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INTERVIEW | Kim Byungheon on How History Distortion is Wrecking Japan-South Korea Relations

Author and historian Kim says history distortion stokes anti-Japan sentiment and discusses how South Korea and Japan can move beyond the "history" problem.

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History Distortion
Kim Byungheon protests the comfort women statue (aka statue of peace) in front of the former Japanese Embassy in South Korea. (© Kim Byungheon)

"South Korea's (Korea) K-12 history textbooks are littered with history distortion and fabrications," said Kim Byungheon, who's scheduled to speak at the Japan-Korea Comfort Women Symposium in Tokyo on November 16. He elaborated in an interview with JAPAN Forward

About 80% of the narratives on modern history, mainly after the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, are thoroughly erroneous, he explains.  

As director of the Korean History Textbook Research Institute, Kim has researched and critiqued textbook issues for many years. He believes the fallacious history lessons stoke anti-Japan sentiment among the younger generation and hamper bilateral ties between Tokyo and Seoul. 

"Shared historical understanding between the two states is the key to peace and prosperity," says Kim.

Excerpts of the interview with Kim follow. 

Kim Byungheon giving a press release at the office building in Naka-ku, Nagoya. (© Kenji Yoshida)

What are the problems associated with Korean history textbooks?  

K-12 history textbooks in Korea are pervaded with distortions and fabrications. In particular, most of the descriptions of Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula are manufactured history. 

Students educated with these biased narratives naturally develop hostility toward contemporary Japan and the Japanese people.

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Are there any ways to improve the situation?

I have publicly voiced my concerns over this situation for many years. My preferred method is to utilize a government system called the Textbook Complaint Processing Center. 

It's a system operated by the Ministry of Education and the Korea Textbook Education Foundation, whereby anyone can propose improvements to published history textbooks. When the institution determines that there is, in fact, an error, corrections are made. 

History distortion
Kim Byungheon holding Visang's textbook during a zoom interview. (© Kim Byungheon)

Any success so far? 

There are three major accomplishments:

One, in describing the Rice Production Program that began in 1920, high school textbooks often used the term "seizure." In short, it meant the Japanese colonizers stole Korean rice without permission. 

However, upon my complaint, all but one textbook corrected it to either "carry out" or "export." Among them, Visang company applied the term "shipped out." Since Korea was a Japanese colony, tariffs were virtually eliminated in trade. Thus, "shipped in" and "shipped out" used by that company are academically precise terms.

Second, at one-point, elementary school's history textbooks contained a question page asking, "Explain why the Treaty of Ganghwa Island was unequal?" This time, I filed a complaint to the aforementioned government center and directly to the textbook author. 

I asked the author to "explain to me what part of the treaty was unequal and how to amend it for fairness." The page has since been deleted.

Lastly, I pointed out that an elementary school's social textbook published an incorrect image along with the following description: "Our people (Koreans) who were forcibly conscripted as laborers." 

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The photo was actually taken in September 1926 when the Asahikawa Shimbun in Hokkaido reported a fatal accident at a road construction site. So, it has nothing to do with Korean laborers under Japanese rule. The photo was removed upon my complaint. 

History Distortion
Image of the textbook page containing the wrongly labeled image with the caption, "Our people (Koreans) who were forcibly conscripted as laborers." (© Kim Byungheon)

The book, "Red Wednesday: Comfort Women Activism and 30 Years of Lies" was recently translated into Japanese. What is it about? 

First, I point out that the comfort women issue is also part of the "history distortion" in Korea. The core of this book is to uncover lies proliferated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Korean Council

Because the Korean Council has been lying for the past 30 years, the book became longer than expected (400 pages). 

How is it different from previous studies?

This book focuses on the comfort women distortions within Korea. 

In particular, I exposed the contradiction of the "Victims of Japanese Military Comfort Woman Act." Article 2.1 of this law defines "the victim of Japanese military comfort women" as "victims who were forcibly mobilized and sexually abused by Japanese colonial power and coerced to serve as comfort women." 

The obvious problem is that there was no forced mobilization by the Japanese military, and comfort women were not subject to recruitment by the public authority. Therefore, 240 Korean women registered in the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family are NOT so-called victims of the Japanese military comfort women. 

History distortion
Japanese translation of "Red Wednesday: Comfort Women Activism and 30 Years of Lies," published by Bungeishunju. (© Kim Byungheon)

The Japan-Korea Symposium on Comfort Women will be held on November 16 in Tokyo. What are your expectations? 

First and foremost, the comfort women issue should not even be taught to K-12 students. The subject is more appropriate for mature adults, not children. 

In my opinion, continuing to teach children about how young Koreans were raped or sexually enslaved by the Japanese military constitutes "child abuse." Likewise, continuing to use the former comfort women as a political weapon is tantamount to a "human rights violation." Is it not? 

I plan to iterate these positions during the symposium. And I hope to find new ways to approach this issue with Japan. 

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What are your future plans and goals?

Starting next year, I'll be more active in conducting opposition demonstrations in Korea. Protests are expected in front of every comfort women statue (about 150) installed on the Peninsula. 

By next year (2023), I also desire to utterly thwart the Korean Council's Wednesday protest. In the long run, of course, removing all comfort women narratives from the textbooks in Korea and Japan will be pertinent. 

History distortion
Kim and his team are protesting against the comfort women statue erected in Seongbuk District. (© Kim Byungheon)

About the November 16 Event

Event Name: Japan-Korea Joint Symposium on the Comfort Women Issue

Date: Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Time: 1-4 PM (doors open at 12:30 PM)

Place: Bunkyoku Civic Sky Hall (26th Floor, 1-16-21 Kasuga, Bunkyoku, Tokyo) 

Entry Fee: ¥1,000 JPY (about $7 USD)

Format: In-person event including lectures (Part 1) and panel discussions (Part 2).

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Access: Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line, Namboku Line (Korakuen Station) / Toei Mita Line, Oedo Line (Kasuga Station)

For additional information: Contact the International Research Institute of Controversial Histories (irich.org) by email to  info@i-rich.org, Telephone: 03-6912-0047 or Fax:03-6912-0048.

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Interview by: Kenji Yoshida

(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

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