Korea’s education minister withdraws discipline warning over strike

Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said he would work with relevant government bodies to help teachers recover from emotional or psychological difficulties.

Park Jun-hee

Park Jun-hee

The Korea Herald


Funeral wreaths are placed outside Seoi Elementary School in Seoul's Seocho-gu, central Seoul, to commemorate the death of a 23-year-old teacher who took her own life in July. PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD

September 6, 2023

SEOUL – Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said Tuesday that teachers who participated in a rally on Monday wouldn’t be punished, officially withdrawing his warning that such collective action “constitutes an illegal strike.”

During his meeting with the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations and the Korean Federation of Teachers Unions, the minister announced that there wouldn’t be any disciplinary action taken against teachers and that he would listen to their voices regarding the improved protection of their rights.

Lee said he would work with relevant government bodies to help teachers recover from emotional or psychological difficulties and that the ministry would communicate weekly with teachers to resolve issues related to schools.

The minister repeated his promise from a day before, when he was asked by Rep. Kang Hoon-sik of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea if teachers would be punished.

Under the current legislation, teachers — who are public servants — must take time off or use sick leave to attend a protest, as public school teachers don’t have the right to take collective action or strike. If they do, they can be disciplined per regulations on disciplinary measures for educational civil servants, according to the ministry.

“The Yoon Suk Yeol government will thoroughly take care of (enhancing) teachers’ rights,” the minister added, referring to the president’s instructions to spare no effort in guaranteeing teachers’ rights and improving public education.

A senior official at the Education Ministry told The Korea Herald that the decision was made to honor the recent deaths of teachers who died in apparent suicides, as well as to restore teachers’ autonomy.

Late last month, the Education Ministry sternly warned that school principals could face “serious disciplinary action,” including dismissal from their positions and even criminal charges, if they approve of teachers taking the day off for any other reason than being sick, saying that teachers would be “abandoning their duties.”

The minister also pleaded that teachers refrain from taking a day off to engage in the rally, saying they should stay by students’ sides and that their actions might “violate students’ right to learn.”

Despite the government’s caution, however, an estimated 120,000 teachers on Monday took to the streets nationwide, demanding that the government investigate the truth behind the death of a 23-year-old teacher who died in an apparent suicide in July. Many believe she suffered from stress due to complaints from parents and unruly students.

The teachers further demanded that parliament pass a bill to grant teachers immunity from child abuse claims. The largest rally took place in front of the National Assembly in central Seoul, with some 50,000 teachers and their supporters in attendance, according to organizers, while the police estimated some 25,000 attendees were present.

A total of 38 schools temporarily closed their doors due to a shortage of educational personnel, with Seoul having the highest number at 12, as of Monday at 5 p.m., according to data provided by the ministry. Parent volunteers even turned up at schools in support of teachers taking the day off for the strike.

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