South Korea unveils controversial state history textbooks

South Korean vice-education minister Lee Young unveils the final version of state-authored history textbooks at the government complex in Sejong, south of Seoul, South Korea on Jan 31, 2017.
South Korean vice-education minister Lee Young unveils the final version of state-authored history textbooks at the government complex in Sejong, south of Seoul, South Korea on Jan 31, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's government on Tuesday (Jan 31) unveiled the final version of state-issued school history textbooks despite criticism that they are a throwback to the country's authoritarian past.

The education ministry published middle and high school history textbooks even as parliament is moving to ban their use. Legislators say they glorify the dictatorship of Mr Park Chung Hee, late father of impeached President Park Geun Hye.

Mr Park Chung Hee ruled the country for 18 years until his assassination in 1979.

"We need to establish a historical perception that will encourage positive views about our own history," vice education minister Lee Young told reporters at the announcement.

But critics argue the new textbooks exaggerate Mr Park Chung Hee's role in industrialising the country, while glossing over his human rights abuses.

"As a result of government efforts to boost exports, export volume jumped 40 per cent every year," an online copy of the new high school textbook said about the Park era.

History remains a bitter ideological battleground in South Korea, which achieved democracy only in 1987.

Conservative critics argue that current texts are too left-leaning and warp students' minds with allegedly leftist-leaning ideological bias.

They say the existing books belittle achievements under the South's former authoritarian rulers, including the country's rapid industrialisation after the Korean War, while barely touching on the North's human rights abuses.

The government initially planned to impose the state-authored history textbooks this year for exclusive use.

But in the face of waves of protests from historians, teachers and other critics, it announced in December that it would let schools choose between them and approved texts from commercial publishers.

Opposition lawmakers from parliament's education committee - who are mulling a move to outlaw the new books - slammed their final versions, calling them "Park Chung Hee textbooks".

The state textbooks must be scrapped immediately, they told a press conference following the government unveiling.