Korean teachers’ call for quality education, trade union rights, and democracy met with intimidation

published 2 June 2023 updated 20 June 2023

On May 20th, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) held its National Teacher's Congress at Cheonggye Plaza in Seoul. The congress celebrated the 34th anniversary of the KTU and challenged the Yoon Seokyeol administration's regressive education policies. The government responded with a search and seizure at the union’s offices on fabricated charges.

“Education unions everywhere stand in solidarity with our colleagues in KTU. We call on the Korean government to respect trade union rights and engage in meaningful social dialogue with teachers and their union.”

David Edwards | Education International General Secretary

Teacher mobilisation against regressive government policies

The Congress brought together over 2,500 teachers from across the country in opposition to government plans to cut the number of teachers in Korean classrooms to account for a decline in the country’s population. The KTU strongly opposes such cuts because schools need more teachers to ensure quality education, regardless of the birthrate.

In her Congress opening speech, Heeyoung Jeon, KTU President, said: “Just one year after Yoon took power, we are in the midst of a period of total regression and tyranny. Let us advance towards schools where education is possible by fighting for wage increases and securing the number of teachers. Over the past 34 years, the KTU has always been at the forefront. Let us fight together to bring down the Yoon Seokyeol administration, which destroys education, labour, livelihoods, democracy, and peace. Let’s create a fairer and more just nation for people.”

A rally was also organised, with a group of young teachers giving a performance on stage in which they graded the Yoon administration’s education policy with an “F”, calling for a joint action of young teachers and the renewal of the KTU.

KTU rally on 20 May 2023

Participants marched to Namdaemun with over 200 flags, along with the songs Teachers are workers, We shall overcome, and KTU’s anthem. At the end of the rally, Congress adopted a resolution emphasizing that they would honour the determination and sacrifices of KTU senior teachers who shed blood, sweat, and tears during the difficult times of 1989 when the KTU was established. Teachers are determined to block Yoon Seokyeol’s retrograde policies against labour rights, human rights, and education, creating a path to victory. Teachers vowed to fight for the legislation on the maximum number of students per class in order to ensure an appropriate number of teachers and to achieve a real salary increase.

Korean teachers in solidarity with Iranian colleagues

The KTU Congress also gave Korean teachers the opportunity to celebrate and honour the work of colleagues of the Coordinating Council of Iranian Teacher Trade Association (CCITTA). The union has been working for democracy and human rights in Iran since its establishment in 2002. In recognition of these courageous efforts, CCITTA has been awarded the 2023 Gwangju Special Prize for Human Rights. This prize is awarded by the May 18 Memorial Foundation to individuals or organisations who have contributed to promoting human rights and democracy both domestically and internationally.

Shiva Amelirad of CCITTA addressing KTU colleagues

To receive the prize, Shiva Amelirad, the representative of the CCITTA International Committee, visited the KTU headquarters. The following day, she attended the teachers' rally, where she spoke about the situation of Iranian teachers who are struggling in difficult circumstances, concluding her speech by stating that "resistance is life".

Government responds to union mobilisation with illegal search and intimidation

Just days after the KTU Congress, on the morning of May 23rd, the Korean National Intelligence Service and the National Police conducted an illegal search and seizure at the Gangwon branch of the KTU and at the home of its head, on charges of violating the National Security Law.

According to Jang Young-ju, Secretary General of the KTU, "they broke into the residence without presenting a warrant, searched and confiscated mobile phones. Then, they surrounded the Gangwon branch office with 200 police officers, claiming that they would search the desk and computer of the parties concerned under the pretext of a search and seizure warrant. The police, who stayed for six hours, faithfully escorted the National Intelligence Service, who left with an empty search and seizure box.”

Police at the Gangwon branch of the KTU

The KTU firmly condemned these repression and intimidation efforts. On the afternoon of the 25th of May, the KTU held a press conference in front of the presidential office in Yongsan to protest against the Yoon Seok-yeol government's actions, stating: "Don't try to cover up your incompetence by cracking down on the KTU. Fabrications and crackdowns on teachers and their union are unacceptable. We condemn the Yoon Seokyeol administration."

KTU press conference

Condemning the attack, Education International General Secretary David Edwards stressed that “education unions everywhere stand in solidarity with our colleagues in KTU. We call on the Korean government to respect trade union rights and engage in meaningful social dialogue with teachers and their union.”