Tortured Korean heroine haunts pages of Asia’s history

Textbooks have become part of the front line in East Asia’s propaganda war as recent administration changes in China, Japan and Korea see leaders fomenting nationalism to bolster their hold on power.

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SEOUL // A 17-year-old Korean girl tortured to death for opposing Japanese colonial rulers nearly a century ago has become the latest touchstone of the nationalism that is shadowing Asia’s economic rise.

Yu Gwansun became known as Korea’s Joan of Arc after she lost her parents and was jailed during a 1919 uprising against Japan’s colonisation from 1910 to 1945.

South Korean education minister Hwang Woo-yea wants to know why she does not appear in half of the nation’s newly approved high-school history textbooks. He’s considering putting the government in charge of writing history.

Textbooks have become part of the front line in East Asia’s propaganda war as recent administration changes in China, Japan and Korea see leaders fomenting nationalism to bolster their hold on power. In South Korea, history books shape the attitude of the next generation not only toward neighbouring countries but also of the legacy of former dictator Park Chung-hee, the current president’s father.

“In Asia, textbooks are already nationalistic enough,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of political science and international relations at Pusan National University. “The last thing the region needs is officially sanctioned government histories that neighbours will inevitably call propaganda.”

Economic growth has been the catalyst for the increasing war of words in a region where US military dominance is being challenged, said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history at Oxford University.

“You have the three biggest economic powers in the world all trying to carve out their own position,” Ms Mitter said. “The economic power of today is merely exacerbating and exaggerating frames which were formed more like 70 years ago.”

Much of the discord stems from Japan’s military expansion in the region in the 1930s and 1940s and accusations of human rights abuses, alongside territorial disputes that arose after its defeat in World War II.

In 2001, then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi angered Japan’s neighbours when his government approved a textbook that omitted references to sex slaves from Korea and other Asian countries who were exploited by Japanese soldiers during and before the war.

South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who took power in February last year, says the issue of “comfort women” prevents a full two-way summit with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The two countries are still in the midst of territorial disputes, with both claiming a chain of islands, known to Koreans as Dokdo and to Japanese as Takeshima. In South Korea, the rewriting of history has been influenced by factions in the tumultuous domestic politics of the past century, including 35 years of rule by Japan, the three-year Korean War that cemented the division of the peninsula and a series of dictators in the South who oversaw rapid economic growth and fierce anti-communist campaigns.

“Modern history is extremely contentious in South Korea and almost anything since 1910 is controversial,” said Charles K Armstrong, a history professor at Columbia University.

Education minister Hwang said after taking office in August it is “problematic” that the tortured teen Yu is missing in half of eight history textbooks adopted by high schools this year. He said having a single textbook would avert “sowing seeds of division in public opinion”.

Some teachers and historians said Ms Park’s government is using Yu as an excuse to run a textbook that glosses over a 1961 army coup by her father Park Chung -hee and his 18 years of dictatorship.

“President Park is trying to reinstate her father historically,” said Lee Jun Sik, a professor at the Yonsei University Institute for Korean Studies. “A government textbook would tout the achievements of conservative governments and boost views that conservatives need to extend their power as long as possible.”

Kwon Sung Youn, a South Korean education ministry official, dismissed allegations that a government-led textbook would gloss over the dictatorship era. “Making a history textbook in the modern world is an open process that involves many historians in many phases. It’s impossible that those concerns will actually turn into a reality,” she said, adding her government seeks “consistency” in teaching history.

Finding a consistent history that is acceptable to all nations has never been easy. China requires all history textbooks “accord with fundamental policies of the government” while Japan and South Korea conduct a strict screening process, Gi-Wook Shin of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre at Stanford University, wrote in a 2011 book. “It is no coincidence that textbooks have become a nexus for significant international tension in Northeast Asia.”

For Ms Park’s administration, reverting to a government-sanctioned text would remove schools’ ability to choose which version of history they teach.

Ms Park’s government last year approved a book by Kyohak Publishing that contained factual errors, including that South Korea’s per-capita income reached $10,000 in 1977 under her father, when it was actually $1,000. The book was also accused of implying that comfort women were prostitutes because they “followed” troops. “Textbook controversies have been going on since the democratisation of the late 1980s, with the battle lines generally between the progressives and the conservatives,” Mr Armstrong said. “It is partly a generational struggle and an attempt to shape the next generation of Koreans in their views.”

* Bloomberg