Asia Pacific / Social Issues

South Korea announces plans for state-issued history textbooks

Staff Report

South Korea’s conservative government has announced plans to adopt new government-backed history textbooks for middle and high schools — a move that resembles a similarly controversial push in Japan.

After months of heated debate, the government of President Park Geun-hye announced Monday that starting in 2017, all secondary schools must use only state-issued history textbooks, which will reportedly be called “Accurate History Textbooks.”

The government has argued that the current textbooks are overly left-leaning and paint North Korean ideologies in a positive light, among other concerns.

“It was an inevitable choice for the government to correct historical factual errors and to end social controversies derived from ideological bias,” Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea was quoted by the Yonhap news agency as saying at a news conference on Monday.

Eight private publishers currently produce history textbooks, Yonhap reported. All are approved by an independent textbook review committee and schools are free to choose which one to use, while primary schools use a single set of state-authorized history books, it said.

Critics say the government wants to use the books to whitewash the modern history of South Korea, including the period when the country was ruled by Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who before rising to power served as an officer in Japan’s colonial military in the puppet state of Manchukuo during the final years of World War II.

Park Chung-hee, who led South Korea from 1960 until his assassination in 1979, is a divisive figure in the country. He oversaw breakneck economic growth, but has also been criticized for human rights abuses during his authoritarian rule.

Preparations for the textbook project were underway and details would be released this week, Yonhap reported.

How history is taught in schools has been a contentious issue for Japan, too.

In April, junior high school textbooks that state the government’s stance on ongoing territorial disputes with China and South Korea were approved for use starting in April 2016.

Some publishers have said that government pressure has also led to numerous textbooks playing down or even eliminating references to controversial issues related to Japan’s actions during World War II, including the military’s involvement in the mass suicides on Okinawa and its use of “comfort women,” or women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.