Abuse of power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2003, 12:00am

Many people in South Korea are grieved by the hopeless problems in the education system. That sense of hopelessness grew on Tuesday as the nation mourned the suicide of a 56-year-old elementary school principal. The funeral, at a stadium in the central South Korean town of Yesan, was a reminder of just how bad South Korean schools have become.

The principal killed himself after allegedly being criticised and harassed by the teachers union over claims that he abused his power. As head of a small elementary school, he is said to have forced one young female teacher to make tea for him.

In his suicide note, the principal claimed he could not stand the constant threats from the union, which had demaded an apology. The union claims it merely wanted an explanation and did not use harsh language. Nobody knows exactly what happened. But one thing is clear: South Korea's young teachers and their union have become too demanding, political and sometimes rude.

There are historical reasons. Under recent dictatorial regimes, teachers were banned from forming unions and have only been allowed to act collectively in the past few years.

Many who belong to unions are selfless, idealistic and youthful teachers who want to change the backward education system, which is marred by authoritarian principals and vice-principals. Bribes from parents are common.

But in the process of making schools more democratic, some union leaders have gone too far, and the issue is not unrelated to the overall labour movement in South Korea in recent years. Labour unions have, in general, become so political that they demand not only higher pay and better working conditions, but also political and social changes.

Many young teachers were instrumental in fanning the flames of anti-Americanism in South Korea last year after two schoolgirls were killed by an American military vehicle.

Some teachers intimidated young children by showing pictures of the girls' bodies. As a result, many children now hate the US, for not very convincing reasons.

As demographics shift and the 56-year-old President Roh Moo-hyun and his aides take centre stage, South Korea's younger generation is becoming a mainstream force in society. But their reckless idealism can victimise older people, such as the school principal in Yesan.