S. Korea row over proposal for state history textbook

High school students preparing for a test in South Korea. The proposal for a state history textbook was raised after a high school textbook put out by right-leaning Kyohak Publishing was found to be full of factual errors.
High school students preparing for a test in South Korea. The proposal for a state history textbook was raised after a high school textbook put out by right-leaning Kyohak Publishing was found to be full of factual errors.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Supporters say it will help avoid confusion but those against it say it would stifle democracy

The South Korean government is considering reinstating a national history textbook system, in a bid to avoid disputes over the content of secondary and high school textbooks.

But the proposal to teach students just "one version of history" has met with growing objection from the opposition, left-leaning academics and history teachers.

The ongoing debate was raised during a parliamentary audit yesterday, with opposition lawmakers lambasting Education Minister Hwang Woo Yea for his drive to bring back standardised state-published history textbooks abolished in 2002.

Mr Hwang, who had floated the idea last year when he was chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, reiterated his stand yesterday that having just one history textbook will help students avoid confusion. But he also said the ministry's stand on the issue will be decided only later, after a public hearing by the National Institute of Korean History today.

It is expected that a decision will be made by the end of this month.

The proposal was raised after a high school textbook put out by right-leaning Kyohak Publishing was found to be full of factual errors and misrepresentations of history.

BASED ON EVIDENCE, NOT EMOTIONS

History is not simply a story of the past, it is the soul and spirit of our people. What's important is how we make the textbook. It should be based on scientific evidence and not emotional, opinionated views of individuals.

EMERITUS PROFESSOR IM KAYE SOON, from Hanyang University's history department on writing history

Critics argued that it painted an overtly rosy picture of Japan's colonisation of Korea and glossed over the post-war era ruled by military dictators including the late Park Chung Hee. He is the father of current President Park Geun Hye.

But the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) argued that state textbooks go against the basic values of democracy.

NPAD leader Moon Jae In was quoted as saying by JoongAng Ilbo newspaper: "I can never agree with the government because standardising history textbooks is just its effort to control the public."

On Tuesday, 10 education superintendents from across the country issued a statement saying the government's plan goes against "our efforts to diversify and liberalise our curriculum".

The current system allows publishers to print different versions of history textbooks for secondary and high schools, but they must be screened by the Education Ministry. Primary schools use a standard state-published history textbook.

Saenuri party representatives have pointed out that some of the history textbooks contain factual errors, give different dates for the founding of the Korean peninsula and vary in their portrayal of the country's first president Rhee Syng Man.

Last week, a group of 34 history professors from the country's most prestigious Seoul National University vowed to "start a disobedience movement to protect the values of democracy", should the government decide to go ahead with the proposal.

Separately, 2,255 history teachers issued a joint statement last week accusing the government of trying to "beautify dictatorship and pro-Japanese activities" by former leaders during the colonial era.

The state history textbook system was introduced by the late President Park in 1974 to control what students learnt in school.

Emeritus Professor Im Kaye Soon from Hanyang University's history department supports the idea of a standardised textbook but emphasised that it must be written with consensus by a team of history experts and based on scientific facts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2015, with the headline 'S. Korea row over proposal for state history textbook'. Print Edition | Subscribe