Publisher puts its existence on the line

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Publisher puts its existence on the line


The authors of seven history textbooks that passed government screening late August, shown in the photo on the left, held a press conference on Sunday demanding that the government cancel its decision to re-examine all eight history texts it approved. The government decision came after one text by publisher Kyohaksa, right, triggered controversy for its conservative political sensibility. [NEWSIS]

For Yang Chul-woo, the chairman of Kyohaksa, the past two weeks have been an ordeal.

Kyohaksa is a 62-year-old publishing company that specializes in textbooks for elementary, middle and high schools.

One of its history textbooks that passed government screening in late August has been at the center of a heated political debate.

Critics say the text promotes right-wing views and glorifies Japanese colonization. Yang Jin-oh, Yang’s son and the company’s CEO, has even received death threats over the phone.

The controversy has prompted the 88-year-old chairman to meet with the book’s authors to decide what to do.

His decision: To push for the book’s publication.

“History textbooks embody authors’ perceptions, values and teaching methods about history,” Yang told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It is up to the authors to face the debates. And it is the responsibility of the publisher to publish and distribute the book.”

Publish or not

Last week, the JoongAng Ilbo met with executives of Kyohaksa, including the senior and junior Yang, as well as some authors of the book, such as Professor Lee Myeong-hee of Kongju National University.

At the time, Kyohaksa was thinking of giving up on the book’s publication. In fact, the executives had already told the authors that was their plan.

But the authors implored the publisher not to give up, saying that if Kyohaksa gave up the book would probably never get published. No other publisher would be able to handle the pressure.

After much deliberation, Kyohaksa finally decided Sunday to push for the book’s publication. This was also in line with the Ministry of Education’s approval of the book. Despite pressures from the main opposition Democratic Party, the ministry announced on Sept. 11 that it would request some revisions but not withdraw the green light given to the book and seven other history textbooks on Aug. 30.

Yang Chul-woo lamented a situation in which people are too obsessed with political ideology and fail to see the bigger picture. “I’m afraid the world is going forward fast, while we lag behind, engaged in the same old political debates.”

Hope for maturity

Having been in the industry for 63 years, Yang is a living witness to the history of Korea’s publishing industry.

After Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), he got a job at a small publishing company.

“Back then, the illiteracy rate in Korea was quite high,” he recollected, and getting your hands on reading material was hard. “Publishing on its own was helpful in fighting illiteracy,” he recalled.

He rented a small office in what is now the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry building in Sogong-dong, Jung District, central Seoul, and opened an education facility for elementary school students. But soon after, the 1950-53 Korean War broke out.

The Communists took over Seoul and Yang wasn’t able to flee the capital. He hid in an underground shelter in today’s Singongdeok-dong, Mapo District for three months. Then the South Korean army recaptured Seoul. When the Chinese army joined the war to help the Communists, he fled to Daegu. That when he published “Comprehensive Mathematics for College Entrance.”

After the war was over, he published “Sasanggye” (The World of Thoughts), a monthly magazine targeting intellectuals of the time, which was edited by journalist and politician Jang Jun-ha (1918-1975).

In later years, he continued to publish major books for Korea’s modern education. They include “Standard Jeongwa” (Reference Book with Footnotes) for elementary schools, the “Pilseung Series” for middle schools, and “Comprehensive Dictionary for Korean History,” which cost 10 billion won ($9.2 million) and took 20 years to complete.

Difficulties ahead

The name of the company - Kyohaksa - comes from an old philosophy known as Kyohak Sangjang, which means “Teachers mature as they teach students and students move forward as they learn,” Yang says. In other words, teachers and students both grow and learn from their interactions.

However, the company is currently having financial difficulty. Its core business, auxiliary textbooks known in Korean as Jeongwa, are increasingly losing footing in today’s market because students are relying on TV lectures like those offered by EBS (Education Broadcasting System) and Internet classes.

The company has been able to survive thanks to its textbook business, which accounts for about half of the company’s sales. Nonetheless, as of July, the company was asked to undergo a debt workout program.

One of the reasons the executives thought of giving up publication of the controversial history textbook was because they were concerned it could negatively impact sales of its 48 other textbooks that passed government screening. The company’s creditors were worried about that, too.

“I have two publishing philosophies: Enlightenment of the people and fostering knowledge,” Yang said. “Over the 60 years I’ve been in the industry, I valued those two ideas more than money. I hope through the recent controversy, Korean society and its people can mature intellectually.”

Official now

Meanwhile, CEO Yang Jin-oh held a press conference yesterday afternoon to announce Kyohaksa’s position that it will not give up publication of the book.

“Although we thought about giving up, we weren’t able to reach an agreement with the authors,” he said. “We feel a sense of responsibility for all the debate and concerns .?.?. We will follow the Education Ministry’s guidance.”

Yang defended the book, even revealing the scores the government gave to the eight history textbooks it approved in August in an attempt to refute critics’ claims that the Kyohaksa book is full of factual errors and got a 15 out of 100 score. Yang said that Kyohaksa book’s passed the government screening with a score of between 80 and 90.

Lee Seung-guk, a vice chairman of Kyohaksa, who also attended the press conference, said, “It is inappropriate that the book’s publication became a source of debate in the political circles. It is up to the schools now whether or not they will adopt the book in their classes.”


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