Korea: Educators mourn the death of Lee Dong-Jin, a great education union leader

published 8 December 2020 updated 17 December 2020

Education International and the global education union community is saddened by the passing on 6 December of Lee Dong-Jin (68), a great education unionist, former leader of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) and former member of Education International’s Executive Board.

KTU: A life of dedication

“I am really shocked to hear of his passing,” said KTU International Director Hyunsu Hwang. “Lee Dong-Jin, my predecessor, dedicated his life to the Korean teachers' labour movement. In 2015, he retired from his teaching position, and then he moved to a small city located in the southern part of Korea. He was eager to start a new life as an organic farmer after his retirement.” He added Lee died tragically in a farm-related accident.

Lee’s entire life was closely linked to the history of the KTU and the Korean labour movement, he added. “When the KTU was established in 1989, the military government immediately made it an illegal organisation. He was imprisoned for forming the local chapters of the KTU that year. Over 1,500 teachers were dismissed on the grounds that they joined the teachers’ union.”

After a persistent and hard struggle for the legalisation of KTU over 10 years, KTU became a legal teachers’ union in 1999.

A relentless advocate at the global level

During that time, Lee’s attention was focused on informing the international education community of the terrible situation Korean teachers were confronted with, especially through Education International.

In 1998, for example, he was invited by the Australian Education Union (AEU) to deliver a speech about Korean teachers and their status at the AEU annual federal conference in Melbourne.

His relentless action successfully drew international attention to the plight of teachers in his country, put pressure on the South Korean government, and contributed to Lee being elected as an Executive Board member at Education International’s 2nd World Congress in Washington D.C. in 1998.

His election was a source of pride for KTU members struggling against severe attacks, “because our struggle for teachers’ union rights was acknowledged internationally”, Hwang recalled.

Education International: An activist at the heart of the Korean teachers’ labour movement

Education International’s President, Susan Hopgood, said Lee “was an incredible fighter for the members of the KTU and their right to have a legally registered union”, adding that his death “is such tragic news”.

Lee Dong-Jin was “a master at gaining support for KTU from unions internationally and using that successfully while campaigning at home”, she said. He dedicated his life not only to the Korean teachers’ labour movement, but also to the campaign to reform the Korean education system, she added.

“A great unionist, a truly great person and I am honoured to say, a dear friend. I have so many fond memories of him, including him coming to have dinner at my house with my family. He will be well remembered and very sadly missed,” Hopgood concluded.

Lee is survived by his wife and two sons. Education International expresses its heartfelt condolences to his relatives, friends, and community.