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Textbooks are not a political trophy (KOR)

June 27,2019
Social studies textbooks for sixth grade elementary class distributed in spring last year changed the wording of the “establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948” to the “establishment of the Republic of Korean government in 1948.” The change reflects President Moon Jae-in’s belief that the roots of Korea should go back to 1919 — the year when a provisional Korean government was set up in China — instead of 1948, the year when the conservative Syngman Rhee administration was established.

The textbook’s top editor Park Yong-joo, a professor at Chinju National University of Education, denied that he made such changes or agreed to them. The case was referred to the prosecution. According to the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, three people — an official of the education ministry, a researcher, and a publisher — made the changes themselves and fabricated Professor Park’s signature and documents to have them look as if the head editor had approved them.

The prosecution closed the case and turned the three suspects over to the courts without physical detention for document fabrication. Of course, the Education Ministry official in question could have committed the crime because of a rare passion for history. But it is hard to believe a civil servant, which usually have a compliant nature, would go that far and take such risk. He would have vividly witnessed how officials in the Education Ministry suffered through demotion or other means after following the former conservative government’s controversial guidelines on nationalizing history textbooks. Yet the prosecution concluded the ministry employee acted alone.

The official was later appointed as head of an overseas education outpost on Korean studies just ahead of the distribution of the new textbook. An overseas education center head is a fiercely competitive post within the ministry, as the state subsidizes the family’s living cost and children’s education for three years in the host country. The position could have been a reward for following orders coming from a higher level. Even as he was being investigated by the prosecution, he was not summoned back to Korea for questioning and remains overseas. There are too many questions that have been left unanswered, despite the closing of the probe.

Then Education Minister Kim Sang-gon claimed all changes or edits in textbooks were made through “legitimate” procedures when he was questioned by lawmakers last year. He denied that he had made a separate order, as the responsibility over textbooks was with the publisher and editor. The prosecution must find out whether any other senior officials were involved. Otherwise, it will also come under suspicion of succumbing to the powers that be. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office must examine the probe findings and order a re-investigation if necessary.

The case resulted from the sad reality that historical interpretations and school textbook are tailored by the ruling power. Public employees and scholars make changes whenever power changes hands. Textbooks should not be a trophy of political power.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 26, Page 30