Censoring History: Interview with Bruce Cumings

Censoring History: Interview with Bruce Cumings

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On Oct. 30, 2008, the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of six textbooks currently used in South Korean high schools delete or revise 55 sections in their texts that the Ministry claimed, “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.” South Korea formerly used a single government-issued textbook to teach its high school students a modern history of Korea, but in 2003 the government approved six privately published history textbooks for high school use. These textbooks have drawn heavy criticism from South Korean conservatives, and with last year’s presidential election of conservative Lee Myung Bak they are now seeking to influence the content of the textbooks.

In response, the Organization of Korean Historians (Han’guk yOksa yOn’guhoe) and 38 other academic associations/groups drafted a statement of opposition to the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology’s plan to revise Korean history textbooks. Approximately 550 South Korean academics and 112 scholars outside of South Korea signed the statement in opposition to the South Korean government’s attempts to impose a single historical interpretation into South Korean textbooks. The Korean-language and English-language statements along with the complete list of signatories can be found here. (Over 400 graduate students of Korea Studies at more than 20 universities in South Korea and approximately 40 graduate students from 16 universities based in Europe and North America have signed on to a separate, related statement.)

One of the signatories to the statement of opposition is Bruce Cumings, an Advisory Board Member of the Korea Policy Institute. Professor Cumings is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago. Given that this controversy is at the nexus of history, scholarship, and government interference, we note that his first book, The Origins of the Korean War, won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and the second volume of this study won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association. He is a frequent contributor to The London Review of Books, The Nation, Current History, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Le Monde Diplomatique. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and the Abe Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council. He was also the principal historical consultant for the Thames Television/PBS documentary, Korea: The Unknown War. In 2007 he won the Kim Dae Jung Prize for Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights, and Peace. He has just completed Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, which will be published by Yale University Press. He is working on a synoptic single-volume study of the origins of the Korean War, and a book on the Northeast Asian political economy.

Professor Cumings was asked by South Korean newspapers to speak to the recent efforts of the Lee Administration to impose a single version of Korean history into South Korea’s textbooks. His responses to questions from a reporter with the Donga Ilbo are below.

[Donga Ilbo] Why and how did you participate in the statements?

[Bruce Cumings] I think the vast majority of scholars in Korean Studies in the U.S., Korea and elsewhere think that governments have no business sticking their noses into what historians write, or what responsible authors and editors choose to include in textbooks. Any American presidential administration that did that would be seen as a laughing stock.

[Donga Ilbo] It seems like the Lee Myung Bak administration is waging a war against the legacy from the previous Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung administrations, and this is also affecting the textbook. What do you think?

[Cumings] I think you are right. After ten years that were truly new and different in postwar Korean history, the Lee administration is trying to turn the clock back, and to deny the enormous progress that has occurred since 1997 in gaining a fuller understanding of postwar history, in furthering reconciliation among people in the South and with the North, and in dramatically changing the attitude of the general population in the Republic of Korea (ROK) toward the North.

[Donga Ilbo] Do you believe describing an unpleasant past in a history textbook denies a country’s legitimacy or damages the pride of young students? (For example, Korea’s independence was achieved by the Allied forces’ victory over Japan, not by Korea’s own effort, which in part contributed to the division of Korean peninsula, or those who supported the Japanese colonial rule were not punished but instead held power under the Syngman Rhee administration. Conservative groups wanted to delete these parts from the texts saying that they undermine Korea’s legitimacy and hurt pride.)

[Cumings] Students are seekers of truth, and although they also want to be proud of their country, they have utter contempt for authorities who would deny them access to the best historical information and scholarship. When someone tries to do that, as the ROK did for many decades, the result is that young people think that everything they have heard from the authorities is a pack of lies-and then they truly lose pride in their leaders and their country. An example is this: my friend Suh Dae-sook proved in his 1968 book that Kim Il Sung was a genuine fighter against the Japanese for a decade after the Manchurian incident, going through all kinds of trials and difficulties—all scholars know this, and have known it at least since 1968. Yet students were told for decades that Kim was an “imposter” who stole the name of a great patriot. Here is the result: two decades later when Professor Suh delivered a lecture about Kim’s background at Seoul National University, in 1989, the whole room erupted in raucous cheers! The Lee administration is acting like an ostrich, sticking its head in the sand at the sound of bad historical news. Even worse, they are acting like the rightwing Japanese, trying to paper over difficult issues while claiming to protect “national pride.” The new history produced in the past 20 years in the ROK, uncovering many thorny and tragic problems, is actually the best path toward a reconciliation among people of very different perspectives and experiences in the South, between the victimizers and the victims, and has also helped reconciliation between North and South.

[Donga Ilbo] The government and the conservatives seem to want to downgrade the Kim Dae Jung administration’s “Sunshine Policy” by asking the textbook authors to describe worsening relation between the two Koreas. How do you perceive the issue?

[Cumings] In my judgment, relations are worsening with the North because of actions taken by the Lee administration. They have made mistake after mistake, and have gotten nothing for it. They cozied up to the Bush administration, the most unpopular in American history (and perhaps in the world), just at the point where Bush was a lame duck. They purposely alienated the North, just as Bush was turning toward engagement with Pyongyang—and the result was, no one in Washington or in the 6-Party Talks pays much attention to Seoul’s viewpoint. They are now trying to bury all the new history we have learned about the colonial and postwar periods, and this only makes young people want to know more—they want to know exactly what the administration is trying to cover up. All the new history has been squeezed out of the toothpaste tube by a lot of courageous historians, and there is no way to get it back into the tube. It’s as simple as that: it can never work.

[Donga Ilbo] Korea has blamed Japan for distorting history by glorifying its World War II aggression in its history textbooks. Now Korea is trying to glorify its own past. What do you think about that?

[Cumings] Well, this new tendency makes it rather hard for Koreans to point the finger at Japan, doesn’t it?

[Donga Ilbo] How would the homogeneous interpretation of history affect students and Korea’s future?

[Cumings] There is no “homogeneous” history, and there never will be. History is heterogeneous, and the truth only appears by finding the best evidence and doing your best to develop an interpretation of that evidence. You then publish your book, and await the judgment of your peers—historians who go through intense training and peer review at every stage of their careers. After that, you don’t care what some government hack says about your work, because you have earned the respect of people who know what they are talking about. Historians do not spend a decade getting their PhDs so some amateur can tell them what to think about history. One is always humble before the facts, before real history. But there is no need to be humble in the face of a government hurtling down a path that can only have a self-defeating outcome.

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