National controversy of South Korea over a history schoolbook in 2015: What is this for?

wint janby Wint Jan


“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write”

– H. Carr

Since last October, South Korea has been caught into a huge national controversy around a history schoolbook. It has been originated by the 12th October’s official announcement of the minister of education, Hwang Woo-Yeo, that current history textbook authorization system will be changed to those of government published one. (For an explanation, the schoolbook authorization system means civil publishing companies, which are officially certified by government, publish schoolbooks for securing diversity and objectivity over contents of education, and is implemented at most of the world today. On the other hand, the system of government published textbook indicates that only government can manage and publish schoolbooks for a unity of national education, and is adopted by few states today such as North Korea, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Mongolia). In fact, South Korea once adopted a government published history schoolbook during 1973 to 2003, and it means the textbook is nothing new to South Korea. Furthermore, since the administration of Roh Moo-Hyun amended a schoolbook publishing system from the government designated one to those of authorized one in 2003, the controversy around a history textbook publishing system has been continuously existed amongst the South Korean historians and society, which has been not a serious issue in the meantime. If so, why this year’s controversy around history textbook publishing in South Korea is causing an unprecedented huge national turmoil unlike the past? The answer is the South Korean Government is strongly pushing an adoption of government published history textbook with unilateral reason and attitude although most of the South Korean historians and civil organizations are against it.

Park Geun-Hye administration and a ruling party, the Sanueri Party, insist that the adoption of government designated history textbook is inevitable because the existing history schoolbooks, which are published by civil publishers, are quite problematic due to its pro-North Korean and left-winged contents. To be specific, they argue that the existing history schoolbook authorization system since 2003 has allowed left-side historians to write those kind of contents on current history schoolbooks, and it has resulted in bad influences on history education of students in light of correct view of history and sense of national security. Their point, thus, is new and right history textbook through united government publishing system is definitely required for correcting history education of South Korea and for integrating national opinion for a future of the state. As a specific plan and movement, Park administration and the ruling party already suggested revised contents, which will be applied for the new history textbook, and the government is also advertising necessity and justification of the history schoolbook’s government publishing system as a national campaign.

However, historians and civil organizations of South Korea totally disagree with those arguments and activities. They assert that the existing history textbooks are not biased for a specific side nor could not contain any of pro-North Korean contents due to wide and deepen qualification process of the current textbook authorization system, so there are no reasons for disqualification over the existing textbooks in light of its historical objectivity and suitability for history education. Rather, historians and civil organizations insist that the revised contents that government and the ruling party suggested for new history schoolbook are literally irrational and subjective, and include distorted points when compared with historical facts of the state. They express a concern that if new history textbook is exclusively published by government with those contents, it will seriously aggravate objectivity of history education and will hamper students to learn the truth of the Korean history. For these reasons, according to a survey of the Kyunghayng daily in 18th October, 90% of South Korean history teachers and professors expressed an opposition to the government’s revision of history schoolbook publishing system, and civil organizations, including student unions, are continuously holding anti-government published history schoolbooks rallies in streets since last October.

Largely, there are the four most controversial points over the new government designated history textbook and its revised contents that Park administration and the Saenuri Party suggested.

(1) President Rhee Seung-Man, who was elected in 1948 as the first president of South Korea, could not be undermined just as a dictator. He saved South Korea against the invasion of the North Korean communists during the Korean War, and constructed a strong national security and its relative systems in a first place of the state. Therefore, he could be revalued as the father of his country.

(2) The 516 military coup in 1961, which was led by president Park Jeong-Hee, was not an attempt to seize a political power, but was a salvation revolution to save South Korea from a national anarchy at the time.

(3) The October Yusin in 1972, which indicates the President Park Jeong-Hee’s unilateral revision of the South Korean constitution by occupying national assembly with military power, was not for fortifying his despotic power, but was an inevitable action to unite national power for a development of South Korea and a unification of the Korea Peninsula.

(4) Pro-Japanese collaborators during the Japanese colonial era could not be predicated as national traitors. Their collaborations with the Japanese empire were inevitable choices for independence and modernization of Korea when considering the circumstances of the times.

About those points, the South Korean historians and civil organizations refute it with following reasons.

(1) President Rhee Seung-Man was a dictator, who actually exploited the causes of national security and anti-communism to intensify his dictatorship during 1948 to 1960. He suppressed his political opponents and resisting people by the charge of national treason with logic of national security, and he idolized himself as an anti-communist fighter for strengthening his position. Furthermore, he did various undemocratic things such as mobilizing political hoodlums or conducting a rigged election in 1960. His resignation from the position of South Korea president through the 419 democratization movement in 1960 simply proves a fact that his governance was tyrannical and absurd to South Koreans at the time. Moreover, due to the point that he did not properly deal with punishing pro-Japanese collaborators after WW2, South Korea has been suffered by national irrationalities because the collaborators could become elite class of South Korea with their wealth and political power. Therefore, regarding him as the father of his country is inappropriate.

