National (Wire)

(News Focus) History textbook controversy evolves into academic, ideological conflict

Yonhap News
Written by Yonhap News

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Oct. 29 (Yonhap) — The government’s decision to readopt state-authored textbooks for secondary school students to address what it calls left-leaning content in current books has evolved into academic and ideological conflicts.

“The current textbooks are ideologically biased as some parts of them are written based on people’s history,” Chung Kyung-hee, a professor at Youngsan University said.

People’s history refers to a historical narrative that focuses on the role of common people when describing historical events, which settled into a mainstream viewpoint in South Korean academic circles when Marxism was introduced to the country.

As most of the scholars who were college students in the 1980s and 1990s, when the perspective thrived, are now the backbone of the country’s historical circles, the view has melted into current textbooks, conservative scholars said.

Liberals rebut that it is stigmatization to regard anyone who opposes the government’s plan for state textbooks as leftist.

“Even if writers do have an inclination to certain types of historical viewpoints, they cannot write textbooks that deviate from the standards provided by the government as they need to get approval before publishing the books,” Han Sang-kwon, professor at Duksung Women’s University said.

The Ministry of Education said history textbooks for middle and high schoolers will be authored by the government starting from the 2017 school year. This is to forge a common understanding of history in a liberal democracy which is still technically at war with communist North Korea for more than six decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, initiated by the invading North.

Currently, secondary school history textbooks are published by eight private publishing companies after being approved by an independent textbook review committee of experts. Schools choose from any of the eight textbooks, while primary schools have a single set of state-authored history textbooks.

Since the announcement was made earlier this month, a series of rallies took place nationwide from both conservative and liberal civic groups.

The rival political parties also continue to confront each other as the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy denounced the government’s decision as reminiscent of the days of authoritarian rule decades ago.

At issue is how to describe North Korea, former presidents and the Korean War.

“Over the course of the years, the North Korean regime which was first depicted as a dictatorship under Kim Il-sung has changed into a mere system under Kim Il-sung’s ruling,” professor Chung said.

The conservatives point out that the South’s former presidents, namely Rhee Syng-man and Park Chung-hee, are introduced as dictators, expressing worries that it could foster pro-North Korean ideas in students.

As for Rhee, the first president of the South, most textbooks described him as a leader who had many flaws rather than feats, leading conservatives to complain the books described him in an excessively negative manner.

Conservatives want the books to have a “balanced” view of him as the national founder of the South Korean government in the chaos after the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. He also led through the ensuing U.S. military rule of the country and emerging threats from the communist North Korea, despite some criticism of his authoritarian rule.

Most of the current textbooks also view late President Park Chung-hee, father of incumbent President Park Geun-hye, negatively, calling him a “pro-Japanese dictator,” although conservatives see him a great national leader who “led South Korea’s fast growth from the ashes of the war.”

   The Korean War is another hot potato as conservatives claim current books introduce the massacres of innocent people conducted by South Korean and U.S. forces, while not specifically dealing with what the North did.

They say even after the government’s amendment order, there is no big difference in the overall tone of the descriptions.

Liberals say current books faithfully cover what both sides have done to avoid the distortion of history.

Amid continued controversies across academic and political circles, 13 writers of the current textbooks on Tuesday filed a complaint against Rep. Kim Moo-sung, chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, on libel charges.

They said Kim misled the public by stating false remarks such as the current books “teach popular revolution to students based on a leftist view of the world,” or that they teach “Kim Il-sung’s juche ideology.”


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