History war: South Korean government pushes ahead with new school textbooks to 'correct bias'

The move caps weeks of debate about whether it was democratic for the government to dictate how the country’s turbulent modern history is taught

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 2:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 10:51pm

South Korea on Tuesday pushed ahead with a highly controversial plan to introduce government-issued history textbooks in schools, despite angry protests by opposition parties and academics.

The policy has become a bitter ideological battleground between left and right in South Korea, with critics accusing President Park Geun-hye's administration of seeking to deliberately manipulate and distort the narrative of how the South Korean state was created.

Following an obligatory 20-day period to canvass public opinion, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea confirmed that middle and high school students would each receive a single government-issued history textbook from 2017.

“We can no longer allow the use of distorted and biased history textbooks to teach our precious children,” he told a news conference. “We have to fix the way history textbooks are published so we can make a correct textbook.”

Although the textbooks cover ancient history, it is the interpretation of the country's turbulent recent past, which is most contested -- not least the autocratic rule and legacy of Park's father, Park Chung-hee.

It was Park Chung-hee who introduced state-issued textbooks in 1973 - a system that survived the country's transition from military to democratic rule.

In 2003, it was relaxed with the introduction of some privately published textbooks, which then became the norm from 2010 - although they were still subject to state inspection.

We can no longer allow the use of distorted and biased history textbooks to teach our precious children
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn

Park's conservative administration argued that the books had taken on an increasingly liberal, left-wing bias, which some even labelled as “pro-North Korean”.

Arguments have focused on issues like who bears most responsibility for the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, and how the textbooks should reference North Korea's official “juche” ideology.

Deeply sensitive issues like collaboration during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule are also strongly contested, along with the violence that accompanied the move to democracy in the 1980s and 90s.

Hwang dismissed “groundless” concerns that state-issued textbooks would glorify the authoritarian, military rule of the past.

“This society is too mature to allow... such an attempt to distort history”, he said.

But a vocal coalition of liberal politicians, academics, students and civic groups disagree, and there have been large street demonstrations against the new policy.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) launched a sit-in protest at the National Assembly overnight, ahead of Tuesday's announcement.

NPAD chief Moon Jae-in said the government had turned a deaf ear to the mounting public opposition.

“This is no less than outright dictatorship”, he said. “No free democracy in the world has state-issued history textbooks.”

An opinion poll published last week by Gallup Korea showed that 49 per cent of Korean adults were against the policy, with 36 per cent in favour.

The state-issued history textbooks will be written by a government-appointed panel of teachers and academics.

Park Geun-hye has stated that the most critical role of historical education is to “instil our future generation with pride in their country”.

Her critics accuse her of hypocrisy in the light of her own condemnation of Japanese historical “revisionism” regarding the colonial period.

Additional reporting by Reuters