The modern and contemporary history textbooks in our high schools are so busy infusing students with class and national ideologies down to the final years of the Chosun Kingdom that they fail to describe international relations, especially the interplay of the great powers that had such a fatal effect on the Korean Peninsula. That, in any case, is the assessment of senior historian Prof. Choi Moon-hyung, formerly of Hanyang University. He makes the criticism in a paper he will deliver at a Textbook Forum seminar on Thursday. A combination of left-wing historiography and blinkered nationalism, he says, misses any objective assessment of the nation’s dissolution and remains myopically fixated on Korea alone in the less than 100 years of recent history.
Choi analyzed modern and contemporary history textbooks for high schools by six publishers including Kumsung Publishing and Doosan, and there found no account of the causes and effects of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War or the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, milestones that turned Korea into a Japanese colony. But they all give inordinate space to the Peasants War of Kabo in 1894, where Korean peasants, who were being squeezed under pressure from Japan, directed their grievances against the Korean government, thus creating the impression that modern Korean history is history of class struggles.
That situation invalidates the entire point of teaching recent history in middle and high school. History textbooks must first be based on facts, and secondly provide the next generation with lessons that help them act prudently in the future. The Korean Peninsula late in the 19th century was a battleground for imperialist powers Japan, Russia, Britain, the United States and China. Anything that happened interlocked like a cog with the international situation. That is true even for the Kabo Peasants War now being touted as if it was somehow symbolic of nationalism and class struggle because it attacked the nobility and rejected foreign influences. In fact, we now know it to have been funded by an ultra-nationalist organization in Japan.
History textbooks dealing with the era must offer lessons for the future by reviewing the harsh choices we faced at the time, the way we dealt with the machinations of the great powers, and the reason we eventually lost our sovereignty. If we instead use history textbooks as a mere vehicle for particular ideologies and rationalize the past under the headings of nation and class struggle, modern history education is capable of doing a great deal of harm.
The great powers' interest in and rivalries over the Korean Peninsula continue. If we do not teach our children that tragedy struck a century ago because we failed to assess the world situation accurately, history could well repeat itself.