Teachers protest ferry disaster response

By Yoon Min-sik

Progressive teachers’ group holds rallies against government handling of Sewol sinking

  • Published : May 18, 2014 - 20:54
  • Updated : May 18, 2014 - 22:02

Thousands of people in Korea’s education circles have launched an offensive against the government after a monthlong investigation revealed its poor handling of the Sewol tragedy.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union marched on the streets of Seoul on Saturday to protest what they called the gross incompetence of the authorities in the fatal accident that claimed over 200 lives, most of them high school students.

Some 6,000 members of the left-leaning Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union held President Park Geun-hye responsible for the series of irregularities leading to the sinking.

They also demanded that the Seoul government involve the private sector in the probe to track down those responsible. After the rally, the KTU and other civic organizations held a candlelight vigil to denounce the government.
Citizens hold a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster in Cheonggyecheon Square in Seoul on Saturday with police buses surrounding the area. (Yonhap)

Saturday’s rally epitomized teachers’ growing distrust of the government since the Sewol ferry sank on April 16. On Thursday, over 15,000 teachers across the country signed a manifesto decrying the government and its supposed inappropriate actions in dealing with the tragedy.

A joint police-prosecution investigation team said last week the Coast Guard had a chance to save all the passengers in the initial stages of the incident, but failed to do so.

“I simply do not understand what the Coast Guard, the government and the president were thinking as nearly 300 people went underwater, right before their eyes,” said Kim Myung-ha, who heads the KTU branch in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, where many of the victims attended school.

The students were instructed by the ship’s crew to wait inside their cabins when the vessel began to capsize. Children dutifully waited for over an hour as the ship submerged.

Investigators also found that the Sewol had been decommissioned and illegally renovated last year to carry more cargo. The revelation sparked safety concerns in virtually every sector of society.

“Park’s excessive focus on deregulation was why the entrepreneurs paid no attention to the pricey safety measures. The president is using her unparalleled powers to protect the large corporations’ profits, not the lives of citizens,” said a teacher who participated in the rally.

On Wednesday, 43 teachers wrote on the presidential office’s website that Park should take responsibility for the Sewol and step down.

They also claimed that the government made a fool of the people by regulating information related to the Sewol.

The accusation seems to refer to a recent media report that the government had ordered the Korea Communications Commission to monitor and control media coverage related to the Sewol. While the KCC maintained its activities were to prevent false reports, the report sparked criticism that the government is muzzling the press.

The Education Ministry responded by ordering education offices around the country to identify the 43 teachers and take disciplinary actions against them. It said they violated the law prohibiting civil servants from taking collective actions unrelated to their jobs.

The KTU bashed the government for overreacting to simple complaints. They pointed out that while collective actions punishable by the law must be proven to either be against public interest or capable of influencing others to neglect their duties, the teachers’ postings fall under neither of these categories.

“Those teachers acted upon their basic responsibilities as teachers and parents,” said Choe Han-sung, a candidate for Daejeon’s education chief. “To punish them would be to effectively declare that (the government) will turn back time to the military dictatorship era. The people of Korea will never condone such an attempt.”

The threats by the authorities did little to dampen the morale of infuriated teachers; if anything, it spurred them on.

A teacher at a school in Seoul said most teachers were obliged to express their opinions about the Sewol tragedy because most of the victims were students. A survey by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations showed that the tragic incident had emotionally scarred around half of the teachers in the country.

As teachers stepped up criticism of the government, others in education circles joined them. Two joint declarations were recently announced ― by professors from Yonsei and Kyung Hee University ― that blasted the government for its handling of the accident. Seoul National University and other universities across the country are reportedly seeking to follow suit.

By Yoon Min-sik (