Historical distortion has been an issue for many years. In recent times, several issues, such as Harvard Law School Professor John Mark Ramseyer’s paper and TV series Joseon Exorcist, caused heated controversy. Kookmin Review took
this opportunity to meet Professor Sun-ik Hwang of Kookmin University (KMU)’s Department of Korean History to ask about historical distortion and get advice on how KMU students can gain proper perspective while studying Korean history.
What are you doing these days?
Because the semester is underway, I’m focused on giving lectures. I give a lecture in the Department of Korean History, and also have taught the course entitled “The Independence Movement and Provisional Government of Korea” in the
College of General Education since its establishment. This course allows students to systematically learn the history of the provisional government of Korea and the independence movement. It’s a very special course available only at KMU,
so I enjoy giving lectures for this course. In addition, the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government is currently being established, and I am responsible for the overall project as a member of the advisory committee. I’m also
writing a textbook in respect to rewards given to independence patriots.
We would like to ask some questions about historical distortion. First, what do you think about Professor Ramseyer’s paper, which has been criticized for distorting the facts of Japanese military sexual slavery?
After reading the main points, I felt two things. First, it didn’t present anything new. I have seen much of the data recorded by the Japanese during the period of Japanese colonial rule and immediately after Korea’s independence,
and there is a common thread that appears in most of those data: they say that Koreans eat much more than the Japanese and are always avaricious and unclean. The Japanese often wrote about the Korean people in this way,
and they even provided such information to the U.S Army, promoting misconceptions about Koreans. The paper at the center of this recent controversy is not much different from such records, so it was like reading documents written by the
Japanese police 75 years ago. Second, the paper is lacking. Even if researchers don’t have a particular thesis, they usually accumulate basic facts, provide proper evidence, develop their arguments, and present what they want to argue as
their ultimate conclusion. Ramseyer’s paper, however, is more like an essay that includes contentions based on fixed argument and his own perceptions. In other words, it doesn’t deserve to be called a paper. I actually wonder whether the paper
is actually worth talking about at all. Regarding this issue, there is a point on which we should focus. Ramseyer’s paper was criticized globally, and more than we expected. That means there is vigilance against the inhumanity shown in Ramseyer’s paper. Amid this
controversy, I saw that academia refused to tolerate historical arguments against universal value, even if they are presented in what is claimed to be an academic work.
Second, historical distortion has also occurred through the media, such as TV programs. What do you think about this issue? Basically, the Korean people are interested in history. This interest leads them to develop their intellectual curiosity,
self-esteem and engage in self-examination. They also enjoy history. The media can easily fulfill the interest, so people readily accept historical stories in the media. The problem is that many programs can’t gratify the public level. With more and more interesting historical programs now being aired, many people have raised questions about the historical accuracy of such programs. Through those programs, history is being distorted by pseudo-historians and people using history for consumption. For historians, there is an
atmosphere of self-reflections as well. Yet we can’t keep track of or prohibit all such incidents, so it’s really frustrating.
What do you think is the fundamental reason for historical distortion?
As I previously stated, the public interest in history is very high. The practice of history is a series of attempts to seek value in and reflect on the facts of the past, based on the
messages and values contained within such facts. However, if this practice is performed for particular purposes, it can be easily misused. Such problems have happened in our history.
Most of the recent historical distortions occurred in relation to conflicts between neighboring countries. For example, in terms of the Korea-Japan relationship, the problem
is connected to the political changes within Japanese society. Meanwhile, there was distortion in Korea to justify government’s fault in the past. In recent times, distortions come from overusing historical facts and meanings. Adding to the preceding, for the Korea-Japan relationship, one of the causes of historical distortion is the stagnation of Japanese society. When the arguments about historical distortion gain strength, being made by people from the so-called historical conservatism and revisionism camp, it is usually because there is a politically and socially conservative
atmosphere. At the same time, civic groups have had enormous influence in preventing incorrect arguments and calling for reflection. However, that influence has decreased,
making it difficult for the society to solve problems. Regarding this, I also wonder how the Korean people can gather and react to the situation of historical distortion. Concerning the recent issues that have arisen due to the distortion in historical TV dramas, some of them have been successfully resolved. We also need to consider the process through which such problems arise and are solved. It would be very beneficial for us to contemplate the process involved.
What can we do to solve the problem of historical distortion?
To prevent historical distortion, we need to know the basic facts of history. What is historical fact? There are many people who believe there can be various opposing facts of history. As someone who has studied Korean history for a long time, I also sometimes wonder whether some historical event actually happened the way it is recorded. On such occasions, I make a judgement based on my sense of history, considering the relevant historical background and characteristics of the figures involved. Yet some people handle such situations without deep knowledge, which leads to distortions. We should know historical facts precisely, and the public needs considerable power to control the behavior consuming history technologically. This would put a stop to the historical content business, which can leads to other forms of historical distortion.
Controversies such as Japanese military sexual slavery and the Chinese Northeast Project are intensifying. What attitude should KMU students have toward Korean history?
The most important thing is to use universal idea when studying history. Students should ask themselves whether any given history claim makes sense. We believe that the history progresses, which implies that people pursue higher value and maintain social cohesion to achieve such power. Based on this, we need to question the rightness of historical events, reflecting general knowledge. For example, Japanese military sexual slavery was an inhumane act. In fact, it’s nonsensical to discuss whether there were contracts involved or not. People can regard such inhumane and illegal acts as heinous. For social justice issues, there is absolute value—one can’t violate the freedom and dignity of others—and it’s unchangeable regardless of time and space.The reason Korea’s independence movements are important is that they pursued the absolute values of freedom and independence. Especially, in 1919, when Japanese imperialism went to extremes, the Korean people asserted these values, arguing that they would go on to pursue world peace. The Declaration of Independence includes these values as well, but it was difficult to spread
them globally because Korea’s national power was limited at the time. Now, however, we can say that Korea has genuinely pursued such values, and accordingly, we can be a leading country in the effort to guarantee human rights. I hope KMU students have pride in and take responsibility for this, working internally and externally.
Many students study Korean history in order to gain the qualifications they need to find employment. What do you think about the study of history for employment?
It’s just our reality. Studying history is much more than memorizing and remembering historical facts. It allows students to gain new perspectives and strengthen their views of society. Even if people study Korean history for employment, it is still an opportunity for them to foster historical consciousness. So, I think it’s a good thing.
Can you recommend lectures or programs related to Korea's modern and contemporary history for KMU students?
For lectures, I recommend “The Independence Movement and Provisional Government of Korea.” This lecture is offered only by KMU. The first dean of KMU was Shin Ik-hee, a representative of the Provisional Government of Korea. Prominent figures such as Kim Koo, Kim Kyu-sik, and Cho So-ang also participated in the foundation of KMU. Furthermore, many professors here majored in the history of Korea’s independence movement. For this reason, KMU is the ideal place for this lecture. So, I confidently recommend that students take it. For programs, members of the KMU College of Business Administration and Department of Korean History travelled to Chinese cities in 2018 and 2019 as part of the “Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea Route Trip” program. The response to the program in 2019 was so favorable that we expanded it, with plans to visit the sites biannually and select students in every college. It’s really unfortunate that those plans have been dashed. I hope the program will be resumed. I also recommend that students think about the values in our everyday life, by finding and appreciating all vestiges of independence activists around
them and aspects of their cultural heritage.