Teaching Resources: South Korea Nationalizes History Textbooks

Asia in the Classroom: Ideas and Resources for Teaching about Asia

The Brief:

Last week, South Korea’s Ministry of Education announced its decision to reinstate state-published history textbooks for high schools. Starting from 2017, the government will have exclusive rights over the content and production of the textbooks. Currently, high schools have the ability to choose from independent publications that are approved by the Ministry. In 2014, however, Korean President Park Geun-hye suggested that the textbooks needed to be changed because they contain factual errors and are ideologically biased in support of left-leaning policies.

Educators and professors around the country have expressed great concern over the new initiative. In September, 160 professors from Korea University, 32 professors from Seoul National University, and 132 professors from Yonsei University protested the Ministry’s move saying that state textbooks will only reflect the historical perspective of the leaders in power. Over 15,000 educators have criticized the policy as undemocratic. Protests and political debates have continued since the announcement.

Student prepares a signage for rally. It reads: “No one can own history.” | Courtesy Seoul National University Students Who Oppose the Nationalization of Korean History Textbooks

Discussion Questions:

  • What are the similarities and differences in how the story is presented in the news articles listed below? What accounts for these discrepancies?
  • Who are the individuals and groups that support the new textbook legislation? Who opposes it? What are their opinions?  
  • Would you support or oppose a move to nationalize high school history textbooks in Canada? Why or why not?

Suggestions for Classroom Activities (for high school: grades 9-12):

(In addition to the discussion questions above, here are more concrete teaching ideas) 

  • Analyze the news: Ask students to choose two different articles on the nationalization of Korean textbooks (some suggested news sources are listed below). Then ask students to analyze the similarities and differences in the content and perspectives presented in the news sources. You may want to use the Venn diagram handout (see attachment below).  This activity will help your students to learn about the Korea story and practice critically analyzing the news.
  • Hold a debate: Divide the class in two groups—with one half of the class defending nationalization of textbooks and the other half opposing it. Give time for each group to do background research on the issue and identify evidence in support of their respective positions. Bring the class back together as a group and debate about the issue.

Guide to using Debate in the Classroom (Newfoundland and Labrador Speech and Debate Union)

  • Have a role-play discussion: Assign specific roles for each person (e.g. an elementary school student in Korea who does not understand the implications of the policy, a teacher who opposes nationalization, a politician of the ruling party, a politician of the opposing party, a parent who is ambivalent, etc.) and have students do background research on their perspectives. Then, come together as a class and have each student briefly introduce themselves in their roles. For the purpose of the discussion, remind students to stay in character even if these opinions and attitudes contradict their personal beliefs. At the end of the discussions, debrief and allow students to freely express their own perspectives.

Poster reads: “Stop! Coup d’etat of History; Get together! Stop the Nationalization of Korean History Textbooks; October 17, 4pm, Seoul Sejeong-ro Park; Network Against the Nationalization of Korean History Textbooks” | Courtesy Seoul National University Students who Oppose the Nationalization of Korean History Textbooks

Related News Articles:

Historical Background

The Diplomat: South Korea’s Other History War

Speculation Before the Announcement

BBC News: South Korea to Control History Textbooks Used in Schools

New York Times: South Korea to Issue State History Textbooks, Rejecting Private Publishers

Government Announcement

Arirang News, Seoul: Gov’t Unveils Plan for State-Authored History Textbooks

Korea Times, Seoul: Park Stresses ‘Accurate’ History Education

Aljazeera: S. Korea to Issue ‘Correct History Textbook’ to Students

Reactions After the Announcement

Arirang News, Seoul: Political Row Over History Education Deepens

The Hankyoreh, Seoul: A Funeral for History Education, and Democracy, in Central Seoul

The Kyunghyang Shinmun, Seoul: History Twisted at Attempt to “Erase the Acts of Pro-Japanese and Dictatorial Fathers”

United Press International, Washington: South Korea’s Call for Nationalized Textbooks Divides Country

Voice of America, Seoul: South Korea’s ‘Accurate’ History Textbook Mandate Stirs Controversy


  • To view other teaching-related articles in this series, please click here.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Rufina K. Park

Rufina is the Paul Reynolds Post-Graduate Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a graduate of Harvard University's International Education Policy Master's Program

Debugging BC's Coding Curriculum with 'Help' from South Korea Preparing Students for South Korea’s Creative Economy: The Successes and Challenges of Educational Reform Teaching Resources: Recovery to Reconstruction: Nepal after the 2015 Earthquakes Read more >