The Ministry of Education asked the prosecution Friday to investigate 17 people who were involved in the previous administration’s plans to scrap textbooks on Korean history and introduce state-authored ones.
They are five former Cheong Wa Dae officials, eight ministry officials and four people who are not government officials. The ministry will take disciplinary actions against six other ministry staff.
If government officials do anything illegal in performing their jobs, it is a matter of course that they should be punished regardless of rank.
But the illegal acts the ministry said they committed are hardly convincing. They are related to publicity of the plans, operation of a task force and cutting off research funds to scholars who opposed the plans.
They may have gone a bit too far to do a better job, but were not involved in bribery or other corruption in implementing the plans.
The Park Geun-hye administration’s plans were to replace competing Korean history textbooks with state-approved versions aimed at removing “liberal, left-leaning bias.”
There was a great deal of concern among conservatives that textbooks derogated the birth and development of South Korea, while portraying North Korea too positively.
Whether state-authored history textbooks are the right way to address such concerns is questionable. But it is wrong to deal with a policy issue of this nature from a judicial point of view. One cannot erase suspicions that the ministry may be trying to suit the tastes of the current regime.
The Moon Jae-in administration needs to remember that social conflicts were inevitable when governments sought to revise history textbooks according to a certain ideology and that such attempts did not last long.
It was not a problem restricted to the Park administration. The Roh Moo-hyun administration introduced Korean history textbooks reflecting liberal views of history, but the following conservative administration under President Lee Myung-bak changed the guidelines for the books.
The current administration is not without controversies, either. It seeks to revise history textbooks rather bluntly and persistently.
According to the guidelines it unveiled last month on middle and high school history textbooks, such phrases as “South Korea is the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula” and “power inheritance and human rights in North Korea” should not be mentioned in textbooks.
The guidelines also took out the word “liberal” from “liberal democracy” in phrases describing the identity of South Korea. They suggested history textbooks should not contain a sentence like “North Korea still threatens peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.”
Every government pursues its own agenda. If the president sets policies and issues instructions accordingly, working-level officials cannot but follow them.
If they refuse to do so, they will be disciplined. If they can be put behind bars for following instructions, risk-avoiding passive work attitude cannot but spread in officialdom. It is hard to expect public officials to work hard in this atmosphere.
If standards which tell right from wrong change this way, those officials who are currently involved in Moon’s policy to wean the nation from nuclear power generation may face a similar fate as those involved in the textbook plans.
Education Minister Kim Sang-gon apologized for the previous ministry’s aborted plans to publish state textbooks, calling them the tyranny of power which damaged democracy. But what the ministry is doing now may be regarded as another tyranny of power.
The government changes every five years, and it is hard to revise history textbooks for good, without broad public support. This is a lesson of history. It is not desirable to change history textbooks each time the regime changes.
The Education Ministry would be well advised to scrap its history textbook guidelines, which have caused controversies and conflicts repetitively. There should not be any government intervention again in history education. It is now time for the ministry to finish its unfinished work.