The Korean government on Thursday filed charges against some 200 teachers for calling for President Park Geun-hye to step down to take responsibility for the Sewol disaster.
The move by the Education Ministry is expected to reignite the debate over teachers’ freedom to issue political statements, as left-leaning groups have already protested what they claim are government attempts to muzzle unfavorable comments.
Last month, teachers across the country posted joint statements on the homepage of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae condemning the government for inappropriate responses to one of the worst maritime accidents in the country’s history.
“The Education Ministry planned to give the teachers, who violated the civil servants’ law and took part in the statement, a chance to explain themselves and carry out disciplinary measures,” the ministry said. The law requires all civil servants to be politically impartial and bans them from taking collective action unrelated to their jobs.
“But most of the participants and several local education offices are refusing to cooperate with the investigation, which forced us (to press charges).”
The punishment of the teachers has been a hot-button issue within the education circles.
It even boiled over to politics. The liberals claimed that the government was punishing anyone who is against it, while the conservatives said teachers should remain politically neutral as they exercise great influence over their students.
Just hours after the ministry’s announcement, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union released a statement denouncing the government for “misusing” its authority.
“No country in the world would regard a simple complaint as collective action by civil servants that is against the public’s interest,” it said. “Punishing such an act is an infringement of the very basic right to express oneself.”
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has already kicked off an official investigation on the case earlier this month, after right-leaning civic groups filed charges against the teachers.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)