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Korea kicks off state history textbook publication process

The South Korean government has initiated the first stage of its plan to publish state-authored history textbooks for secondary education by allocating the budget, officials said Tuesday.

The plans to designate the 4.4 billion won ($3.9 million) budget needed to publish the textbooks were passed at last week’s Cabinet meeting, according to the Ministry of Education. It includes the publishing and promotion costs, author fees and research expenses.

About 1.7 billion won was allocated to the state-run National Institute of Korean History, which has been commissioned to author the textbooks on the ministry’s behalf.

The publishing budget came out of the government’s reserve fund, which was widely seen as an attempt to bypass a parliamentary standoff with the opposition, as it has vowed not to cooperate in allocating the budget for the plan.

Korean law stipulates that the government can set aside up to 1 percent of the general account budget for emergency use.

The first step of the process to recruit scholars as authors is expected to be a tough procedure, given that many historians have publicly vowed not to participate in publishing the state history textbooks.

Plans for the government to monopolize the publication of history textbooks for secondary schools ― which the officials say is essential to eradicate the “left-leaning bias” of current privately published books ― has sparked dispute nationwide, especially in education circles. History professors from over 30 major universities including Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University have vowed not to participate in the publication process.

NIKH head Kim Jung-bae said he will exclude historians who he said were far-right or far-left, including members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, effectively excluding one of the country’s largest teachers’ groups.

An NIKH official said the institute would do its best to persuade the best-qualified scholars to participate, even if those scholars have already vowed not to participate.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy lambasted the government’s move.

“(The government) is using tax money set aside for situations like natural disasters to change the textbook for the worse. ... The Park Geun-hye administration is undermining the parliament’s rights to set the budget,” said Rep. Lee Choon-suak, the NPAD’s chief deputy floor leader.

National Assembly Speaker Chung Eui-hwa, formerly of the ruling Saenuri Party, pointed out that there had been “some problems” in the government’s process of reinstating state history textbooks.

“(The government) should have sufficiently persuaded the people about the harms of historical bias (of current textbooks) and conducted a discussion on the state textbook,” he said. But Chung added he has no plans to suggest that the government scrap the contentious project.

By Yoon Min-sik