To increase his chances of winning South Korea’s presidential election last year, Lee Myung-bak pledged to revitalize the economy, implement tougher policies toward North Korea and strengthen ties with the United States. At the time it appeared that the conservative Myung-bak had captured the mood of the country, as he won the election in a landslide. But since taking office in February, President Myung-bak’s administration has promoted some rather hawkish ideas that are raising the ire of many South Koreans.
First came plans to force Internet users in one of the world’s most wired nations to adhere to stricter libel and slander laws. The proposal, still in the implementation stage, aims to curb negative commentary and fear-mongering, but it is being widely viewed as an infringement on freedom of speech. Now Myung-bak’s right-wing government is causing an uproar over a popular high-school textbook’s version of how American and Soviet forces seized control of Korea from Japanese colonialists after the Second World War. Nobody is taking issue with the fact that Soviet forces swept into Korea and installed a Communist-friendly regime in the north while American military forces controlled the south. What does infuriate conservatives is that the textbook proclaims that after Japan’s occupation, Korea became a divided peninsula ruled by foreign powers instead of two self-determining states. “It was not our national flag that was hoisted to replace the Japanese flag,” reads the textbook. “The flag that flew in its place was the American Stars and Stripes. Our liberation through the Allied forces’ victory prevented us from building a new country according to our own wishes.”
Conservatives believe such a declaration hurts national pride and have asked the authors to delete or change 55 sections in the textbook that “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.” The authors are refusing to comply, arguing that the government is trying to “beautify” the country’s much-disputed past.