On Oct. 29, a student organization called Committee for Korea Studies collected signatures for a petition and held a protest on Sproul Plaza against one of the most contentious current issues in South Korea: the nationalization of history textbooks. We collected 130 signatures from members of the UC Berkeley community, both Korean and non-Korean. At first, many of them did not know about the issue and wondered why they, in Berkeley, should care. But they were willing to listen and learn because the matter of nationalization is one of education and freedom of thought — two issues of which our university is considered a bastion.
To discourage and eradicate diverse thought is to stifle academic discourse and to limit an individual’s ability to think critically. This will breed an entire generation or generations of Korean students who are force-fed a skewed view of history from the government. Many of these students will study abroad at UC Berkeley, like the hundreds of Korean students who are here today. Korean students will come to this institution unprepared to accept various perspectives on the history they grew up with, unprepared to challenge their beliefs as this university has done for many of us. After listening to our explanation, they were supportive of our movement against the nationalization and the government’s monopolization of history textbooks.
Since South Korean citizens secured direct democracy in 1987, Korean society has strived to shed former legacies of past military dictatorships. These legacies included public education, which had been uniformized and controlled by former authoritarian governments. After democratization, public education was reformed to provide diverse perspectives and approaches from the civilian sector and abolish the system of imposing a single government-issued textbook on all schools. The process of delegating textbook production to nongovernmental actors began in 2001 and was finalized in 2008. This allowed students to study various interpretations of modern history through diverse textbooks, just as we do at UC Berkeley and the rest of the United States. It was a triumph for Korean democracy.
Now, current president Park Geun-hye and her administration are attempting to degrade history education. Park emphasizes the use of only one history textbook approved by the government, with the excuse of needing to bridge national divisions through the use of a “correct” textbook and to educate citizens with “positive thinking.” As the development of diverse interpretations of modern Korean history is still in its early stages, this nationalization project, spearheaded by the late dictator’s daughter, must cease immediately.
History is an unending cycle of interpretations of past events by people of the past and present. The nationalization of history textbooks is the utmost annihilation of open interpretations and freedom of ideas. Despite the agreement among academics that a completely objective historical viewpoint cannot exist, the current administration asserts that correct history is learned through national history textbooks. Modern Korean history is extremely complex, encompassing weighty topics such as those who collaborated with Japanese imperialists, division of the peninsula and the Korean War, military dictatorship, democratization and rapid economic development. Yet, the Korean government is attempting to simplify this intensely complicated subject of modern Korean history by feeding students only one view — one that would satisfy its leadership. This is an affront to the studies of history and, moreover, the humanities.
The Park administration also claims to push nationalization of textbooks to inspire patriotism by teaching a positive history. The minister of education and the ruling party leader have claimed that “many of current textbooks teach modern Korean history as one of defeat” and that “we need a new future-oriented textbook that will help us forget the failure to purge Japanese collaborators and the sad memory of military dictatorships.” These statements are reminiscent of authoritarianism and ignore the basic decrees of democracy. The citizens of Korea are not so ignorant as to forget such fundamental aspects of democracy. Furthermore, Korean history is one of triumph, not defeat. It is a proud one of constant struggle and victory. At least, this is how one feels after taking various Korea-related classes at UC Berkeley. Students in South Korea learn that since the republic’s foundation, Koreans have ceaselessly fought for democracy and liberty, won valuable victories, and continue the fight today. By overlooking — or ignoring — this aspect, the Park administration has shown its distrust of democratic capabilities and its intention to dare “guide” Korean citizens, as preceding authoritarian governments did. Is Park such a coward that she fears bearing herself and her father in front of Korean citizens as real human beings rather than fabricated figures in history?
We lament that although the Free Speech Movement Cafe is one of the favorite on-campus gathering places for Korean students, many are apathetic — even opposed — to this critical issue regarding freedom of speech while a number of their non-Korean counterparts supported our cause. Mario Savio urged us to “indicate to the people who run it” that without freedom, “the machine will be prevented from working at all.” Our protest was a clear message to the operators of the machine that many of us at UC Berkeley demand that Korean citizens retain their freedom and that we refuse to be mere bystanders as democracy sinks, yet again, in South Korea.
Sangbin Lee, Hong Suk Oh, Bo Hyun “Sophie” Paeng and Hongjik “Rex” Yang are members of the Committee for Korea Studies. Bo Hyun “Sophie” Paeng is also a former copy editor at The Daily Californian.