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Opposition bashes minister for silence on state history textbook

Opposition lawmakers Thursday blasted the education minister at the parliamentary audit for not providing sufficient information on its supposed drive to reinstate state-published textbooks for secondary education.

Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea, who has stated that students needed to learn from “one version of history,” said that it was “inappropriate” for him to say where the ministry stands on the issue as he has not been briefed by the National Institute of Korean History on the matter. The NIKH is slated to hold a public hearing Friday.

There has been a debate in South Korea over whether the government should be given exclusive right to publish history textbooks for middle and high schools. Rival parties have been wrangling over the issue for months while high-ranking education officials and progressives across the country have raised objections to the prospect.

The country currently allows publishers to write their own secondary education textbooks, but some of these books are accused of being substandard. Elementary school-level history textbooks are already published by the state.

“The issue of state history textbooks can be confirmed after a series of procedure following the public hearing (by the NIKH). It is not right for me to preemptively tell you the conclusions,” Hwang said at the audit held in Sejong Government Complex.

Hwang did reiterate his stance that having a single version of history taught in schools can help students avoid confusion, and that he “did not rule out” state-published history textbooks.

But opposition members said that it was very unlikely that the ministry was oblivious to the prospect of a new textbook publishing system, given that Hwang vowed to announce the ministry’s position in late September and the procedure to develop the new textbook would begin around October.

“Your schedule implies that the administrative notification for the new textbooks should start soon. The ministry should at the very least announce which direction it is headed in,” said Rep. Youn Kwan-suk of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Do Jong-hwan of the NPAD revealed an official document created by the Education Ministry which showed that “improvement of the history textbook system” was a presidential directive. The document was dated February 2014, which was around the time that a textbook by Kyohak Publishing Co. was accused of conservative bias and a general lack of quality.

NPAD’s Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon accused the ministry of sabotaging the audit, and urged the ministry to provide all related data on the suspicion that Park had directly ordered the reinstatement of state history textbooks, which were initially introduced by her father, former President Park Chung-hee before being abolished in the 2000s.

While Hwang claimed that opinions of “various experts related to history” were taken into account in the ministry’s decision, he did not elaborate on exactly who participated in the procedure.

Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the minor opposition party pointed out that the latest survey results stated by the ministry -- which showed that 48.6 percent of the people were for state textbooks opposed to 48.1 percent against -- was dated October 2014. He asked Hwang to provide results of more recent surveys and a list of those who participated in the public hearing and research.

Members of the ruling Saenuri Party, on the other hand, said that textbooks published under the current system have many errors.

Rep. Kang Eun-hee of Saenuri pointed out that eight high school history textbooks that currently exist are inconsistent on facts. When describing the dawn of the Stone Age on the Korean peninsula for example, the textbooks range from B.C. 300,000 to B.C. 1 million.

She also pointed out that the textbooks have different interpretations about the Vietnam War, Korea’s modern history and the country’s first president, Rhee Syng-man.

“Because the standards for (the ministry’s) certification are low, publishers are basically left to freely author textbooks,” she said.

By Yoon Min-sik