SEOUL–A plan by the government to mandate the use of a single state-approved history textbook in schools has sparked a growing backlash within academia in a country where the past is often a source of controversy and partisan strife.

Lawmakers rally against Seoul's plan to introduce a state-produced history textbook for secondary school students
Lawmakers rally against Seoul’s plan to introduce a state-produced history textbook for secondary school students

Earlier this month, the administration of President Park Geun-hye announced its intention to take control of the history curriculum at secondary schools to correct what it has called left-wing and even pro-North Korean biases in some textbooks. The plan, due to go into effect in 2017, would replace the current system where schools can choose textbooks from among eight private publishers.

Controversial since its announcement on October 12, the plan has in recent days ignited a groundswell of opposition from academia and liberal politicians. They fear the conservative government plans to manipulate history for its own ends, such as by deifying late dictator Park Chung-hee, the current president’s father.

On Wednesday, a group of 400 history professors and other academics from North Jeolla Province, a traditional liberal stronghold in the south, released a statement expressing fear that the government would whitewash the abuses of past dictatorial governments while minimizing the contributions of democracy activists.

“We are opposing the government because we fear that we don’t know if old abuses will reoccur and, embarrassingly and pitifully, if our children will learn this history,” the statement read.

South Korea was governed by dictators for much of its post-Korean War history until free elections in 1987.

On Tuesday, 91 academics at the president’s alma mater, Sogang University, a Catholic institution in Seoul, delivered their own symbolic rebuke of the plan.

“Obviously there is a lot of politics involved in this controversy; but there is something even deeper at stake, the integrity of history itself,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese history who is among a number of academics at Seoul’s Yonsei University to have publicly protested the plan.

In defending its position, the government has appealed to the idea that South Korea is unique, historically and politically. Because the country remains divided and in a technical state of war with North Korea, the argument goes, the curriculum requires the steady guiding hand of the state.

“Among the OECD countries, Korea experienced war and division and it is still divided. That is why Korea’s modern and contemporary history is still not free from the ideological conflicts,” Kim Dong-won, an assistant minister at the Ministry of Education, told a press conference for foreign correspondents on Friday.

The need to prevent social conflict was a recurrent refrain, echoing the words of the president, who has been quoted saying history education “should not divide the citizens and students.”

When the Asia Times suggested such conflict may be natural and even desirable in a democracy, Chin Jae-gwan, the director of the state-run National Institute of Korean History who also briefed journalists, returned to the theme of harmony.

“I partly agree with your idea, but I think the core issue is whether we provide the education that proliferates social conflicts or we provide education that can really harmonize and lead to integration,” Chin said through an interpreter.

“And considering the unique circumstances that Korea is in and the division of the nation, and such unique features, I believe these issues contain all sorts of inflammatory concepts.”

History is a persistent and longstanding source of controversy in South Korea, and is often viewed through a partisan lens.

“What makes the issue arguably more partisan in South Korea than elsewhere is national division and the perception that scholars involved in the writing of national history have an anti-(South Korean) state bias,” said Steven Denney, a graduate fellow at the Asian Institute, University of Toronto. “That said, scholars are quite critical of South Korea’s formative years following liberation from Japanese rule and former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, (which) is proof-positive for many.”

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.

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