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Textbook spat threatens to take down minister

As President Park Geun-hye’s plan to revive state-authored history textbooks faces hurdles, the ruling Saenuri Party began pressuring Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea to take responsibility for the backlash.

Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung told reporters Tuesday that it was “understandable” that some were calling for Hwang’s dismissal.

“I am saying that it is quite understandable that some people could raise such demands,” Kim said to questions whether he supported calls for Hwang’s resignation, without elaborating further.

The Saenuri leader was referring to a comment made by Rep. Kim Tae-heum of the same party the day before, when he held Hwang responsible for lacking strategies to assuage state textbook opposition.

Last month, the ministry announced that it would take back publishing rights for history textbooks in secondary education from private publishers, alleging that the current books are ideologically biased toward leftists and contained many errors.

The policy has sparked disdain from the opposition and the progressive educators, which was aggravated by controversial comments like Kim Moo-sung’s “90 percent of historians are leftists,” and words by Kim Jung-bae ― the official who will be in charge of overseeing the state textbook publication ― that “Textbooks cannot have diversity.”

Another obstacle for proponents of state textbook appeared Sunday after the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy accused the ministry of running a secret task force for the new textbooks under direct orders from the presidential office. The ministry denied the accusations.

With the operations on state textbooks in danger of drifting south, there have been rumors that Hwang will take the fall for the nationwide dispute over the policy. A Saenuri official told local media that there had been “strong sentiment” requesting Hwang ― who doubles as a Saenuri lawmaker ― to step down.

Hwang on Tuesday said that he had no intention of stepping down, although he vowed to “graciously accept” the criticism.

“I understand that the ministry and I have been reprimanded to work harder. I will take an extra effort to carry out my work,” he said at an unscheduled briefing at the government complex in Seoul.

Hwang bashed the opposition for falsely accusing the ministry officials of “conducting illegal activities,” referring to the allegations about a secret task force.

He said the ministry would continue collecting public opinions until Nov. 5 as scheduled, and would start authoring the new textbooks later in the month. 

As of Tuesday, over 100 history professors from major universities across the country -- including Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University and Hanyang University -- had publicly announced that they would not participate as authors of the state-published history textbooks. 

Eight of the 10 history professors at the state-run Academy of Korean Studies also released a statement opposing the notion. 

“Some AKS professors have publicly announced their support for the state textbook, making it seem like the majority of our faculty members are supporting it. But we would like to make it clear that they are the minority at the academy,” they said, possibly referring to AKS professor Kwon Hee-young, one of the most outspoken proponents of the state textbook.

The ministry said Monday that it would not scrap the plans even if the public opinion toward state textbooks turned out to be unfavorable.

By Yoon Min-sik