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SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's government on Tuesday said it would publish history textbooks for use in schools from 2017, taking a step necessary to strip current teaching of its "ideological bias".
The move to stop use of textbooks written by private-sector scholars and issued by private publishers capped weeks of debate about whether it was democratic for the government to dictate how the country's turbulent modern history is taught.
It also fueled suspicion about President Park Geun-hye's motive in adopting the policy, amid sharply divided views of the leadership of her father, Park Chung-hee.
Park, who took power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until his assassination in 1979, is credited with building modern and industrial South Korea, but at the expense of democracy.
Many private textbooks now used by middle and high schools try to glorify arch-rival North Korea by discrediting the achievements of the capitalistic South, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said.
"We can no longer allow the use of distorted and biased history textbooks to teach our precious children," he told a news conference. "We have to fix the way history textbooks are published so we can make a correct textbook."
As an example of distortion, he cited the blame some textbooks place on major ally the United States for a 2010 attack on a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan. Others do not mention the attack at all, Hwang said.
South Korea says the North was responsible for the attack, however, although Pyongyang denies any role. The neighbors remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.
Existing government curbs, such as a process of approval for private textbooks, were futile, Hwang said, because many teachers were ideologically left-leaning, while publishers often flouted orders to correct inaccuracies.
Last week Park defended government publication as necessary to spur pride in the country's achievements.
But her critics called the move a setback for democracy, saying it proved the government's intent to stifle diverse views of history and gloss over South Korea's painful struggle to attain democracy.
"A state-issued history textbook will not only beautify dictatorship, but is itself dictatorship," said Moon Jae-in, the leader of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
A similar system operated during Park's father's tenure, besides nowadays in North Korea, he added.
But Prime Minister Hwang rejected as "impossible" the idea that a state-issued textbook was a bid to glorify dictatorship in the modern South.
"This society is mature enough to have no forgiveness for that," he added.
Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez