Controversy rises over teachers’ right to political freedom

Controversy rises over teachers’ right to political freedom

Korean teachers recently protested en masse the government's move to punish 43 teachers who criticised President Park Geun-hye, fueling the debate about how much leeway should be given to teachers taking political action.

On the homepage of presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, some 80 teachers on Wednesday urged the Education Ministry to cancel its earlier decision to punish the 43 teachers. They said that the government, which came under fire for its bungled response to the sinking of the Sewol that left 300 dead or missing, was very swift to punish those who pointed out its faults.

"The (43 teachers') manifesto that Park should quit is a desperate cry and shows their will to make sure such a tragedy does not reoccur," they said, urging the president to step down. The Education Ministry started discussing disciplinary action for those teachers on Thursday.

In Korea, the law requires civil servants to be politically impartial and they are banned from taking collective action unrelated to their jobs.

Since the ferry sinking, there has been an ongoing debate about how much teachers should be allowed to publicly express their opinions about politically sensitive issues. This hot-button issue also was covered by the candidates running for Seoul education chief in the June 4 local elections.

Cho Hi-yeon, the candidate from the liberal bloc, said teachers are entitled to their own political opinions.

"Teachers too are citizens of this country. They can express their opinions. The Sewol tragedy sparked nationwide fury (toward the government), and teachers should also be allowed to say that something is wrong," he said. Cho said the trend of restricting teachers' political expression should change in order for Korea to become an advanced country.

Conservatives on the other hand said teachers should not express their political opinions.

"Students should not be exposed to political prejudice. Teachers must refrain from collective actions driven by political motivation," said Koh Seung-duk, a conservative candidate for the Seoul education chief post. He said if teachers wanted to make a political comment, they should identify themselves as average citizens.

The debate has involved the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, the largest union of teachers in the country.

Some hail it as the symbol of teachers taking a stance in a democratic society, others label it as politically motivated and biased, but hardly anyone in education circles is able to overlook the outspoken, left-leaning body.

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