South Korea set to rewrite the history books

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South Korea’s government said on Monday it would place the production of high school history textbooks under state control, a move condemned as politically motivated by opposition lawmakers.

From February 2017, middle and high school students will use a single history textbook to be produced by a state-appointed committee, said education minister Hwang Woo-yea.

“It was an inevitable choice to right historical errors and end the social conflict caused by ideological biases in textbooks,” he said. Parliamentary approval was not required for the change, the Department for Education said.

The move will end the current system under which schools are free to choose from books produced by private publishing companies, provided they comply with guidelines set by the Ministry of Education.

The system was introduced in 2010 to replace a state monopoly on history textbooks introduced by authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee in 1974, two years after he revised the constitution to suspend democratic elections.

Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the incumbent president, and some of her political opponents have claimed that her government’s drive to regain control of school textbooks was motivated by her desire to improve her father’s position. He spearheaded South Korea’s dramatic economic development, but was criticized for overseeing serious human rights abuses, as well as serving in the Japanese military during its colonial occupation of Korea.

“The Park government is trying to turn history books into government-controlled books that glorify Japan and the dictatorship,” the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy said in a statement after the announcement.

But senior figures from the ruling New Frontier party said the return to a single government-authored history textbook was necessary to promote national unity and prevent schoolchildren from developing sympathy for North Korea.

“Ninety percent of our country’s history scholars are on the left,” party leader Kim Moo-sung said last week. He said the entire current stock of history textbooks contained anti-state views, pointing to a book he said did not present North Korea’s Juche model – a vague ideology centered around the idea of national autonomy – in a sufficiently negative light.

“There seems to be an intention to teach people’s revolution to students,” Kim said.

The government’s drive to overhaul the textbook system began after a scandal erupted over its 2013 approval of a textbook which critics said offered an excessively conservative view of history, including downplaying human rights abuses under Japanese occupation and the rule of Park Chung-hee.

The government responded by ordering revisions to the eight books, saying all contained errors, and in January 2014 launched a process to determine necessary reforms to the system.

The end of schools’ right to choose from a range of textbooks marked a setback for the country’s education system, said Lee Joon-sik, a researcher at the Center for Historical Truth and Justice and a prominent opponent of the reform.

“The president is trying to expand control of the ruling party and reclaim his father’s lost honor,” he said. “To do that, she has to control the students.”

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

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