(2) President Park Jeong-Hee’s the 516 military coup could not be justified as a salvation revolution in light of the democracy of South Korea. It is because the 516 coup’s way of regime change through a military power utterly violated the South Korean constitution. Furthermore, the coup opened the military dictatorship era of South Korea during 1961 to 1987, which was a doomed time for the human rights of South Korean.

(3) The October Yusin in 1972 literally trampled the constitution and democracy of South Korea because President Park Jeong-Hee illegally occupied the national assembly, the place of people’s representatives, and he unilaterally changed the constitution without democratic and legitimate procedure.

(4) Pro-Japanese collaborators who cooperated with the Japanese Empire cannot be sheltered. Their collaborations with the Japanese empire were deeply related with exploiting Korean people and war conducts of the Empire during WW2. Moreover, they could took vast rights and interests through those collaborations. When regarding the points, Pro-Japanese collaborators cannot be revaluated as hidden patriots in light of national identity of Korea as well as truth of history.

Furthermore, the Historians and civil organizations cast doubt on what is real intentions of Park administrations and the ruling party’s strong drive over the government published history schoolbook. They argue it is totally understandable why the government suddenly tries to change the existing history textbook publishing system which has not any problem at all. As suspicions, the they suspect that President Park Geun-Hye and the ruling party have another reasons to change the history schoolbook publishing system, instead of their arguments that correcting history education and integrating national opinion for the future. First of all, according to their argument, President Park Geun-Hye tries to do whitewashing her farther, Park Jeong-Hee. President Park Jeong-Hee is accused of damaging South Korean democracy seriously through military dictatorship although he boosted economy of the state during 1960s to 1970s. Furthermore, there is the fact that he served in the Imperial Japanese army as a lieutenant during 1944 to 1945, pledging loyalty to the Japanese Empire. Secondly, the historians and civil organizations argue that the ruling party’s support over the history textbook publishing system is deeply related with their political root and position. To be specific, the logics of anti-communism and national security, which established by president Rhee Seung-Man in a first place, have become political basements for the ruling party since 1950s, and there is the fact that families of some of the party members, including Kim Moo-Seong, the representative of the Saenuri party, are involved in pro-Japanese collaborators.

About the issue of the government published textbook and Park Administration’s strong drive over it, South Korean citizens are not so positive neither. According to survey data of the Korea Gallop, the ratio of South Korean citizens’ opposition to the government published history schoolbook increased from 42% of 13th October to 53% of 5th November. Particularly, when the task force team, which was secretly operated by the Park administration for the government published history schoolbook, was revealed in last 25th October, citizens’ suspicions and apprehensions over the Government’s drive for the new history textbook were sharply amplified. Park Sang-Kyun (30) said “Park administration’s pushing over the government published history schoolbook is sound like French government is trying to side with Nazi-Germany when considering the new textbook’s revised content about pro-Japanese collaborators part”. He also said “it is quite doubtful how much the new textbook would change opinion and ideology of South Korean people”. Another citizen, Yang Seong-Hoon (28), said “if the adoption of government published history schoolbook is merely for interest of president and the ruling party, the government’s drive for the new history textbook and its publishing system is utterly absurd and nonsense in light of democracy. It is an obvious fraudulent act against the Korean constitution and people”.’

However, Park administration is intensively pushing the revision of history schoolbook publishing system for the government designated history textbook. In last 3rd November, the government rushed through a revision bill over the revising history textbook publishing system as an administrative notification even though a number of citizens were against it. Furthermore, when after the representative writer of the new government published history textbook, Choi Mong-Ryong, resigned the position himself due to a scandal of sexual harassment and national condemnation around him in last 6th November, the government officially announced that a list of writers for the new history textbook will be non-disclosure to public due to a reason of increasing efficiency of their writing task. Although citizens have been steadily against to those unilateral and secretive drive of the government, the Park administration and the ruling party have not tried to have a dialogue with them, but have responded over the opposition with comments such as “Spirit of who learned wrong history could be articulated as an irrational one (President Park Geun-Hye, 11th November)”, “90% of historians, who oppose to the new government designated history textbook, are pro-North Koreans. (Kim Moo-Seong, the representative of the Saenurie Party, 17th October)”. About this issue, Korean people’s questions are quite simple. Why is the government trying to change the history schoolbook publishing system for what, and why are the Park administration and the ruling party refusing to provide proper answer and communication over it. Nevertheless, President Park Geun-Hye and the Saenuri party are still maintaining an attitude of closed communication as well as unilateral drive to change the system and the textbook.


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