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Is South Korea backsliding on its democracy movement?

Teachers, citizens barred from political organizing.

By Ben HancockContributor / September 14, 2009

Seoul, South Korea

Thousands of schoolteachers who joined a civic movement calling for protection of democratic freedoms face punishment by the South Korean government, which says they violated their role as public servants.

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Eighty-nine members of a union are under criminal investigation for their part in organizing the petition that set off the controversy. Some were jailed; the union's main offices were raided by police.

While the government alleges the teachers broke several laws, the union and some in the international community say this is another example of how South Korea is clamping down on dissent.

A few months after its inauguration in February 2008, the administration of President Lee Myung-bak gave the nod to turning firehoses and tear gas on protesters for the first time since 1997, as candlelight rallies against US beef imports swelled.

Not long after, Mr. Lee began removing liberal figures from state-affiliated news outlets. The resulting uproar eventually brought the head of the International Federation of Journalists to Seoul, urging guarantees for press freedoms.


Early this year, prosecutors arrested and indicted Park Dae-sung, who tore into the administration's economic policies on the popular Internet forum Agora. He was acquitted of charges of spreading misinformation, but the government has appealed.

South Korea has made great strides in strengthening democracy since ousting a military dictatorship some 20 years ago. But some – including the late President Kim Dae-jung, Korea's only Nobel Peace Prize laureate – have warned of backsliding.

Others are cautious. "While it does seem ... that some old patterns from the predemocratic past have resurfaced," says Clark Sorensen, a Korea expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, "it is difficult to judge the extent to which this is just appearance and the extent to which it is reality."