Fri, Nov 21, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Controversial textbooks heat up debate over S Korean history

Conservatives want the authors of six high school textbooks to rewrite sections they feel undermine the government’s legitimacy

By Choe Sang-hun  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEOUL

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

To conservative critics, a widely used textbook’s version of how US and Soviet forces took control of Korea from Japanese colonialists in 1945 shows all that is wrong with the way South Korean history is taught to young people today.

The facts no one disputes are that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet military swept into northern Korea and installed a friendly communist government while a US military administration assumed control in the south.

But then the high school textbook takes a direction that has angered conservatives. It contends that the Japanese occupation was followed not by a free, self-determining Korea, but by a divided peninsula dominated once again by foreign powers.

“It was not our national flag that was hoisted to replace the Japanese flag. The flag that flew in its place was the American Stars and Stripes,” reads the textbook published by Kumsung Publishing.

“Our liberation through the Allied forces’ victory prevented us from building a new country according to our own wishes,” it says.

The critics include the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the conservative who came to power this year with a pledge to overturn a decade of liberal policies that he said had coddled North Korea and denigrated the US alliance — the alliance that liberals have accused of propping up South Korean dictators in the name of anti-communism.

On Oct. 30, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of the Kumsung book and five other textbooks used in high schools delete or revise 55 sections that it said “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.”

“A textbook of modern history should be written in a way that does not hurt our national pride,” it said.

The authors rejected the interference, saying critics were trying to “beautify” the country’s problematic history, overlooking Korean collaboration with the Japanese occupiers and postwar dictatorships. The liberal opposition in parliament said the government’s attempt to censor the textbooks was reminiscent of those dictatorships, which once exercised control so complete that it included what books South Koreans could read and the proper length of women’s skirts.

“National pride? Patriotism? They should be based on historical facts,” said Hong Soon-kwon, a history professor and coauthor of the Kumsung textbook.

South Korea used to use a single government-issued modern-history textbook to teach teenagers. But in 2003, to encourage diversity in historical views, the government approved six privately published history textbooks for high school use.

Ever since, the textbooks have drawn criticism from conservatives, sharpening the larger debate over how to appraise past leaders — including the founding president, Syngman Rhee, and the military strongman Park Chung-hee — and the complicated relationship with the US.

Conservatives say the “left leaning” textbooks poison the minds of teenagers by reveling in dark corners of history. The books, they say, inspire a masochistic view of Korean history by demeaning the role of the Allied forces in Korea’s liberation from Japan, casting the US as an imperial power, and by dwelling on the faults of South Korean dictators while slighting their achievements, including their contributions to the country’s economic growth.

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