Postcolonial Discourses and Teaching National History. The History Educators’ Attempts to Overcome Colonialism in the Republic of Korea

Sun Joo Kang

There is little consensus regarding the content, scope, and relevance of postcolonial studies and the definition of postcolonialism differs among academics. Many refer to postcolonialism as the enduring colonial condition following colonial occupation, while others refer to it as a temporal marker of the decolonizing process. On the former perspective, Leela Gandhi (1998: 16) states: ‘Colonialism, to put it simply, marks the historic processes whereby the ‘West’ attempts systematically to cancel or negate the cultural difference and values of the non-West.’ Colonialism in Korea also involves the systematic denial of Korean cultural values and historical development but by a ‘Western surrogate’ Japan.

In Korea, colonialism in terms of an actual power relation ended with World War II. For a long time, to the Korean public, the term ‘colonialism’ has been associated with Japanese socio-cultural suppression and economic exploitation. Koreans remember the forced migration to Central Asia, Sakhalin, and Japan, the conscription of men and youths into the Japanese army, and the forced recruitment of women and girls into a prostitute corps (‘comfort women’) created by the Japanese imperial army during World War II. In the late 1930s, Japanese colonialists banned the use of the Korean language, the teaching of Korean history, and forced Koreans to take Japanese names. Japanese colonialists not only attempted to destroy Korean culture and identity but constructed distorted images of Korean people and Korean historical development.

S.J. Kang (*)

Gyeongin National University of Education, Anyang, Korea © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_18

In Korean history scholarship, colonialism as a subject has primarily been explored in relation to Japanese colonial rule, its aftermath and its production and the spread of distorted knowledge about the East Asian and Korean characters, cultures, and histories. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, minjung historiography (historiography of the people’s history of Korea) used the term ‘new colonialism’ to criticize U.S. political and economic interference. In the 1990s, postmodern and postcolonial theories and their critiques of nation and national history were introduced to South Korea. As a result, the conception of colonialism was expanded to include power relations not limited to actual colonialism or political interference but to include other forms of domination and exclusion with their accompanying features of Eurocentrism, racism, eth- nocentrism, sexism, and so forth.

The discourses of colonialism and postcolonialism have provoked debates on the teaching of history in South Korea. This chapter focuses on the influence of the discourses of colonialism and postcolonialism mainly on the teaching of Korean history although the discourses have impacted on the teaching of world history and East Asian history too. When Eurocentrism is concerned in particular, some issues of world history are also discussed. The first section of this chapter examines the period after liberation from colonial rule and focuses on Korean historians’ efforts to create a new national culture and construct a ‘true’ Korean history during an era of nation building, economic development, and democratization. The second section covers the 1990s to the 2010s and addresses the postmodern postcolonialists’ attacks on nation and national history and the dilemma of teaching about colonial rule. The third section discusses future directions in Korean history education in terms of postcolonial consciousness.

In Korean history education, national history, which has been the most influential in constructing national identity, has faced a challenge from postmodernists’ demanding that it be abandoned or transcended. The postnational and transnational approaches are disrupting the ‘canon’ of national history. Postmodernist and postcolonialist challenges to history education raise the question as to which direction Korean history education should take. The future of history education, which inevitably involves identity construction, should be strategically configured not only in the face of new challenges from societal or paradigm changes but also to resolve the issues based in the past that have accumulated or evolved.

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