In 2015, the South Korean government, under Park Guen-Hye, pushed to issue compulsory state-authored history textbooks in schools. This occurred after the Ministry of Education called for a revision of Korean history textbooks in 2013. Park’s father, Park Chung-Hee introduced state-issued textbooks in 1973, but by 2003, the use of privately published textbooks that were subject to state inspection in middle and high schools was commonplace.
The initiative caused a lot of tension in South Korea, with large groups of liberal politicians, academics, and student groups becoming involved in large street demonstrations. Opinion polls by Gallup Korean show that 49% of Koreans were against state-authored textbooks, and only 36% were in favour.
The political right saw the move as a tool to whitewash history and legitimise conservative views. This was evident by suggestions to remove mentions of the Geochang Massacre of 1951, in which 719 unarmed citizens, including 385 children, were killed by the South Korean Army. One particular issue that appeared to be interpreted with an obvious bias, was that of the country’s transition from military to democratic rule under Park Chung-Hee. Critics saw the move as extremely hypocritical on Park Guen-Hye’s part, comparing her revisions to the historical revisionism implemented by the Japanese whom she had previously condemned. In addition, the new textbooks appeared to highlight the achievements of her father, and brush over the torture and executions that occurred under his reign. However, Park said that she hoped the state-issued textbooks would inspire patriotism in young Korean students. She argued that the current privately published books distorted narratives of South Korea’s creation with a view of North Korea that was too sympathetic and “left-leaning.”
The case made its way to court, with opponents contesting the Ministry of Education. However, the court ultimately ruled that the Ministry was within its rights to modify and revise school textbooks. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn and Education Minister Hwang Woo-Yea hope that middle and high school students would receive government-issued history textbooks by 2017 (later changed to 2018 due to strong resistance). Hwang supported the change, saying, “We cannot teach our children with biased history textbooks.” The government succeeded in preparing three books, with only one of South Korea’s schools adopting one of them. By 2016, Park was forced to scrap the plan altogether in a face-saving move, stating that schools would be free to choose between private or state-authored textbooks.
New President Moon-Jae was elected on May 9, after Park’s formal impeachment last December and subsequent removal from office. He has since followed through with his campaign promises to scrap these textbooks, saying that the issued textbooks offer an “outdated and one-sided” view of the past. On Friday, May 12, Moon issued an order confirming that schools will continue to choose books from private publishers.
Moon’s move to ensure that schools are able to use privately-published textbooks is considered largely symbolic. Yoon Young-Chan, a spokesman for Moon, has said, “History education should no longer be abused by political motives.” They hope that, by removing state-issued textbooks entirely, South Korea can move away from rigid retellings of history that often divide people. Intense rivalries in East Asia have led to a debate regarding history and its teaching in the region. Many people view state-authored textbooks as a throwback to autocratic or military rule.
Some see this act simply as a way for Moon to begin to remove the legacies of his predecessor. The move shows Moon closing the door on one of Park’s mainly negatively-viewed legacies. It symbolized his promise that he will continue to do so throughout his presidency. He has already begun by promising to check the chaebols (family-run businesses) that dominate the South Korean economy and to advocate for fair trade.