By: Kyung Moon Hwang

The bitter dispute over the government’s plan to (re-)nationalize secondary history textbooks reflects stark ideological differences in historical understanding. But fundamentally, it is a struggle between two forms of Korean nationalism, and in turn between opposing visions of political legitimacy and modern identity.

The progressive (or “leftist”) view is grounded in an ethnic Korean nationalism that sees modern history, dating back over a hundred years, as an upward path toward reaching an independent and united collectivity.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Koreans undertook this march toward freedom and advancement but were quickly overcome by external forces, particularly Japanese imperialism, which coerced Korea into a protectorate in 1905 and colonized the country in 1910.

Ever since that period, Koreans have struggled not only to regain their autonomy but to create a more just society without political and economic exploitation. A return to the old days of a dynastic state and a hereditary social order was not sought, in other words; rather, a more enlightened, equalized and fair collectivity that freed itself from foreign domination would be the goal of the country’s modern course of history.

From this view, then, what actually took place upon Korea’s liberation in 1945, after 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, was indeed tragic. The superpower occupations divided the country and, in the south, the Koreans who had benefited from Japanese domination maintained their privileged social and economic standing.

The period from 1945 to 1953, beginning with liberation and ending with the Korean War that solidified national division, thus represented another lost opportunity to achieve the nation’s modern historical purpose.

Not to be defeated, however, the people continued thereafter to wage a struggle against oppressive forces: the regimes of Syngman Rhee (1948-60), Park Chung-hee (1961-79), and Chun Doo-hwan (1980-87), each of which began and sustained itself through violent, illegal, and oppressive means; the Cold War system, headed by the United States, that nurtured these dictatorships by prolonging national division and socioeconomic injustice; and the social and economic elite established through traitorous collusion with Japanese colonialism, American geopolitical interests, and the Korean autocracies.

Hence, from this progressive view, even the 1987 breakthrough to electoral democracy was a false victory, for it resulted in the maintenance of this larger structure of inequality and national division, until the present day in fact. Moreover, this “democratic” system has perpetuated national division, thereby preventing the achievement of the truly great goal of modern history.

The prevailing conservative historical view, in a way, does not disagree on this final point: Democratization has indeed furthered the national divide, but the nation should be proud, not ashamed, of this reality.

If the left-nationalist perspective is firmly grounded in ethnic nationalism, in other words, the right-nationalist view is centered on South Korean nationalism, which sees Korea’s division as a hurdle to overcome, but not at the expense of weakening a sense of accomplishment for at least the southern half of the peninsula.

Public education, then, should be geared toward instilling pride in the extent to which South Korea, at least, has achieved a genuinely modern nation state. Sure, there have been problems and painful sacrifices in achieving a thriving, prosperous liberal democracy, but this great goal has been attained, and so it was all worth it.

Such a triumphalist, South Korean nationalist view sees the path of modern Korean history as having forked in 1945 or 1948, with half of the country, as it turned out, turning in the correct direction. Hence the terrible episodes of mass violence, massacres, assassinations, coups, torture, and stifling corruption that marked this course thereafter were regrettable, but they were counterbalanced by the tremendous feats under the same circumstances: the rise from poverty to economic plenitude through industrialization, the ability to fend off communization and the North Korean threat under a strong ethos of anti-communism, and the development of a middle class and consumerist society that finally made possible the great breakthrough to democratization in 1987.

In fact, from this perspective, South Korea was not ready for democracy until the late 1980s because of its economic and geopolitical circumstances. So democratization came at the right time, only when the country was properly developed in more basic ways while under the protection of the American-led Cold War order.

In hindsight, then, the entirety of South Korea’s history, if not of modern Korean history as a whole, contributed to this great enterprise of achieving Korea’s proper modern goal. In short, the end justified the means.

Needless to say, this view is very convenient for those in power or positions of economic privilege, for it legitimates their standing. That only begins the problems with this now insistent view backed by the current administration. It is, for example, blatantly political, for it seeks to integrate the dictatorships, especially of Park Chung-hee, into an overarching legitimation narrative that culminates in today’s government headed by Park’s daughter.

Moreover, this glorified South Korean nationalist understanding of history is disturbingly simplistic, even childish, in trying to whitewash the uncomfortable facets of the country’s history. To do so, it relies on a neat, holistic, self-enclosed framework of the nation’s past that stands at odds with how history actually unfolds.

But in this regard, the South Korean nationalist view also has a lot in common with ethnic Korean nationalism.