The Education Ministry was set Thursday to discuss disciplinary actions for 43 teachers who demanded President Park Geun-hye should quit to take responsibility for the deadly ferry sinking.
The move quickly became a topic of heated debate, as the left-leaning teachers' group bashed the government for attempting to muzzle people's opinions.
Last Wednesday, 43 teachers nationwide blasted Park via a joint manifesto on the website of presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. They blamed her administration for failing to take appropriate actions in the face of the Sewol ferry's sinking in April 16, which left more than 200 dead.
"Who is to blame? During a national disaster, everyone should collect their resources and wisdom. But the Park administration only attempted make fools of the people by controlling the press, a behaviour reminiscent of the military dictatorship of the past," the teachers said. "We now kick off a movement to demand that she step down."
The Education Ministry swiftly ordered education offices nationwide to identify the teachers and punish them. It quoted a law requiring all civil servants to be politically impartial and banning them from taking collective action unrelated to their jobs.
The ministry was to hold a meeting of vice education office chiefs in Korea at the government complex in Sejong City and discuss actions against the teachers.
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, the largest group of teachers in the country, held a rally in front of the government complex and urged the ministry not to punish the teachers.
"Park issued a tearful apology about how she was 'ultimately responsible' for the Sewol disaster. But behind our backs, she is vowing severe actions against the teachers who hold her accountable for the 'ultimate responsibility.' We have no choice but to question the sincerity of her apology," the KTU said. "If the same teachers wrote a joint statement praising her, would she have punished them for the same collective action?"
The ministry is also reportedly mulling whether to hold disciplinary actions against the more than 15,000 teachers who participated in the KTU's manifesto decrying the government actions in Sewol tragedy.
But it is unclear if the same charge will be pressed against them, since the KTU's manifesto did not call on Park to quit.
The KTU is expected to pursue legal battles against the government, but the current law is not in their favour. In 2009, then-President Lee Myung-bak's administration banned all civil servants from opposing government policies en masse, which was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.
"The regulation is principally flawed. The government virtually blocked all possibilities of any civil servant coming up with an opinion of their own through collective action," said law professor Jeong Tae-ho of Kyung Hee University.