying to carve out their own position,” Mitter said by
phone. “The economic power of today is merely exacerbating and
exaggerating frames which were formed more like 70 years ago.”

Military Expansion

Much of the discord stems from Japan’s military expansion
in the region in the 1930s and ’40s and accusations of human
rights abuses, alongside territorial disputes that arose after
its defeat in World War II.

In 2001 then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angered
Japan’s neighbors when his government approved a textbook that
omitted references to sex slaves from Korea and other Asian
countries who were exploited by Japanese soldiers during and
before the war.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who took power in
February last year, says the issue of “comfort women” prevents
a full two-way summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Park says Abe should do more to address the grief of victims.
Japan says it already apologized in 1993.

‘Doesn’t Matter’

“Japan is moving to have more of the government
perspective in textbooks even as it allows private companies to
publish them,” Kwon Sung Youn, a South Korean education
ministry official handling textbooks, said by phone. “Whether
it’s the government or private publishers that make textbooks
doesn’t matter as much as what goes in the book.”

In South Korea, the rewriting of history has been
influenced by factions in the tumultuous domestic politics of
the past century, including 35 years of rule by Japan, the
three-year Korean War that cemented the division of the
peninsula and a series of dictators in the South who oversaw
rapid economic growth and fierce anti-communist campaigns.

“Modern history is extremely contentious in South Korea
and almost anything since 1910 is controversial,” Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history at Columbia University, said
by e-mail. Some South Korean conservatives think the left-of-center governments of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun from 1998 to
2008 tilted history textbooks to their side, he said.

‘Sowing Seeds’

Education Minister Hwang said after taking office in August
it is “problematic” that Yu is missing in half of eight
history textbooks adopted by high schools this year. He said
having a single textbook would avert “sowing seeds of division
in public opinion.”

Some teachers and historians said Park’s government is
using Yu as an excuse to run a textbook that glosses over a 1961
army coup by her father Park Chung Hee and his 18 years of

Park Chung Hee banned private companies from publishing
history textbooks and ran ones that portrayed his coup as a
revolution rather than a mutiny. Publication rights were partly
restored to private companies in 1982 under his successor with
the government still giving guidelines.

“President Park is trying to reinstate her father
historically,” Lee Jun Sik, a professor at the Yonsei
University Institute for Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone.
“A government textbook would tout the achievements of
conservative governments and boost views that conservatives need
to extend their power as long as possible.”

‘Open Process’

Kwon at the education ministry dismissed allegations that a
government-led textbook would gloss over the dictatorship era.
“Making a history textbook in the modern world is an open
process that involves many historians in many phases. It’s
impossible that those concerns will actually turn into a
reality,” she said, adding her government seeks “consistency”
in teaching history.

Finding a consistent history that is acceptable to all
nations has never been easy. A European Union attempt to compile
“The History of Europe” in 1992, written by historians from 12
nations, was abandoned after disagreements including a British-Spanish spat over whether Sir Francis Drake was a national hero
or a pirate.

China requires all history textbooks “accord with
fundamental policies of the government” while Japan and South
Korea conduct a strict screening process, Gi-Wook Shin, director
of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford
in California, wrote in a 2011 book. “It is no
coincidence that textbooks have become a nexus for significant
international tension in Northeast Asia.”

Factual Errors

For Park’s administration, reverting to a government-sanctioned text would remove schools’ ability to choose which
version of history they teach.

Park’s government last year approved a book by Kyohak
Publishing that contained factual errors, including that South
Korea’s per-capita income reached $10,000 in 1977 under her
father, when it was actually $1,000. The book was also accused
of implying that comfort women were prostitutes because they
“followed” troops. Lee Myung Hee, a professor of history
education at Kongju National University, said by phone that he
and his co-authors did not intend that impression.

After Kyohak revised the book, 20 of 1,747 high schools
adopted it and 19 of those reversed the decision following local

“Textbook controversies have been going on since the
democratization of the late 1980s, with the battle lines
generally between the progressives and the conservatives,”
Armstrong said. “It is partly a generational struggle and an
attempt to shape the next generation of Koreans in their

To contact the reporter on this story:
Sam Kim in Seoul at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Rosalind Mathieson at
Adam Majendie

Source Article from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-11-23/korean-heroine-tortured-by-japan-haunts-pages-of-asia-s-history.html
Korean Heroine Tortured by Japan Haunts Pages of Asia’s History
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