Good quality holds the key
This year is historically meaningful as it has been 70 years since Korea was liberated from Japan and the peninsula has stayed divided for that long. Assertiveness on history has become more important than ever as Japan and China put forth historical misrepresentation and distortion to their favor under nationalistic fervor. Yet we are internally divided among ourselves over history textbooks. The essence of the idea behind proper history education has been lost amid the ideological contest between liberal and conservative parties and scholars.
Korea is a G20 nation and valuable part of the global community. Yet the country is chained to Cold War ideology. Historical views must be bred in objective and balanced classroom teaching based on accurate textbooks. If the government means to restore credibility in history textbooks, it must be serious and sincere in the preparation and work.
It first must study the controversy and opposition behind the state-authoring of history textbooks. Korea’s trajectory over the last century has been extremely tumultuous, with liberation, war, military regimes, modernization, industrialization and democratization. It cannot be free from ideological debate and conflict. The current 17 history books available from different publishers - nine for middle and eight for high school - have all been challenged for including questionable one-sided narratives.
Two publishers dropped any meaning to the founding of the nation and implied the country’s first president, Syngman Rhee, caused Korea’s division. One stated North Korea established a strong ruling system under single-party leadership based on unique sovereignty. In one textbook, the only picture of President Park Chung Hee is one of him clad in military uniform and black sunglasses on the day of May 16 military coup, compared with four pictures of former President Kim Dae-jung and three on North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung. One popular textbook is more blatantly one-sided: Dictator comes up twice in relation to North Korea, but 24 times in relation to South Korea.
To reduce the schism between the liberals and conservatives, the emphasis on modern history needs to be lessened. Currently the share of premodern and modern history is 50-50 in school textbooks. The ministry plans to adjust the ratio to 60-40, but it needs to consider further lowering the modern share to 30 or 20 percent. And the historical paradigm should be more future-focused.
The National Institute of Korean History must recruit not only historians, but also political, economic and social studies scholars. The government also must revise its timetable. It plans to start writing next year to have the books ready for distribution by February 2017. But if it really aims to make “proper” history textbooks, it must take more time to ensure accuracy, objectivity and balance.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 15, Page 34