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Democracy with South Korean Characteristics: Inside the State’s War to Re-write History

Public dissatisfaction with South Korea's current government administration came to a climax on 14 and 15 November, in what was South Korea’s largest anti-government protest in more than seven years. Undeterred by the heavy rain, more than 80 000 people rallied in Seoul to protest various grievances against the government – of which the state-issued history textbook was one – and demanded President Park Geun-Hye’s resignation.

The government’s proposed state-issued single history textbook is the latest trend from democratic Korean and Japanese governments to shape school history textbooks to reflect their political leanings.

Under the veil of instilling future generations with greater pride in their nation, Park’s conservative government plans to write a state-issued account of Korea’s past, explicitly named the “Correct Textbook of History”. The controversial new textbook is to replace those of independent publishers and serve as the single text taught in high schools throughout Korea from 2017.

However, rather than debate the true facts of history, the textbook controversy taking place in South Korea represents an ideological battle between Left and Right and the fragmentation within Korean politics.

“No less than outright dictatorship”

The new textbook content aims to distort the narrative of how the South Korean state was created, by not least of all giving a more nationalistic and subdued account of the bloody dictatorship of Park’s late father, Park Chung-Hee.

The current history textbooks offered to schools, while still state-reviewed, have been criticised by Park’s conservative party as being left-leaning, pro-North Korean and masochistic of Korea’s past. What has ensued is the battling out of bitter ideological differences between the right-leaning conservatives of Korean politics and left.

It is not surprising that, while the revision of history has been condemned by academics, the most prominent source of protest is coming from opposition parties within the government. Chief of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) labelled the move by Park’s administration as “no less than outright dictatorship”, and argued that “no free democracy in the world has state-issued textbooks”.

What is most interesting is that Park, while attempting to direct more attention to the repressive North Korean regime and away from her father’s authoritarian rule, is directing South Korea on a path that is more firmly state controlled. Ironically, it was her father Park Chung Hee who first introduced state-issued textbooks in 1973 during his reign of power.

South Korea’s authoritarian path to development

One claim to fame that is consistently championed by the Korean government and reflected in their policies, such as Sameul Undong, is their rapid development and the eradication of poverty within one generation.

However, in these recent efforts by the Park administration to revise the portrayal of her father’s regime, the true story of Korea’s development success is being distorted. So is the government to promote Korea as a development model in foreign policy while ignoring the authoritarian path it took?

South Korea has been an incredible success story, having a GDP per capita of less than 60 USD at the end of the Korean War, to becoming the world’s eighth largest economy. However, it was the authoritarian and state-led industrialisation of Korea under strongman Park Chung-Hee that propelled Korea’s economic development. This is not only the case for Korea, but a trend across many Asian nations such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China – whose development success was often state-led under strong regimes.

By distorting the narrative of Korea’s development and underplaying the reality of the bloody nature of Park Chung-Hee’s regime, the Park administration is denying Korea’s story of transitioning successfully to fully-fledged democracy, albeit with seemingly South Korean characteristics.

Luisa Cools has an interest in East Asian regional relations and is currently completing research for her Masters degree in Seoul, South Korea.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: United Nations Photo (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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