Calls are growing to repeal the system of direct elections for education superintendents, after Seoul's education chief was found guilty last week of defaming his opponent during the 2014 election.
Choi Hi-yeon, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, was fined 5 million won ($4,700) Friday for spreading a false rumour about the opposing candidate Koh Seung-duk to damage his chances in the election. He retweeted a claim by a local reporter that Koh and his children had a US green card.
Under the Korean law, an elected official loses his or her post if sentenced to a prison term or a fine of 1 million won or more. Cho has already said that he will appeal, meaning he is likely to retain his post for at least several months. But the ruling is expected to present major hurdles to his education policies.
Cho said he would appeal to the Constitutional Court, saying the defamation clause cited against him infringes upon the freedom of expression during the election. The clause was challenged in 2008 by former lawmaker Lee Moo-young, but was ruled constitutional.
In light of Friday's ruling, an old debate about the direct election system reemerged.
The Korea Federation of Teacher's Associations, one of the most outspoken opponents of the system, claimed that the ruling demonstrates a well-known problem.
"Since the system was implemented in 2007, two out of four elected Seoul education chiefs were forced to step down due to scandals involving their election campaigns, while a third might go down the same path," said KFTA spokesman Kim Dong―seok. "This problem goes beyond personal blunders; it is derived from the structural problems of the direct election system."
Last year, the right-leaning teachers group filed a petition to the Constitutional Court to strike down the system. It claimed that using an election to choose an apolitical figure such as an education chief was contradictory, since running for election itself is a highly political action.
Korea's education superintendents ― entrusted with policies for primary and secondary education within a city or a province ― were originally appointed by the president. Amid calls for education autonomy, however, direct elections were adopted.
But since then, everyone who has been elected as Seoul education chief has stood trial for election misconduct. Two of Cho's predecessors ― Kwak No-hyun and Gong Jeong-taek ― were stripped of their positions.
A KFTA survey of 238 teachers conducted shortly before last week's ruling showed that 64 per cent of the respondents thought the direct election system had a negative impact on Korean education. Some 53 per cent said the biggest reason behind the reoccurring problems was the excessive competition among candidates.
Saenuri Party Rep. Won Yoo-chul said the current system forces candidates to spend large amounts of money, making them more susceptible to corruption.
"In the process of raising funds, (candidates) are easily involved in corruption. The system also allows wealthy people with political influence to have an edge over education experts," he said.
Won, who also heads the party's policy committee, announced that the committee would discuss possible alternatives to supplement the current system at the Saenuri Party's Supreme Council meeting Monday. Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung also told reporters that the Cho Hi-yeon situation prompted him to think that the current system was not working.
Among the possible alternatives was a "running mate" system, which pairs a candidate for a mayor or a governor with a candidate for a superintendent post. One of the problems cited by opponents of the direct election system was discord between the head of a regional government and the education chief.
Cho's predecessor Moon Yong-rin, a conservative, often butted heads with liberal Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon over key education policies.
Liberal candidates dominated the 2014 educational chief elections in 2014. The NPAD has criticised the ruling party's move to abolish the direct election as an attempt to overhaul the system as liberal candidates prevailed last year's elections against the conservative rivals.
The Korea Teachers and Education Workers' Union also refuted the calls to overhaul the system, saying such attempts ran "against the wave of education autonomy that is slowly taking root as a result of nationwide consent."
"Such calls are ridiculous as suggesting we should overhaul direct election of presidents, after a problem occurred during a presidential election. … Are they suggesting that we return to the past when the Education Ministry dictated everything and used education to serve its political purposes?" the KTU said in its statement.
Progressive education chiefs across the country also defended the current system.
Jang Hwi-kook, the education chief for Gwangju and the head of the superintendents' association, voiced his opposition about talks of abolishing the direct election system.
"Such an approach deals with an educational issue with a political purpose in mind. It is likely to disrupt educational autonomy," he said.
Lee Jae-jung, the education superintendent of Gyeonggi Province, also criticised such debates and said the more effective way of preventing election-related crimes would be to thoroughly verify each candidate's qualifications, suggesting that the authorities should implement a system to make this possible.
Last year's race for Seoul education chief turned into a dogfight after prominent candidates Cho, Koh and Moon Yong-rin began to hurl suspicions and criticisms at each other. Koh recently told local media that Cho's accusation of him having a US green card was the key reason he lost.