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South Korea's History Textbook Dispute

Kim Chan-ju

Nov. 4, 2015

The South Korean government plans to start using state-issued history textbooks in schools, touting it as a way to promote what it considers the correct view of history. The decision has divided public opinion, with critics saying the government should let educators choose what learning materials to use in the classroom.

Currently, teachers can choose history textbooks from 8 different publishers, a choice that will be lost with a return to a system of state-issued textbooks. The government announced last month that middle and high schools will be required to adopt a state-issued history textbook by 2017.

South Korean Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea says "this measure is inevitable if the government is to correct historically incorrect perspectives and eliminate errors in textbooks."

A group of university students who studied history textbooks from private publishers support the plan. They reviewed a range of current textbooks and discussed the matter and decided they have a left-wing bias.

In 1974, schools were ordered to use one history textbook authorized by the government of Park Chung-hee, the father of the current President, Park Geun-hye. He seized power and maintained a military dictatorship.

In 1987, South Korea made a move toward democratization. In 2002, then-President Kim Dae-jung established a textbook screening system in response to public demand for access to a more diverse range of viewpoints. Since 2011, all textbooks used in schools are from private publishers.

President Park's administration insists that the current textbooks are too left-leaning and encourage views sympathetic to North Korea. Administration officials are unhappy that some of the current textbooks partially blame South Korea for the Korean War. They're also upset with uncritical depictions of North Korea's propaganda.

About 1,000 people gathered to protest the plan, saying the government's view is outdated and deprives people of their right to freedom of choice. "If this textbook system is introduced, it will require that we have only one, uniform perspective," one protestor said. "That's what I'm worried about."

The government says it is aiming to inspire pride in students, but opponents say it is just dressing up past dictatorships.

The government had said a range of opinions would be considered before making a decision. Now schools must go along with the government's plan unless it reverses course. The plan is likely to spur larger protests.


Professor Song Se-ryeon of Kyung Hee University joined Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya live from Seoul.

Beppu: Professor, in the report, we heard that the current government wants to inspire pride in students. Opponents say the new textbooks will justify the country's former dictatorship. Can you tell us more about what the two sides want?

Song: Recent history in South Korea has two sub-plots. One is the narrative about the economic success. The other is the struggle towards democracy. These roughly constitute opposing parties and national sentiments. The textbook issue arose because the current textbooks are skewed to one side or another. The government wants more balanced views, which probably will probably supplement more content about the developmental side. The opposing side thinks the textbooks are OK as they are. In my view, there is a deeper question, and no textbook so far has nailed it. You cannot understand South Korea properly without appreciating and integrating those two narratives. South Korea has not worked out the complexity as yet.

Beppu: Recent polls suggest that public opinion on the issue is sharply divided. Why is that?

Song: Two different questions are involved in the public sentiment. One is the different assessment of the current historical narratives. The other is the method of addressing the issue, even if there's a problem. Nationalization or monopolization generally is not the best way. So, there have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the heavy-handedness of the government. There's also political motivation, especially from the opposition party, to prolong the debate, since the general election is coming up next year. A favorable public opinion is a boost to their chances. They will probably try to hold onto the issue.