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Parties, education circles divided over state history books

Rep. Moon Jae-in (left), the leader of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, and ruling Saenuri Party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung sit next to each other in Jangchoong Stadium in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Rep. Moon Jae-in (left), the leader of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, and ruling Saenuri Party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung sit next to each other in Jangchoong Stadium in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
The standoff over the potential reinstatement of state-published textbooks for secondary education history is expected to headline Thursday’s parliamentary audit of the Education Ministry, as the government’s self-imposed deadline to reach a decision will expire by the end of September.

The debate as to whether only the government should author history textbooks ― which came up when Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea brought it up last year ― has expanded over the past few months to encompass a bipartisan feud, ideological debate and the basic question about government monopoly over educational content.

In a recent interview, Hwang reiterated that students “should learn from one version of history,” which was widely interpreted as meaning state-authored textbooks.

“When you look at the textbooks, some versions use different phrases for the Eulsa Treaty (between Korea and Japan), while others don’t teach it at all. How are students supposed to take a college entrance exam based on such textbooks?” he said. The Eulsa Treaty in 1905 deprived Korea of its sovereignty.

Since taking office last year, the former leader of the ruling Saenuri Party has been toying with the prospect of the state exclusively authoring history textbooks for middle and high schools. Currently Korea allows eight private publishing companies to print the textbooks and certifies them if their products are up to standard, from which local schools can choose.

Questions were raised over the certification system, however, in light of last year’s debacle with a textbook from Kyohak Publishing ― which was bashed for being of low quality and biased in favor of the conservatives ― coupled with the ministry’s accusation that the current textbooks omitted key facts on topics such as the 1950-53 Korean War.

The debate escalated into ideological warfare, as both conservative and liberal educators accused the textbooks of depicting history in favor of the opposing side.

Proponents of the state history textbooks have claimed that having just one book that is unbiased can eliminate ideological feuds stemming from different interpretations of facts.

“We need a state-authored history textbook rooted in the facts that have a neutral view (of history), so that students would not be confused by an education based on lopsided historical viewpoints,” Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung said last week at the National Assembly. He said that “self-depreciative” interpretation of Korea’s modern history “must be eradicated,” and the country needs a positive view.

But those opposing the state history textbooks said the system will give the government the power to enforce its own views on students.

Rep. Moon Jae-in, leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said that attempts to reinstate the state textbooks is against the very idea of democracy. He said that Kim’s argument about “self-depreciative historical view” is reminiscent of an argument made by the far-right in Japan, who were accused of whitewashing Japan’s crimes during World War II.

“Historians oppose state textbooks, because a monolithic point of view cannot induce creative thought. ... Instead of trying to control the people, (the government) should bring them together,” he said.

Rep. Youn Kwan-suk of the NPAD likened the process to a dictatorship.

“Former President Park Chung-hee’s regime switched the history textbook publishing system from certification to state-authorship to justify his dictatorship,” he said. “We must retain the current system, as state textbooks are highly likely to cater to the demands of those in power.”

On Friday, 13 commemorative bodies of Korea’s independence movement from Japan held a joint news conference to oppose the state history textbooks. Descendants of Korean freedom fighters ― including the son of Chang Chun-ha and grandson of Ji Cheong-cheon ― were also present.

“The government must cease all efforts to reinstate a state textbook system, unless it seeks to use history education as a tool for its benefit,” they said.

Educators across the country released their thoughts as well, although the opposing side is far more vocal on the controversial issue as of now.

On Wednesday, the 2,255 members of the Association of Korean History Teachers jointly released a statement against state history textbooks.

The AKHT and six other local societies related to history and history education held a joint news conference Monday to denounce the government’s attempt to bring back state-published textbooks. The groups said that they analyzed the history textbook for fifth graders ― elementary school history textbooks are authored by the government ― and found 150 errors, claiming that their discovery demonstrates the problem with the state-published textbooks.

“Champions of the state textbooks say that teaching a single version of history is important. Even if we say that is true, who will take responsibility if that single version is proven to be wrong?” said Lee Jun-shik of the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities who participated in the analysis. ”The ministry sure won’t, nor will the writing staff. And the harm (from the textbook) is inflicted on the students.”

Cho Han-kyung, the leader of the AHKT, said it is hard to motivate the writing staff for the state-authored textbooks to improve the quality of their book when they face no competition from other publishers. “A private publisher whose product has this many errors (as the state textbook) would be forced out of the market,” he said.

Last week, 34 professors of history-related departments at Seoul National University visited the Education Ministry decrying the government’s move.

“The fundamental problem is that the government will be able to monopolize the contents of history textbooks. ... If the ministry has issues with different terminology in textbooks, they can just mend the guidelines and standards for the certified textbooks,” they said in the statement.

The Korea Federation of Teachers’ Association, the nation’s largest right-leaning teachers’ body, has yet to formally comment on the issue, but said it will release a statement later in the month.

KFTA spokesman Kim Dong-seok said that the group fundamentally agrees with the ministry’s statement that students need to learn a single version of history, and added that various side effects from having different publishing systems should also be taken into account.

“While we cannot say for now whether or not we agree with the state history textbooks, we agree that the ministry should take a bigger role. Whether it is to implement the new publishing system or to provide much more detailed guidelines on the content,” he said.

The dispute over state history textbooks is likely to rage on. The NPAD has already threatened to boycott the parliamentary audit if the ministry insists on pushing ahead with the idea.

Local education offices are also expected to chime in. Education offices of Seoul, Incheon and Gangwon and Gyeonggi provinces were to have a joint news conference at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Monday as to the prospect of state-authored textbooks, although it was canceled Saturday.

The education superintendents from the capital region have been among the most outspoken opponents of the state history textbooks.

By Yoon Min-sik