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‘Secret team’ claims worsen textbook clash

Opposition lawmakers staged an overnight standoff with Education Ministry staff outside the government office that deals with the publication of school history textbooks Sunday, alleging that the staff have been secretly working on state-authored textbooks under direct orders from the presidential office.

Lawmakers of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy visited the National Institute for International Education late Sunday on an anonymous tip-off that the ministry was operating an unofficial task force on the recently-confirmed plan to reinstate state-authored history textbooks for middle and high schools.

Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea speaks during a meeting of vice education superintendents Monday at Sejong Government Complex. (Yonhap)
Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea speaks during a meeting of vice education superintendents Monday at Sejong Government Complex. (Yonhap)

Ministry officials at the office denied entry to the lawmakers, turned off the lights and called the police, with the standoff lingering on to the next day.

The NPAD claimed that the unknown team has been reporting directly to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, on grounds that the team in question had a folder marked “BH,” meaning Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae). NPAD member Kim Tae-Nyeon raised suspicion that the ministry had secretly operated the team since September, well before the ministry made its decision official.

In an emergency briefing the next day, the ministry explained that the claims that it was running a secret task force were baseless, and that the team on history education had increased staff due to a spike in their workload.

“We have no reason to hide the team, as it is not newly created but an already-existing one. Transfer records do not exist because (the officials) have not been relocated, but temporarily shifted,” said a ministry official in charge of the team.

He claimed that the office was set up in Seoul, not in Sejong City where the ministry is based, because the government complex did not have sufficient room. He added that the officials at the office may have called the police because they panicked at the unscheduled visit by lawmakers and the media that accompanied them.

The official denied that the ministry set up the team specifically to deal with the state textbooks, and said it had increased staffing to address the explosive increase in the parliament’s demand for data, and to deal with the media. He denied allegations that the team was directly reporting to Cheong Wa Dae, saying that he was heading the operation.

But the official said that he only learned of the overnight standoff this morning via media coverage. A public statement denying the NPAD’s accusations was issued around midnight under the name of the Education Ministry.

The special team will continue operations until Nov. 2.

Parties were at loggerheads over the new allegations. NPAD floor leader Lee Jong-kul accused President Park Geun-hye of secretly pushing ahead with the state textbook plan, while the ruling Saenuri Party’s leader Kim Moo-sung accused the opposition of “forcibly imprisoning” the ministry officials in the office.

With the dispute over state history textbooks showing no signs of fading out, some members of the ruling party have expressed opposition to the plan.

Rep. Chung Doo-un, among the few Saenuri members who have opposed the policy, said that the state history textbooks was a “disaster” and urged the government to “admit to making a mistake.”

“Public opinion is against the government because of (the state textbook). It is virtually a boon for the opposition. The government is reviving the opposition, which is suffering from faltering public support, with the policy,” he said in a radio interview.

By Yoon Min-sik