South Korea Moves Ahead with Plans to Publish State-Authored Textbooks

Memo #348

By: Rufina K. Park – rufina.park [at] asiapacific.ca

South Korea Nationalizes History Textbooks

rufina parkIn October 2015, the South Korean government announced its decision to nationalize middle and high school history textbooks, which means that starting from 2017, schools will no longer have the option to choose from Ministry of Education approved independent publications. Instead, the government will have exclusive rights over the content and production of one textbook. The last time a single state-authored textbook was mandated in Korea was in 1973 by Park Geun-Hye’s late father and former President Park Chung-Hee. However, the policy was relaxed in 2003 when state-approved private publications were made available. President Park Geun-Hye and the ruling Saenuri Party have defended the move to reinstate government-issued textbooks by suggesting that current textbooks contain factual errors and pro-North Korean biases. The public is divided, but a growing majority strongly opposes the move. Nonetheless, it is not clear that such views are integrated into the policy formulation process.

During the 20-day obligatory period to collect public input, over 470,000 people submitted their views to the Ministry of Education: 320,000 were opposed while 150,000 were supportive. Polling data released by Gallup Korea on Oct. 29th showed 49% opposed and 36% in support of the new policy. Professors, teachers, and opposition parties have been vocal in expressing their opposition as well. Some 2,000 professors at around 170 universities and over 20,000 teachers have made a joint declaration announcing their opposition to the national textbook issuance. Yet, public concerns over the neutrality of the revised textbooks and the lack of independent curriculum options have failed to stop government plans. The Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Korean History continue to press forward with the government texts.

On the surface, the move to nationalize textbooks and the ensuing debate may appear to be a one-dimensional ideological battle between conservative and liberal interpretations of history. However, a deeper analysis reveals that Korean society is not only divided over historical content, but also over the process by which the government is going ahead with a policy that faces such widespread dissension. Instead of merely collecting public opinion through a pro forma process, the government must address citizens’ concerns during the textbook writing and production process to avoid undermining the public’s faith in South Korea’s democracy.

Rufina K. Park is the Paul Reynolds Post-Graduate Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a graduate of Harvard University’s International Education Policy Master’s Program.

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Government Approved Independent History Textbooks Will No Longer Be Available (Source: KBS).

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