Why Historical Accuracy in Textbooks Matters


“Korea actually used to be a part of China,” said U.S President Donald Trump to the Wall Street Journal, while talking about his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This remark wasn’t included in the WSJ’s article on April 12 but was made public six days later by global online news outlet Quartz. Nikhil Sonnad, a reporter at Quartz, wrote “(the remark) is totally wrong and could enrage South Korea.” He added, “We can probably assume that Trump did not have ideas of his own about this matter of Asian history, and in fact got this notion from Xi. But where would Xi have gotten it?” Then, he quoted history professor Kyung Moon Hwang at the University of Southern California, “It’s possible that Xi said something like this, as such a story has been part of the nationalist history project under the Chinese Communist Party.”


President Trump sparked outrage in Korea without even knowing it. Inaccurate historical perceptions can damage diplomatic relationships. Historical inaccuracies can spread state and nationwide through school textbooks. Unfortunately, major world-history textbooks used in the United States are contributing to the misperception of Korean history. For example, Holt, Rinehart & Winston’s textbook “World History – People & Nations” describes Korea as a colony of China throughout its history. In a section review, students are asked “What effect did years of Chinese domination have on Korean culture?” This textbook has been adopted by 14 U.S. states. Students in the United States are being taught incorrect Korean history.

Civilization Developed in Korea

Korea occupies a peninsula on the eastern border of the Chinese mainland. China controlled the peninsula for much of Korea’s history and, as a result, greatly influenced Korea’s political and cultural development. China first invaded Korea in 200 B.C., during the Han dynasty. At this time the Chinese began to transmit their culture to Korea.

After the fall of the Han dynasty, three independent kingdoms, with shifting boundaries, took control of the peninsula. The kingdom of Silla eventually emerged as the strongest and unified the country in 668. During the Tang dynasty, Korea once again became a colony of Chinese but kept its own ruling dynasty. Buddhism was introduced to Korea during this period. Then Korea became part of the Mongol Empire, and when the Mongols were expelled, a new dynasty, the Yi, was founded in 1392. This dynasty survived until 1910, when Japan annexed Korea


<Section Review>

Identifying Cause and Effect:

What effect did years of Chinese domination have on Korea?

We will explain why such a description is problematic. The biggest problem with the textbook is that it repeatedly depicts Korea as a colony of a foreign country. During its 5000 years of history, the only period that Korea lost its sovereignty was during the Japanese occupation period from 1910 to 1945. However, this textbook creates an impression that Korea had been colonized most of the time. In world history, it is difficult to find a country that has never been invaded or colonized. In its long history, Korea was invaded by different Chinese dynasties, including the Han, Sui, Tang, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. However, Korea maintained its independence through war or diplomacy. If we define a country as a colony for being invaded, no country would be free from that definition.


You may ask whether the tributary relationship between China and Korea shows that Korea was a part of China. For an accurate understanding, we need to consider the historical context in which the practice of paying tribute was a means of diplomacy. Through the tributary system, China confirmed its dominance in Asia and Korea obtained economic benefits from trade. The tributary system was by no means similar to the dominance-subordination relationship that appeared in modern times. Many countries in Asia used the system for their own advantage. Japan and Vietnam also paid tribute to China. No country at the time regarded tribute as a sign of subordination. The tributary system is not evidence to suggest that Korea was a part of China.


Although Korea paid tribute to China, it maintained independent cultures, traditions, and kingdoms. If Korea were a part of China, it would have relinquished its rights to choose kings and officials, command the military, and engage in diplomacy. The truth is that the Japanese occupation period was the only time Korea lost its sovereign rights.


Now, you may be wondering why American textbooks reflect this bias. When Korea was under Japanese rule, such a biased perspective on Korean history was promoted and spread all over the world by Japanese scholars. Japan denigrated Korean history and Koreans’ competence to govern themselves in order to justify control of Korea. American professor Thomas Duvernay explains that Japan’s control of Korea and its history distorted the world’s perception of Korea and Korean history.


Our dream is to connect Koreans and Americans for friendship, without stereotypes or prejudice, by sharing accurate Korean history.

<Truth in Scholarship>

Unfortunately, when a country dominates another, the first thing lost is the truth. It is equally true that those who control a country also control its history. Such was the case of Korea, when it was occupied by Japan ( from 1910-1945 ).

