SOUTH KOREA: Clandestine war for national memory

National history is written from a certain perspective. And, it can be rewritten later from other perspectives. However, it should not be forgotten that the purpose of having a national history, which itself underlines certain aspects of national memory, is so that accumulated wisdom from the past can circulate in society. Future generations can utilize such national history for the good of humanity and prosperity, in the home country and the surrounding region. It is critical, however, that national history should be based on historical fact, with evidence to support, regardless of the particular perspective from which it is written.

The people of South Korea have shed their blood fighting for democracy and human rights. They made their first major effort in 1960, when the systematic fraud of the presidential election became public. This is now known as the “April 19 Revolution”. It became etched in national memory because the people took down a corrupt government. However, the people’s aspirations for democracy failed to fructify. This was due to the coup led by General Park Chung-hee, who then ruled the country for about 16 years, until his assassination in 1979.

Soon thereafter, General Chun Du-hwan orchestrated another coup and ended up ruling the country. In 1980, the people in Gwangju resisted Chun’s military coup and fought for democracy and human rights. This is now termed the “May 18 Uprising”.

Then came the 1987 people’s struggle for the establishment of democracy in South Korea. The so-called “June 10 Uprising” ushered a peaceful transition from military rule to a democratic process of government. An amendment to the Constitution guaranteed this.

Such a listing, of the three aforementioned uprisings, is a simplified and inexhaustive noting of events, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that many events are still in the process of being memorialized.

After civilian governments replaced military regimes, several commissions, aimed at investigating alleged human rights violations of the past, were established. But, despite strong dissent from the public, former President Lee Myung-bak dismantled these commissions.

A Korean Democratic Foundation was also established to commemorate those who lost their lives or suffered injury during the democratic movement. However, this Foundation, which conducts research on related events and educates the younger generation, is now in crisis. Staff of the Foundation has been struggling to restore transparency and the democratic process for over half a year. This situation has arisen because the integrity of the newly appointed President of the Foundation is in serious doubt. Furthermore, his appointment was conducted without consideration to the relevant regulation and procedure.

However, mere administrative process is not central here. A broader analysis of South Korean understanding of history, bearing in mind the government’s attempt to change the national memory process, is the need.

According to reports, the Ministry of Education has interfered with the Educational Broadcasting System. The Ministry sought to change the content of history, by censoring broadcasting, putting pressure on the broadcasters to teach what the Ministry wanted. It has been alleged that the Ministry asked that a significant portion of South Korean historical fact be deleted from programmes. The Ministry apparently wished to neuter public recollection of the memory of human rights abuses committed by former President Park Chung-hee, father of the current President Park Geun-hye, and also by two other military generals, who succeeded Park Chung-hee in power.

After the Presidential Election in December 2012, the electorate believed that things would not change significantly, as the country had achieved a certain level of democracy. Direct democracy commenced operating after the “June 10 Uprising” in 1987, and the subsequent Constitutional Amendment.

However, today, these beliefs have been shaken. Those who fought for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and those who hold peace dear, need to be on alert again. Ordinary people, have to, once again, fight for values that have been taken for granted for several decades.

In the past, military and authoritarian governments, as a priority, have sought to modify national memory through bogus history re-education. However, what the people face today is the result of a clandestine war to sway national memory. This insidious assault on national memory began decades ago, and its significance is only surfacing now.

In this light, the current administration’s policy to win the battle of history inside Korea is hypocrisy. During World War II, the Japanese government attempted to sugarcoat its war under the guise of decolonising Asians from the western yoke. There are some who still believe it so. Though, the majority, including the government of South Korea, contend the historical facts on sexual slavery and forced labour by the Japanese military and corporations. However, for those victimised in the people’s uprisings and in human rights abuses inflicted in the past, both governments – the Japanese and the South Korean – are one and the same: abusers.

And, this is why it is important for the public to remember, recognise, acknowledge, and appreciate those who struggle for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – both inside and outside the system. In the end, they will get endless support from the public at large.

History still proves this.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-155-2014
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Democracy, Human rights defenders, Judicial system, Military, Right to education, Rule of law,