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South Korea’s ‘Accurate’ History Textbook Mandate Stirs Controversy

  • Brian Padden

FILE - Students who defected from North Korea take supplementary lessons at the Hangyeore Middle and High School in Anseong, South Korea.

FILE - Students who defected from North Korea take supplementary lessons at the Hangyeore Middle and High School in Anseong, South Korea.

Prior to departing for her visit to the United States this week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued a controversial directive requiring schools to use history textbooks issued by the national government.

The new measure targets secondary school students and will replace current textbooks from eight different publishing companies.

Park’s conservative supporters have criticized some of these textbooks as ideologically biased, more critical of South Korea’s authoritarian past than of North Korea’s communist totalitarian regime.

"History education should not divide the citizens and students over political strife and ideological conflicts," said President Park.

The new text, to be issued in 2017 and named The Correct Textbook of History, will be written by a government-appointed panel of history teachers and academics.

Seoul’s Vice Prime Minister and Education Minister, Hwang Woo-yea said that the textbook should teach “the proud history of South Korea, which has achieved both democratization and industrialization in the shortest time in the world history.”

The directive issued Monday sparked protests from opponents including Moon Jae-in, the Chairman of New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the main opposition to Park’s ruling Saenuri Party.

“If we start with state history textbooks, wouldn’t it change after every change of the government?” asked Moon.

President’s Family History Also in Textbooks

Many opponents see this mandate as a politically motivated move to sanitize and justify Park’s own family history. Her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, served in the Japanese military during World War II and seized power in 1961 through a military coup. Until he was assassinated in 1979, the first President Park oversaw rapid industrial and economic growth but was accused of widespread human rights violations that included torture and abuse of politician dissidents and the killing of civilians.

Some conservative critics say the current textbooks focus too much on the negative about South Korea’s past but treat North Korea more favorably by not clearly blaming the North for starting the Korean War and even praising the North Korean “Juche” ideology that emphasizes national self-reliance.

However Pak Han-yong, a researcher with the Center for Historical Truth and Justice takes issues with these conservative critiques.

“We don’t think the certified textbooks praise North Korea, but rather they criticize North Korea. We don’t understand why the government argues the textbooks are left leaning,” said Pak.

Echoes of Japan’s Textbook Controversy

Critics say the Park government directive also seems hypocritical given that Seoul has criticized Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for issuing government sanctioned history books accused of downplaying atrocities committed against Koreans during Japanese colonial rule.

“They are very similar. Japan’s right-wing supporters also claim the necessity of government issued textbooks,” Pak said.

The Seoul government assured the public that the new textbook will be politically neutral, balanced and objective.

Although the opponents may protest, for now there is little else they can do to stop the government from issuing the new textbook. Park’s party has the votes in the National Assembly to override any attempt to try to stop the mandate.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.