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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea locked in history textbook dispute

All News 13:44 September 15, 2015

By Shin Sun-ah

SEOUL, Sept. 15 (Yonhap) -- A multiple number of history textbooks available for the choosing or a single state-authored one? That is the question.

The lingering debate over introducing state-authored history textbooks recently resurfaced after the government unveiled a plan to push for the new system last month.

The move has sparked fierce protests from left-leaning academic circles and civic groups, and an intense political feud between the rival political parties in the regular parliamentary audit into the Ministry of Education, which began on Thursday.

On Wednesday last week, some 1,100 liberal scholars and researchers of history and history education released a press statement opposing the plan.

They said the proposal should be immediately dropped as state-textbooks can be used by governments to indoctrinate students with their own ideological bias and deny the spirit of democratic education that respects autonomy, diversity and creativity.

It followed similar statements from professors of history education at the prestigious Seoul National University, history teachers at schools around the country and educational superintendents of 14 cities and provinces earlier in the month.

The textbook dispute began in 1974 when the authoritarian government led by then President Park Chung-hee, father of current leader Park Geun-hye, sought to introduce state-authored history textbooks, scrapping the previous system of allowing multiple textbooks written by private publishers. The plan materialized despite strong opposition from historians.

In 1994, conservative and liberal scholars waged an intense debate over government standards for writing history textbooks, especially on controversial modern history. The debate began as conservative lawmakers claimed that the revised history textbooks carried left-leaning views on some of the most important incidents in modern Korean history such as the 1950-53 Korean War and the bloody uprising of people on the southern island of Jeju on April 3, 1948.

Still, the government was in charge of publishing history textbooks for more than 30 years from 1974 before the liberal government led by President Roh Moo-hyun scrapped the system, allowing private publishers to print history textbooks for use at middle and high schools with government approval.

As the plan to restore the past system came under fire in several newspaper editorials, the ministry said during the audit that it will choose between repairing the current system and adopting a new system under which the government is in charge of publishing books, in an effort to improve history textbooks for middle and high school students.

Currently, those schools are allowed to choose one of eight Korean history textbooks published by private publishers with government approval for use in class. Elementary schools have been using a state-authored history textbook since 1946.

The government has pressed ahead with the plan to change the present system, raising the need to forge a common understanding of history in a country where people are divided ideologically. But the opposition regards it as a challenge to democracy.

The ministry is expected to announce the decision before the Chuseok Korean harvest holiday, which is to begin on Saturday, next week, at the latest.

Despite the government's careful stance on the textbook issue, political analysts say it appears to have already made an internal decision to introduce the new system as seen from the education minister's repeated emphasis on the need to change it in recent weeks.

Hwang Woo-yea, during the parliamentary inspection last week, vowed to make history textbooks that are "neutral" and "trusted by the students."

On Monday, he reiterated his position that students should be taught history with a single textbook. "Students and their parents are discontent with the current textbooks," he said in an apparent reference to a recent survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, a state think tank.

The survey of 10,000 adults, including 5,000 teachers and 3,000 parents of students showed that the proposed state-authored textbook system is favored by 56.2 percent of teachers and 56.1 percent of parents.

But in another survey recently released by Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon of the main opposition New Politics Democratic Alliance, almost 78 percent of the teachers polled said they are against the new system. The survey canvassed 24,195 teachers who teach history or other social subjects in middle and high schools across the country.

Although the cause of what local newspapers dubbed "a war of history" is "to forge an upright perception of history for the future generation," it now appears to be more of a political issue, rather than educational. The booty: The historical perceptions of current high school students who will soon become voters.

Conservatives believe that left-leaning scholars already dominate the history scene and are brainwashing the would-be voters with leftist ideology.

"We're trying to standardize history textbooks into a state-authored one as leftists have imbued students with a negative view of history," Kim Moo-sung, chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, said in a meeting with Korean-American residents in July.

After analyzing the eight Korean history textbooks, Rep. Han Sun-kyo of the party said that names of K-pop stars such as Girls' Generation are mentioned in six textbooks while only three mentioned North Korea's deadly torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010.

Many of the textbooks only briefly touched on the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II, although it is an important issue of a diplomatic feud with Japan which requires more in-depth informations, he said.

As for Rhee Syngman, the first president of South Korea, many textbooks described him as a leader who had many flaws rather than feats, with some of them criticizing his "dictatorial" rule.

The textbooks were also divided in their views on former President Park Chung-hee, with some calling him a great leader who "led South Korea's fast growth from the ashes of the war" and others a "pro-Japanese dictator."

Some teachers say the conservatives' botched attempt in 2013 to have as many schools as possible adopt a textbook co-authored by right-wing historians led them to bring up the long-pending issue of introducing state-authored texts again.

The textbook published by Kyohak was one book endorsed by the government for print. The government, however, ordered more than 800 changes to all eight books following protests from opposition lawmakers and left-leaning historians and civic groups. They claimed the Kyohak book glorified pro-Japanese collaborators and past authoritarian Korean regimes, and contained many factual errors. Only one school in the country adopted the Kyohak book for use in class, as a result.

But historians say there is no such "neutral" textbook that conservatives allege they can make.

"Vowing to supply a neutral and well-made textbook through the state-authored textbook system is nothing but a disguise for their bid to contain one view of history in the textbook and teach it to the students," Yang Jeong-hyun, a professor at Pusan National University who leads the Korean Association of History Education, told reporters during a news conference last Wednesday.

"They also say the system can produce a well-made textbook written by a dream team of top scholars but this is nonsense. Such a thing will never happen."

The history education scholar, who participated in writing a state-authored textbook in late 1990s, claimed that it is impossible to have excellent scholars team up to author a textbook containing one, unified view of history.

"I think the most proper way is to let teachers and students choose among all different kinds of textbooks for use in classes," he said.

Experts say a simple change in the publication system cannot ensure neutrality and the quality of books to be made.

"Even if the government decides to issue a state-authored textbook, it would not be easy to find a high-quality writer," said Jeong Yong-wook, professor of the Seoul National University who leads the Korean History Research Association, noting a recent survey in which an overwhelming majority of history professors opposed the government plan.

Apart from the political aspect, the argument from conservatives that a standardized textbook would help ease students' presently heavy burden to prepare for the college entrance exam is another point of the dispute.

Korean history is set to become an obligatory subject on the national college entrance exam beginning in the 2017 school year.

Conservatives argue that the current system with many various history textbooks would increase students' confusion, while opponents argued that a single textbook would rather increase students' burden. They say students will have to memorize all the details of the book in that case, as examiners will probably pay attention to details in order not to be found lacking in the test's assessment function.


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