From the middle to late nineteenth century, near the close of the Chosun Dynasty, Japan had designs on the Korean peninsula, in its first step toward forming a Greater Japanese Empire. In order to get other nations to accept its eventual annexation and colonization of Korea, it first needed to establish historical precedent that it once controlled that country. To that end, Japan altered history, ranging from distorting historical facts all the way to downright fabricating them. Those fabrications have been well documented, but still many Western historians accept the distorted history of Korea as fact. How can that be?

When Korea finally opened its doors to the West, in 1882, after signing a treaty with the United States, then other countries, it was a relatively poor, technologically deficient country, in relation to Japan. Japan had opened up about three decades earlier and embraced Western technology and eagerly sought modernization. While Korea was, many centuries earlier, the big brother of Japan, it decayed into just a poor cousin with the dying Chosun Dynasty. Korea’s introduction to the West was through Japan, so that country controlled what information about Korea was conveyed to other countries, to a great extent. When the annexation and colonization of Korea happened, the history of Korea, as written by Japan, was basically written in stone and accepted as the truth.

What are some of the fallacies about Korea? Probably, the biggest one is of ‘Mimana’, known in Korean as “Imna Ilbon Bu’. In reality, Imna was really no more than a Japanese trading post, during the Three Kingdoms Period, on the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula, near Pusan. According to the Japanese version, Imna mirrored the territory of the Kaya Federation. The Japanese even claim having subdued the Shilla Kingdom!

In reality, the Japanese, who allied themselves with Kaya and the Baekje Kingdom, were little more than mercenary pirates, from a country that, at that time, had no real central government and had severe feudal problems of their own. That is hardly a national military force capable of conquering another nation.

Archaeological and historical evidence has shown that, in actuality, Korea is largely responsible for the founding of the Japanese imperial family. Of course, it is not something that is widely accepted, or even discussed, in Japan.

Japan tried again to gain a foothold in Korea in the late sixteenth century, during the reign of Hideyoshi of Japan. Largely, Japan succeeded, but due to naval defeats, along with political upheavals at home, they gave up. Relative peace existed for the next two and a half centuries. Japan tried gaining influence in Korea, but was rebuffed time and time again. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Daewongoon (the regent of Korea and father of future King Kojong) that Japan finally had its chance. In 1875, Japan launched an attack on Korea and in 1876 secured a treaty with that country. Just a few short years later, Western countries joined in and basically carved up the peninsula into spheres of influence. Korea’s historic suzerain relationship with China was terminated, and Korea became a pawn in international geopolitics.

In 1905, Korea’s sad fate was sealed when the United States and Japan agreed on regions of influence in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum. In return for recognizing Japan’s control of Korea, Japan would likewise recognize the United States’ control of the Philippines. When King Kojong tried to show to the world Japan’s aggressive policy toward Korea, at the Peace Conference at The Hague, in 1907, Japan responded by forcing King Kojong to abdicate the throne. Korea was one step closer to not existing as a sovereign nation (and it really only had sovereignty then, in name only).

From that time on, Korea had no chance at all of showing to the world its true history. Japan now controlled the country, so it also controlled its history. The Japanese completely rewrote Korean history, and even Koreans themselves were forced to learn a very distorted version. Fortunately, for Korea and the world, Koreans would not so easily give up the truth. Though many records were lost or destroyed, many others survived.

Still, it is an uphill battle to change the world’s perception of Korea and its history. Even though Japan lost World War Two militarily, it won the war economically and scholastically. Japan was quickly rebuilt with Western help, while Korea was, for the most part, forced to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Korea was perceived by the rest of the world as a backward cesspool, while Japan, once the darling of Asia, was welcomed back into the fold of Westernized nations. The fratricidal war on the peninsula five years after WWII did not help the West’s perception.

As Japan was seen as cultured and scholarly, and the histories written about Korea by Japanese sources were really the only ones in English, they continued to be accepted as factual. Korean historians had not yet had the chance to publish works about Korea in English and, when they finally did, the Japanese versions had become firmly entrenched in Western societies. To this day, the Japanese version of history is taught as fact in many Western institutions of higher learning. I have personally sparred with Western Japanists over Korean history.

One organization I have recently come to know is VANK (Voluntary Agency Network of Korea). They are dedicated to, as they say on their web site, “enhancing the image of Korea in cyberspace”. Hopefully, through the efforts of VANK and interested world scholars, Korea’s true history will fully be known.

Thomas Duvernay, Professor of Youngnam University