South Korea's textbook row set to escalate political struggle ahead of the 2017 presidential election

Donald Kirk says the debate over Korean textbooks signifies the escalating political divide between the right and the left in South Korea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:50am

For years we've heard complaints from China and South Korea about distortions of Japanese imperial history in Japanese textbooks. Now, in South Korea, another controversy over textbooks has taken a new turn with dire political overtones.

READ MORE: South Korean academics vow to boycott writing of conservative school history textbooks

Korean conservatives are incensed over what they see as deliberate attempts by left-leaning Koreans to inculcate a "wrong" version of recent and current national history in the minds of middle and high school students. They say some books teach the virtues of North Korea's state policy of juche, or self-reliance, and others blame South Korea for its role in igniting the Korean war in 1950. As a result, the South Korean government plans to introduce its own officially sanctified state texts by March 2017.

It's fine to talk about "independent" writing and scholarship, but North Korea, propounding juche and songun (military first), threatens South Korea on a daily basis

Authors of the textbooks, supported by professors and teachers, are fighting back with a lawsuit accusing authorities of trying to censor their texts and "brainwash" young minds with a sanitized, biased view of history. The whole debate has deep implications for the long-running challenge to the conservative Korean government by liberals and leftists. The right-left political divide can only deepen in the run-up to National Assembly elections next April and then the next presidential election in 2017, in which the opposition hopes to return to power after a decade of conservative rule.

But how misleading or even dishonest are these texts? And what's wrong with telling young people that juche exists as North Korea's state policy and philosophy even though the North, relying on China for oil, food and much else, is anything but self-reliant? The government's National Institute of Korean History says young people should learn about Korea, but textbooks that write about juche in the language of North Korean propaganda may wrongly influence students.

The lines in some of the textbooks blaming "both sides" for the Korean War are also upsetting authorities, because they run counter to the fact that North Korean forces staged a massive invasion in June 1950, overran Seoul in four days and might have taken over all South Korea if the US and UN forces didn't intervene. It's hard to be blame authorities for taking offence.

South Koreans, in a time of ongoing North-South confrontation, are in a difficult position. It's fine to talk about "independent" writing and scholarship, but North Korea, propounding juche and songun (military first), threatens South Korea on a daily basis. The debate over textbooks gets at the heart of the tragedy of the Korean War - and the fear of another conflagration overwhelming the peninsula.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea