There is controversy in South Korea over plans for the government to control the contents of school history textbooks. Critics argue that the move will allow the state to ‘interfere with the interpretation and teaching of history’ and foster a more nationalist view of the past that will upset the country’s neighbours.
The move is certainly a hypocritical one given Seoul’s frequent condemnations of Japanese history textbooks, which are accused of diluting the culpability of Tokyo’s leaders and the Imperial Army during World War Two (WWII) and the occupation of Korea.
Japan regularly riles South Korea, China and the Southeast Asian nations with its apparent refusal to teach the ‘truth’ about the cause and conduct of WWII. Frequent visits by politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine – which houses 14 Class A war criminals amongst other Japanese war dead – have led to an almost complete breakdown in Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing in the last few years.
Whilst some Japanese leaders and educators have undoubtedly downplayed their country’s wartime role, South Korea and China in particular have refused to let the Japanese people forget about their past, even though few current citizens bear any responsibility for what happened. In fact, many Japanese are staunchly pacifist because of their repulsion at their country’s past deeds.
Playing the nationalist card is a populist move liable to appease disgruntled segments of the public, particularly given the historical enmity between the Northeast Asian giants. However, having desisted for so long in adding incendiary material to the already fraught relationship, it is disappointing that South Korea now appears to have changed tact. There is nothing wrong with critiquing historical teaching in schools; indeed, it is essential to incorporate new scholarship and pertinent viewpoints to ensure that a balanced assessment of the past is achievable.
To dictate educational policy in such a matter – especially a potentially-delicate subject such as history – is counterproductive. With President Park Geun-hye already ratcheting up the pressure on Japan over the sensitive wartime issue of ‘comfort women’, do not expect the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Tokyo to remain silent for much longer. Their politicians are often the first to be lambasted for their selective views on history and their refusal to see any point of view but their own.
If the Koreans start to behave similarly – and the Chinese already have – rather than trying to solve the historical issues in a constructive, multilateral forum, then the prospects for relations normalising remain bleak and the potential to cooperate on more pressing security issues (such as North Korea, terrorism and Beijing’s growing assertiveness) will be lost for good.