South Korea pushes state history textbooks despite criticism

Members of a conservative group take part in a rally in Seoul, South Korea, 13 Oct 2015, to express their support for the government's plan to reintroduce a single state history textbook.
Members of a conservative group take part in a rally in Seoul, South Korea, 13 Oct 2015, to express their support for the government's plan to reintroduce a single state history textbook.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea said Tuesday (Oct 13) it will push ahead with plans to impose government-issued textbooks on schools, despite fierce criticism of a policy that opponents say is a throwback to the nation's authoritarian past.

From 2017, secondary school students will only study from the state-approved textbook which will be written by a government-appointed panel of teachers and academics, the education ministry announced.

"The Correct Textbook of History" would replace a system where schools are free to choose from eight different history texts produced by private publishing companies, albeit under government oversight.

Conservative critics argue that currently the authors are too left-wing, but liberal opponents accuse the government of reverting to a policy used by past authoritarian regimes in South Korea.

President Park Geun Hye, the daughter of one-time dictator Park Chung Hee who ruled for two decades, chided opposition lawmakers who have opposed the change and called on them not to foster division.

"It's very important for children to have a correct understanding of history through the right education," she said Tuesday.

"History education should never divide the people and students over political strife or ideological confrontation."

A dozen opposition lawmakers staged a street protest in Seoul and launched a petition against the policy. They were confronted by about 40 conservatives backing the move, some of whom clashed with police.

Moon Jae In of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) said the government's move was designed to "eulogise" late president Park Chung Hee and other authoritarian rulers.

"It attempts to control the people's mind with state-issued history books. We've seen the same thing happen under the Nazis, Japanese imperialists and the Yushin dictatorship," Moon told journalists, referring to Park Chung Hee's rule.

However, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn complained that current textbooks offered a biased view of the nation's 20th century history.

He said that materials now in use portray both the South and the North as responsible for the outbreak of the Korean War, which began with the North's invasion of the South in 1950.

"We will produce textbooks which are based on an objective, balanced view of history", he said in parliament Tuesday, denying it represented a swing back to authoritarianism.

Park Chung Hee seized power in 1961 in a military coup and led South Korea for 18 years before he was assassinated in 1979.