By: Rufina K. Park – rufina.park [at] asiapacific.ca
South Korea Nationalizes History Textbooks
In 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 However, a deeper analysis reveals that Korean society is not only divided over historical content, but also over the process by which the government is going ahead with a policy that faces such widespread dissension.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.
If you enjoyed this memo, subscribe to our e-newsletter for free and receive new memos weekly via email.
- Yonhap News, “470,000 Submissions Made During the Period of Public Input Collection for the Nationalization of History Textbooks,” (Korean) 역사교과서 국정화 행정예고 기간 47만영 찬반의견 제출 November, 3, 2015.
- Asia Economy, “Groups Supporting and Opposing Policy Hold Rallys Three Days after Nationalization Confirmed,” (Korean)국정화 확정 고시된 3일, 도심 곳곳서 “종북 척결” vs “박근혜 퇴진” November, 3, 2015.
- Edward Vickers, “Education, Identity and the Politics of Modern State Formation in Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective” In Marie Lall and Edward Vickers (eds) Education as a Political Tool in Asia, Abingdon: Routledge (2009).
- Tae Woo Kim, “Ideological Conflict and Crisis in the Academic Discipline Over History Textbooks: A Comparison of 8 Different Versions of Modern Korean History in High School Textbooks,” History and Reality (2014): 123-161 (Korean) 역사교과서 이념논쟁과 학문의 위기- 고등학교 한국사 교과서 8종의 현대사 서술 비교 <역사와 현실> no.92 (2014): 123-161.
- Jung In Kim, “Comparison Between Government-Approved Independent Korean History Textbooks and Nationalized Korean History Textbooks,” History and Reality (2014): 81-121 (Korean) 국정 국사 교과서와 검정 한국사 교과서의 현대사 체계와 내용 분석 <역사와 현실> no. 92 (2014): 81-121.
- Min Soo Kim, “Thinking About the Government-Approved Independent Korean History Textbooks in the Classroom,” History Criticism (2013): 104-123 (Korean) 역사 교육 현장에서 본 검정제 역사 교과서 <역사비평> no. 105 (2013): 104-123.
See our other memos on Korea.