Putting the Korean Government’s Attempt to Nationalize History into Context

Putting the Korean Government’s Attempt to Nationalize History into Context

Harold Yun, MJIL Note & Comment Editor:

Three years Harold Yun Photointo her 5 year presidency, the current president is pushing the nationalization of history textbooks. In other words, the government will create an ‘official’ history textbook which must be used in schools. It seems absurd and obviously it is being met with fierce opposition, but to understand the issue and its consequences fully, Korea’s history and the failure to administer transitional justice must be considered.

Transition has many meanings, but in the international law context, it usually means moving from a state of injustice to a state of justice. The clearest examples are countries transitioning from a dictatorship to a democracy, especially where the dictatorship resulted in many human rights violations. While it may seem simple to just bring all perpetrators to court and administer justice, problems arise when the previous government had a system of repression that made everyone an accomplice. Also, if the transition is to be relatively peaceful, certain accommodations must be made to some perpetrators so that they are amenable to forfeiting their power without violent struggle.

Thus transition and the administration of justice during transition, transitional justice, is not always an easy task. However if justice is not done, it can leave the nation split with animosities that at least prevents healing, and at worst, creates yet another system of repression that later requires yet another transition, sending a country down a path of perpetual transition.

Korea is such a nation in perpetual transition. It began when Korea was freed from Japanese rule in 1945. Unlike other colonies that were liberated and where justice was served to those that participated in repressing the people, Korea did not get such a chance due to the threat of communism. The United States made concessions with Japan by limiting its prosecution of war criminals, which in turn made it difficult for Korea to administer proper justice. This failure to administer justice was aggravated when a former lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army successfully took power via a military coup d’etat, signing a treaty with Japan to accept its reparations for the colonialization.

After the assassination of the dictator, a brief window existed to administer justice, but yet another military coup followed, forcing the Korean people to deal with a second dictator first. That dictatorship eventually came to an end after over a decade of protests, but the second dictator managed to negotiate limited prosecution and eventual amnesty, despite great opposition from the victims. With the amnesty almost legitimizing his dictatorship as well as the one before, and after being disillusioned by the presidents that came after, Koreans ended up electing the first dictator’s daughter as president in 2012.

The dictator’s daughter has a clear motive. By creating an official version of the history that justifies her father’s military coup as well as his history of cooperating with the Japanese imperialists, she is trying to stifle discussion of the past, especially the deeds that require the service of justice. So the president’s push for official history textbooks does not simply create an academic problem, but more importantly, it postpones proper transitional justice from taking place by denying the need for it. Without proper justice, the nation will simply continue its path of perpetual transition, especially with the oppressors overreacting to any attempt at justice as they do not know the extent to which they will be affected. In short, it will not just affect the history being taught, but the future that will be presented.