Korea's new history textbook stirs ideological debate

Updated: 2013-06-13 13:32

(www.asianewsnet.net/The Korea Herald)

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A new history textbook authored by conservative scholars is taking a barrage of criticism, even as its content has yet to be unveiled.

The dispute over the book from Kyohak Publishing Co. illustrates the depth of ideological division in Korea despite strenuous state and civic campaigns for reconciliation.

It is one of eight textbooks preliminarily approved for high school use from next year by the National Institute of Korean History, the screening panel commissioned by the Education Ministry.

Progressives are campaigning to block its final authorisation due in August, claiming it contains biased views and distortions.

Criticism was focused on its alleged underestimation of pro-democracy movements. For instance, the Gwangju Democratic Movement on May 18, 1980, is termed a “a riot”, while the Student Revolution on April 19, 1960, is described as a “student movement”.

Critics also claim that it describes some independence fighters against Japan’s colonial rule (1910-1945) as “terrorists”.

Rep. Bae Jae-jeung of the main opposition Democratic Party has pledged to stop the textbook from being published. Jang Hui-gook, Gwangju education chief, has vowed to dissuade schools from using it.

One of the authors, however, told The Korea Herald that the textbook did not contain such content.

“No one has read our textbook yet,” said coauthor Lee Myung-hee, professor of history at Kongju National University.

While it is not allowed to reveal contents before August, Internet postings and some newspapers are spreading “groundless rumours”, he said.

“I don’t understand why people raise so many questions about our textbook even before its release.”

Some may suspect it of bias simply because it was written by conservative historians, Lee added.

He is part of the six-member writing panel which comprises two members of the Association for Contemporary Korean History, including Lee and Kwon Hee-young, the association’s president.

The association of the so-called “New Right” historians was set up in 2011 with an aim to fix biased research and education.

Teaching the nation’s checkered modern history, marred by colonisation, ideological confrontation, the Korean War and military dictatorships, has been a highly sensitive issue.

The increasing assertiveness of the conservatives has further fueled the disputes which initially centered on the assessment of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, who they credited with laying the groundwork for Korea’s economic development.

One of the most controversial issues is their recognition that Imperial Japan’s rule contributed to Korea’s modernisation.

Asked about the new textbook’s descriptions regarding the colonial period, Lee noted that it does detail some of the achievements during the time, such as a “modern public school system and industrial infrastructure”.

He said that so far other textbooks only described the period with a “dichotomist view” between Japan’s acts of invasion and the country’s struggle for liberation.

“But we try to see how the modernisation accrued during the period by writing the facts rather than evaluating and interpreting the history,” he added.

The Association for Historical Justice, a civic group consisting of liberal historians, has already denounced the New Right historians for trying to “distort and diminish” Korea’s liberation movement.

“They are trying to glamorise activists who supported Imperial Japan by publishing the distorted history textbook,” the association said in a statement.

Lee Shin-cheol, research professor of East Asian history at Sungkyunkwan University, explained that the debates surrounding history textbooks first began after the government allowed private publishers to publish history textbooks in 2003. Before that, schools used only state-authorised history textbooks.

Lee said he believes having a wide range of history textbooks helps students see “various perceptions” of history, noting that other advanced countries also use history textbooks from private publishers.

“The problem is not the system, but the ones who try to write history with political motivations,” he said.

Publishers are currently revising and modifying the eight textbooks according to the recommendations of the screening committee, and a final list of authorised textbooks will be released on August 30.

It is up to each high school to select their textbooks from the list, and the selected textbooks will be used from 2014.

Lee of Kongju University said he that the country still lacked collaboration and discussion between historians due to their divided ideological views.

“What we need now is not political debate, but academic discussion,” he added.