Textbook Policy and History Education in Korea

A Brief Historical Background of the Textbook Controversy

Korea was liberated in 1945 when the Allied Powers defeated Japan in the Second World War. After liberation, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula into the north and the south, partially for the purpose of disarming the Japanese military. In South Korea, the US Military

Government (USMG) took charge of civil affairs for three years. In regards to education, the USMG mainly embedded the American school structure, teaching methods, curricula design, and educational philosophy into a Korean context. Apropos of this initiative, the Education Bureau of the USMG created a new tentative curriculum in 1947, which introduced the subject of “Social Studies” for the first time in Korean history. This laid the foundation for later developments in the curriculum, most notably the period following the establishment of a pro-American government in the southern half of the Peninsula.

The adaptation of a US educational model in Korea was delayed by the Korean War (1950-1953), which prolonged the tutelage of the US in South Korea and rekindled strong anti-communism sentiments exemplified by a growing hostility toward North Korea. Meanwhile, President Rhee’s dictatorship during the late 1950s severely distorted the democratic principles of the new government. After he was expelled from power by the student revolution in 1960, the newly established parliamentary government showed powerful tendencies toward a real democracy. However, a military coup d’etat in 1961 put an end to such prospects. The new military regime sought to attain internal and external legitimacy. Internally, the military leaders planned rapid industrialization and promised a better quality of living in order to pacify complaints about their violent usurpation of power. Externally, the new regime worked hard at satisfying the most important foreign sponsor, the United States, by offering continuous loyalty as a front-line nation against the Communist power bloc of the Soviet Union in East Asia. Such exertions of solidarity mainly consisted of military preparation and an ideological emphasis on anti-communism.

In 1972, President Park, a former general, enforced a series of reforms called “Yushin” (literally “Rejuvenation”), which extended his dictatorship through a violation of democratic principles. Yushin, putting special emphasis on national identity, mandated the curricular reform in 1973. Anti-communist education, national security, and patriotism were stressed along with a continuous push toward economic development. As a corollary to these educational directions, Korean history was separated from social studies. This effectively meant that Korean history was taught as an independent subject; a pedagogical orientation that was heavily emphasized in secondary schools. This marked the first use of a national unitary textbook on Korean history.

Park’s dictatorship ended with his assassination in 1979. However, the prospect of a real democracy was negated once more through another military coup in the same year. The new military regime also continued to emphasize an anti-communist ideology. The authoritarian government continued in spite of people’s growing demand for democratization, reaching its peak with a massive uprising in 1987. Even though another former general succeeded to win the presidential election, democratization gradually grew apace. Finally in 1998, Kim Dae-Jung, a longtime opposition leader from a more progressiveleaning party, became president after a peaceful power transition. His successor, Noh Moo-Hyun who won a very close election in 2003, continued Kim’s appeasement policy toward North Korea in a strong progressive direction. His reforms included changes in the high school KMCHT publishing system—that is, from a government-designated unitary textbook system to a government- authorization system. With the conservative government obtaining power after Noh, the newly published KMCHTs was placed under review and then criticized for its “leftist” perspectives and historical accounts. The controversy concerning the national Korean History textbook was reignited under the newly elected president Park Geun-Hye, after the former president Park Jung-Hee, her father, had decided to publish the government-designated Korean history textbooks in 1973.

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