South Korean controversy over new history textbooks

At secondary school, few students question the choice of textbooks from which they learn, yet the contents of these books establish a foundation of understanding for these students. Students are given books selected by their schools, who make their decision from a list of options approved by the United States Department of Education. As a multicultural society, the U.S. continues to discuss issues of fair representation and protection of diversity. Such emphasis is greater for educating the young in the subject of history.

Since 2010, the South Korean government has given private publishers the opportunity to commission teachers and historians to write history textbooks to be used in the public school system. After being written, these textbooks are submitted for approval from the government panel and schools are free to choose from an accredited list. Today, there are eight textbooks from which the choice is made.

Recently, an intense controversy escalated over academic freedom and diversity after the South Korean government announced that middle and high school students will be taught from a single government-issued textbooks by 2017. This was the result of months of debate over how history should be taught to children, especially in respect to characterization of modern Korea and its development as a democratic nation. The Korean Ministry of Education has invited a panel of historians to write new textbooks and a wide range of reviewers to “ensure objectivity and balance,” according to the New York Times.

After her election in 2013, South Korean President Geun-hye Park pointed out that the current history textbooks displayed “ideological prejudice.” Park’s conservative party dominates the National Assembly and supports the move towards newly issued textbooks. The party claims that the current textbooks euphemize description of North Korea and are biased against Korea’s period of dictatorship from 1961 to 1979 after a coup led by, as highlighted in the controversy, Park’s father, Chung-hee Park.

For example, one textbook applied the term “dictatorial” 28 times in describing South Korea under the military regime, in contrast to two times regarding North Korea. The party intends to rectify left-wing bias by eliminating pro-North Korean connotations.

According to an interview with the Economist, Dong-won Kim, an assistant minister of education, stated that competing histories caused “great confusion in the classrooms.” In a different interview, Woo-yea Hwang, minister of education, explained that a government-approved history may promote national unity: “A country in which the public remembers history differently has only division in its future.”

Over the past two years, the Ministry of Education has asked publishers to make alterations in their textbooks. A new revised manual was published, but only one school in the nation adopted the book—a testament to the lack of public agreement on the necessity of such revision.

Many critics of President Park and the conservative party express great concern over the recent plan, saying that the “government’s decision deviates from standard practice in advanced democratic nations.” A great part of this apprehension lies in the years marked by martial law and brutality during the dictatorial regime of President Park’s father, Chung-hee Park. In this time, Parks’ father issued single textbooks to portray his coup as a revolution and justified his authoritarian rule.

However, because South Korea saw great economic growth in this time, conservative supporters tend to revere Chung-hee Park, while liberals criticize him for violation of civil rights. It is feared that President Park’s government will use this as an opportunity to euphemize the portrayal of historical dictatorship and whitewash the deeds of past conservative elites.

“The father staged a military coup, and now the daughter is engineering a coup in history education,” said Han-yong Park, a chief researcher at the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, in the New York Times.

Alarmed by the potential risk to academic freedom in South Korea, many people are voicing their opposition. Two hundred and four overseas scholars of Korean studies signed a statement opposing the move, stating “the state mandating the use of a single, government-issued history textbook violates the principle that a diversity of views is essential to democracy.” Civic groups and regional education leaders are working on a bill to prohibit government rights from writing textbooks. The main opposition party in the government plans to boycott parliament this week in protest. Furthermore, the Korean History Research Association, the biggest forum for historians in the country, stated their intention not to participate in writing a new textbook if asked to do so. These educators and activists argue that history education should primarily be guided by experts in the field, not politicians.

Historically, Korea has a proud tradition in which chroniclers pledged to record events with a “straight brush,” not yielding to power and dedicated to recording the truth. As expressed in the controversy, it is the hopes of many to continue this tradition—by protecting educational freedom and public orientation towards diversity in historical interpretation.