LONG lines formed outside the gates of prestigious Yonsei University on a recent weekend as battalions of riot troops and security police screened would-be entrants to the campus. The police presence was part of a nationwide deployment to block rallies in support of South Korea's nascent National Teachers Union (NTU).
Since this spring, the South Korean government has waged a massive and unrelenting effort to suppress the union. The government has combined public propaganda with arrests of union leaders and dismissal of union members. The fight for the right of teachers to unionize, still illegal under Korean law, has become a major domestic issue.
Even before the union was formally founded on May 28, the Ministry of Education was conducting a public tirade against it. An advertisement placed in all major daily papers warned parents that a union would radicalize Korean youth, disrupt their education, and diminish the image of respect traditionally accorded the teacher in Korean society.
Still the initial efforts of the union organizers gained considerable support. According to the NTU, about 20,000 elementary, middle school, and high school teachers joined up, along with 465 college professors. (There are about 400,000 teachers nationwide). A public opinion survey conducted by the National Assembly showed the union had the support of 84 percent of teachers and the backing of 51 percent of the population.
The NTU tapped into two major wellsprings of support. One was the sympathy for the teachers' plight, for their low wages, and their desire to have more freedom from the strict control exercised by the Ministry of Education. But more potent perhaps was the broader discontent that many Koreans feel over the state of the educational system.
Korea's educational system, like that of neighboring Japan on which it is largely modeled, draws praise from abroad for the high standards of achievement as reflected in standardized tests, and for the hard work and discipline of the classrooms. At home, however, there is widespread criticism for the emphasis on rote memorization and the intense focus on passing high school and university entrance exams.
Getting through the ``exam hell'' guarantees a better job. Still, many Koreans complain the system unfairly benefits the rich who are able to pay for private tutors and after-hours cram schools which prepare students simply to pass the exams. Some years ago the government banned private tutoring in response to that outcry. But the law proved unenforcible and is de facto repealed.
The NTU has attacked a system which it says only benefits the minority who go to college.
``In order for education to be for the people, it should not deepen the gap and discrimination that exists in the society,'' says Hang Ho Young, spokesman for the union. The union seeks to open discussion of educational reform to students and parents who also have ``no access to the decisionmaking process.'' President Roh Tae Woo, in a nationwide radio address on the union issue, acknowledged such concerns. He spoke of ``stereotyped education geared solely to preparing students for entrance exams'' and ``rigid, bureaucratic educational administration.''
The NTU has also called for ``true education,'' charging that the content of education contains ``undemocratic'' and ``antinationalistic'' ideas.
According to NTU spokesman Mr. Hang, a history teacher, the textbooks, which must be approved by the Ministry of Education, ``legitimize dictatorships'' by praising the previous military-dominated governments. The books fail to promote the ``independence and autonomy of our nation,'' he says.
The ministry agreed last week to delete from textbooks controversial passages praising the regime of Gen. Chun Doo Hwan who was forced to step down by massive popular protests in 1987. But the revisions will not take place till 1992. Until then teachers are advised to teach only ``historical facts.''
The Roh government has countered the NTU's claim to be promoting ``democratization'' with its own campaign characterizing the union as a left-wing organization seeking to spread radical ideas in the classroom. In his radio speech, the former Army general turned politician accused the teachers of teaching pro-North Korean views. The union acknowledges that this effort has been quite effective in reducing their support in the population.
According to evidence presented to the National Assembly by independent Assemblyman Lee Chul, a task force of 11 government agencies planned the effort to ``crush the teachers union.'' Mr. Lee charges that the government funded and organized about 10 groups, including the right wing ``Freedom Federation,'' veterans associations, and others which mounted a huge public campaign labeling the NTU as pro-communist.
``The job of politicians is to bring about a compromise,'' argues Lee. ``But government controlled organizations are furthering the division of opinion and trying to force these people [referring to the union] into an extreme position and into confrontation.''
Earlier in the spring the three major opposition parties passed a revision of the labor law which would have allowed teachers and other civil servants below a certain rank the right to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike. The Roh administration vetoed that legislation which NTU leaders say left them no choice but to form an illegal union.
The government arrested 49 teachers for organizing activity, including the union president, and threatened all union members with dismissal. Clashes took place with police as students rallied in many locales to support the teachers. According to the Ministry of Education, 1,461 teachers have been fired since the crackdown began in late July. About 11,000 withdrew from the union under pressure. The union claims about 8,000 dues-paying members remain, though many consider even that figure too high.
A previous attempt to form a teachers union, following the overthrow of President Synghman Rhee's dictatorship in 1960, met a similar fate. After the military takeover in 1961, the union was smashed, and heavy sentences were handed out to its leaders.
Opposition politician Lee advised union organizers against moving too quickly to form the union. He says he also opposes granting the right to strike to teachers and other civil servants. But banning the union, he insists, ``is against our constitution and democracy.''