SEOUL: Hundreds of South Korean scholars have declared they are boycotting the writing of state-issued history textbooks out of concern that that they will teach distorted views on the country’s recent past.
Conservative President Park Geun-hye’s government plans to require middle and high schools to use textbooks edited by the government after 2017, instead of allowing schools to choose from eight private publishers, as is currently the case.
The move toward state-issued textbooks is the latest in a series of efforts by conservative leaders in South Korea and Japan to shape school history books to reflect their political views, and has sparked fierce criticism from academics and opposition parties.
Professors from more than 20 South Korean universities said they would not contribute to the textbooks because they believe the government is moving to soften descriptions of the brutal dictatorships that preceded South Korea’s bloody transition toward democracy in the 1980s. The Korean History Research Association, the country’s largest group of historians, with nearly 800 members, has declared it won’t participate in the writing process.
Opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost the 2002 presidential election to Park, said in a Facebook post Saturday that the directive to revert to state-issued textbooks signals an attempt at “beautifying” past dictatorships, and added that such textbooks would be “global embarrassments”.
In announcing the controversial plans on Monday, Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea argued that the current history textbooks are too left-leaning and encourage views sympathetic to North Korea, and called for school books that are “objective” and “balanced.” The plan was to recruit professional historians to help write the new textbooks.
Before leaving for her current trip to the United States, Park defended the move toward state-issued textbooks by saying history classes must inspire “pride” in students for being South Korean citizens. Park is the daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s, and whose legacy as a successful economic strategist is marred by brutal records of civilian oppression.
Lee Shincheol, a historian at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University and a contributing author of one of the current textbooks, said that the government’s criticism makes little sense because private publishers had been required to follow editorial guidelines set by the Education Ministry and have their content reviewed by a state-run history institution. For the government to insist on full control over textbooks would eliminate academic freedom and result in politicized historical narratives, Lee said.
“Even Korea’s feudal monarchs had granted autonomy to royal chroniclers, but Park’s concept of history is more outdated than that of old kings,” he said.
The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also in recent years has been criticized for trying to influence textbooks for political purposes.
Japan’s Education Ministry last year introduced a textbook screening policy that required private publishers reflect the government’s official position on contentious issues in modern history to “balance out” references to Japan’s wartime aggression. However, Japan hasn’t been using state-issued textbooks since the end of World War II, Lee said.
It was Park’s father who introduced state-issued history textbooks in 1974, two years after he declared martial law amid widening student protests and rammed through a new constitution that effectively made him president for life. It was not until the early 2000s when South Korea began liberalizing the production of history textbooks, and since 2011, all history books used in middle and high schools have been written by private publishers.
Park’s decision to revert to the old textbook system seems to be an effort to rally her conservative supporters in a country deeply split along ideological and generational lines, according to an official at Moon’s party, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules. South Korea holds its next parliamentary elections in April next year.