[Newsmaker] Textbook row erupts over Ryu Gwan-sun

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Sept 1, 2014 - 20:55
  • Updated : Sept 1, 2014 - 21:33
The contentious omission of a renowned female independence activist in high school textbooks has sparked further altercations within education circles, which are already divided on the possible revival of state-authorized history textbooks.

During last week’s debate on how to improve Korean history textbooks, it was revealed that four of the eight state-certified textbooks excluded descriptions of Ryu Gwan-sun, one of the organizers of the March 1 Independence Movement against Japan’s colonial rule. Ryu, who died while being incarcerated by Japan for her involvement in the movement, is one of the best-known and most iconic freedom fighters in Korea. 
Members of seven history societies in Korea, including the Korean History Research Institute, release a statement criticizing the revival of state-authored history textbooks at a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

The dispute over Ryu being omitted was further fanned when one of the participants of the debate, professor Kim Jeong-in from Chuncheon National University of Education, attempted to justify the omission by alleging that she was “intentionally made into a heroic figure” in the 1950s by pro-Japanese scholars. Because of this, Kim claimed that North Korean textbooks have no content about Ryu.

“To say that Ryu abruptly appeared out of nowhere in the 1950s is absolute nonsense. The foundation to commemorate her was founded in 1947, just a couple of years after the country was liberated,” said Park Chung-sun, the head of an institute at Baekseok University that studies Ryu. He said several independence fighters including Kim Gu, Chough Pyung-ok and Soh Jae-pil were also members of an organization set up to honor her.

On Saturday, Kim publicly apologized for his remarks.

The controversy over Ryu has since snowballed into an ideological war, with conservatives alleging that so-called leftist scholars have been distorting history.

Hong Hoo-jo, a professor of education at Korea University, said some textbooks “depict history in favor of leftists” and infringe upon the political impartiality of education. He said state-authored textbooks were needed because the textbook certification system is not suitable for historical education, as it allows authors to project their subjective views of history.

Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea, who publicly said Korea needs to restrict the right to write history books to the government, said “there is a problem” with a textbook that does not mention Ryu Gwan-sun.

Those at the other end of the spectrum argued that the fact that certain textbooks did not describe Ryu is not enough to label them as biased. They pointed out that even state-authored textbooks in the past left out descriptions of Ryu.

“There are a total of 391 people who have been recognized for their contribution to the March 1 Movement by the Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs. Are we to include all of them in our textbooks?” said Lee Seong-ho, chairman of the Association of Korean History Teachers. He added that history textbooks in elementary and middle schools deal in depth with Ryu.

Two of the publishers that came under fire for leaving out Ryu had considerable content in their middle and elementary school textbooks on Ryu’s accomplishments. Cho Han-kyung, the incumbent chief of the AKHT, said this is because of the difference between history lessons of older and younger students.

“For example, history lessons in elementary schools center on people in the March 1 Movement. But the same lessons in high school must be about the complete process, its connection to Korea’s provisional government and their significance,” said Cho Han-kyung, the incumbent chief of the AKHT.

Experts also pointed out that the Education Ministry’s guidelines do not specify that any freedom fighter must be included in the textbook. It stated that textbooks must state the significance, background and process of the March 1 Movement, along with the cruelty of Japanese colonialists.

By Yoon Min-sik (