Seoul pushes ahead over textbook row

Civic groups opposing state-written history textbooks rallying in downtown Seoul yesterday.
Civic groups opposing state-written history textbooks rallying in downtown Seoul yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Govt says it needs to fix 'bias' in current history books despite angry protests

SEOUL • South Korea 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 yesterday that middle- and high-school students would each receive a single government-issued history textbook from 2017.

"We cannot teach our children with biased history textbooks", Prime Minister Hwang said in a televised statement.

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 Ms Park's father Park Chung Hee.

He 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.

Ms 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 the most responsibility for the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. Deeply sensitive issues like collaboration during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule are also strongly contested.

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

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 yesterday's announcement.

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 for it.

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

Critics accuse Ms Park of hypocrisy in the light of her own condemnation of Japanese historical "revisionism" regarding the colonial period.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'Seoul pushes ahead over textbook row'. Print Edition | Subscribe