Trends and Issues Surrounding the Reading of Historical Texts in the Republic of Korea

Ho Hwan Yang

Contesting ideas about the correct kind of history textbook have become quite a news item in Korea; the polemical arguments, however, are mostly political rather than educational. A case in point: the Ministry of Education (MOE) is expected to announce its decision on whether to renew the textbook authorization system or to return to the unitary government-designated textbook system for high school Korean History.1 Since the first publication of the authorized Korean Modern and Contemporary History textbooks (KMCHT) in the early 2000s, so-called “leftist” historical accounts have raised concern for the new “conservative” government. The conservative critiques have mainly targeted the textbook printed by Keumsung publishing company, adopted by 50 % of all high schools. Recently, the central government contested in court the case of textbook authors’ rights and responsibilities in the publishing process. The verdict was in favor of the government that was given authority to intervene or “correct” any problematical historical accounts without having to ask for author consent.

This authorization system soon proved to be problematic once again when the “rightist” textbook, published by Kyohak, passed government inspection. Critics argued that this textbook was riddled with supposedly “distorted viewpoints” and numerous “factual errors” and therefore should not have passed authorization. They condemned the MOE for authorizing the Kyohak textbook. Despite strong protests, the Kyohak textbook was approved. However, it was only adopted by a very small number of high schools. The MOE attributed this low rate of adoption to the numerous voices raised against

“Korea” in this paper indicates the Republic of Korea (South Korea). H.H. Yang (*)

Department of History Education, College of Education,

Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_33

the procedure and thus began to reconsider the history textbook authorization and publishing system.

According to the New Right,2 history textbooks should be of the following kind: they should define national identity from ancient times to the present, and should also reflect strongly on the nation’s securing of its independent sovereignty through the overcoming of foreign invasions and the civil war provoked by North Korea. All these historical tributaries should seamlessly flow into the river of unprecedented development: Korea’s unique movement toward “liberal democracy”. Though the definition and meaning of such a perspective remain disputable and very controversial, the conviction resonated powerfully in the higher echelons of Korean society. For the present government, this historical perspective should serve as the foundation and the basis for what it considers to be the proper content for Korean history textbooks. This cannot be compromised, especially in teaching the official history of the nation.

The recent controversy surrounding the textbook publishing system reflects well upon the importance of history textbooks not only in classroom teaching but also in the arena of public debate in Korea. The national unitary textbook of Korean history was introduced in the early 1970s under the auspices of the dictatorial regime and remained in use for the following 30 years. Many historians and history educators were opposed to this government policy because they insisted that it prohibited diverse and reflective interpretations of the nation’s past. Although Korea has finally moved away from the unitary textbook system and has implemented the authorized textbook system, some recent controversies have destabilized the prospects of the newer system. What has brought on this backsliding? Why is it necessary for the present government to promote the “one and only” historical interpretation? How have those who had hitherto supported the necessity for teaching multiple perspectives and voices responded? Finally, how, and why, have their views on the use of either authorized or nationalized textbooks changed?

For proper understanding of the textbook controversy, I will first look at the development and context of Korean history education since 1945, then investigate the mobilization of history teachers and explain how research in history learning has developed over the years. In doing so, my focus will be an evaluation of recent diversity-oriented reading along with an exegesis on the teaching of historical texts.

 
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