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HBS Must Quickly and Concretely Fix Historical Distortion Within its Core Curriculum

By Young Hyun Kim, Contributing Opinion Writer
Young Hyun Kim is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and an author of the statement demanding the revision of the “Korea” case. ​​​​​​​

Some say that any press is good press — but not for Harvard Business School this semester. This fall, South Korean national broadcast network JTBC reported on the distorted misrepresentation of Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonization of Korea in HBS’s core curriculum. The distortion in question involves an HBS-published case titled “Korea,” required reading in a required class for second-semester MBA students.

The “Korea” case is sparking controversy for attributing Korea’s modernization to brutal imperial Japanese rule. It is for this reason that Korean students at Harvard Kennedy School initiated a statement demanding the case be revised by the time this class is taught next year to reflect on the realities of Japanese colonization of Korea in a more balanced manner. The statement was later signed by the wider Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Korea Society, and also covered by JTBC.

Currently, the case takes the viewpoint of the colonizer, crediting South Korea’s development to illegal Japanese occupation. It notes that “Korea became increasingly industrialized, and transportation and power infrastructure improved” during the Japanese occupation, and that the Korean “educational, administrative, and financial systems were also modernized.”

What the case fails to mention is that these very efforts to industrialize and build infrastructure in Korea were byproducts of the Japanese treatment of Korea as its military supply base in wars waged throughout Asia. The Japanese government subjected an estimated 1.2 million or more Koreans to murderous forced labor and up to an estimated 200,000 women to sexual slavery, to advance one such war in which they committed unspeakable war crimes like the Nanjing Massacre in China. It is a dangerous act of misinformation for the HBS case to laud this byproduct of industrialization without providing proper historical context as to its purpose and victims.

The HBS case’s depiction of Korea under Japanese rule stands in stark contrast to the academic handling of similar situations. In 2022, it is rare to see India and Algeria’s development credited to British or French rule, respectively, without at least acknowledgment of the harm suffered under such rule. When it comes to these other nations, historians of the 21st century seem to understand the historical context well enough to distinguish byproducts of colonial ambitions from efforts to serve the native people by means of economic development. Unfortunately, the same does not hold for Korea and Japanese rule in HBS’s curriculum.

It is true that the history of Japanese occupation in Korea has been the subject of great dispute between the two countries for decades. In sharp contrast to its wartime ally Germany, the Japanese government has made it clear over the last decades that they no longer intend to claim their war crimes against Korea. They continue to promote a narrative in front of the international community that masks their past abuses and argues for the positive impact of their colonization.

Because of this dispute surrounding the history between these two nations, HBS’s depiction of Japan and Korea’s relationship is even more disappointing. In this contentious situation, HBS has chosen to uplift only one voice — that of the Japanese colonizer — rather than treading carefully to produce a fair, balanced characterization of a difficult piece of history.

HBS’s uneven choice in the publication of the “Korea” case, in my opinion, points to deeper nefarious inclinations. As the statement argues, perhaps it is no coincidence that the group of six authors on the case includes a researcher from Harvard’s Japan Research Center visiting from a Japanese university, but no scholar from a Korean background. In addition, the statement alleges that this is not the first time HBS has faced public scrutiny for this case: Acording to its authors, numerous requests for revision from Harvard Business School students in the past have been repeatedly ignored by the school administration.

Since the statement and JTBC report, the primary author of the case, HBS Professor Forest L. Reinhardt, has said over email communications to a protesting organization that they “expect to make editorial changes to future versions of this case.”

While Reinhardt’s response is welcomed, it falls short of the concrete action and timeline Harvard GSAS Korea Society students called for in their initial statement. Moreover, we have yet to hear from HBS in any institutional capacity. It is unclear what Reinhardt’s private email correspondence, without the backing of a larger HBS body, means in practice, particularly regarding when and how the publication will be revised. As demanded by the statement, the harmful nature of the misrepresentation within the case warrants immediate action, before another MBA class of over 1,000 students engages with the publication in January of 2023.

The effort of graduate students to rectify the historical distortion within this HBS case is larger than what some may view as a mere historical dispute between two nations. It is an effort to ensure accurate historical education in one of the world’s most distinguished educational institutions, and moreover, to decolonize historical education globally. Now that the case’s primary author has recognized its malignant flaws, it is only right for HBS to communicate when, how, and by whom the “editorial changes to future versions of this case” will be made — so that no future classes of HBS students need to engage with this same deleterious, one-sided depiction of history.

Young Hyun Kim is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and an author of the statement demanding the revision of the “Korea” case.

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