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.
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.
PETITIONS TO PROTECT DEMOCRATIC 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."
Norma Kang Muico, an Amnesty International researcher, sees deterioration. "[Since] our report last October on the policing of the candlelight protests, hundreds of civilians have been convicted of violating the Assembly and Demonstration Act," she says. "There have been no prosecutions of riot police, despite ample evidence ... of human rights violations committed by some police officials."
Roh Moo-hyun, Lee's predecessor, committed suicide in late May amid a bribery probe. Many called it "political murder," saying Lee had tried to tarnish opponents. In a widely criticized move, the government dispatched thousands of police to surround City Hall and block gatherings of mourners.
Petitions began to emerge calling for the protection of democratic freedoms. Professors at Seoul National University released the first, leading to a flood of others. Those joining in included a group from President Lee's alma mater, Korea University, and the Korean Teachers' and Education Workers' Union (KTU).
In announcing punishment of the union, the Education Ministry cited laws that apply to civil servants and teachers' unions, but not professors, that supposedly bar them from group political activity.
Im Byung-koo, the KTU's director in Incheon, notes the KTU released a similar statement during rallies last year. "As people who have to teach children [about recent events]," he says, "we thought, 'It's time for us to speak about democracy.' "
MINISTRY: WE NEED TO PROTECT STUDENTS FROM POLITICAL INFLUENCE
Mr. Im and 20 other KTU officials now face being fired and barred from teaching for three years. Dozens face suspension, and more than 20,000 petitioners may be punished through their schools.
Some experts say the move violates laws of the International Labor Organization, to which South Korea belongs. "[The] law can prevent political proselytizing in the classroom by teachers, but cannot restrict their participation in political affairs in society at large," says Lance Compa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
An Education Ministry official acknowledged the punishment was "rare," but needed to prevent educators from exerting political influence over students. In a late-June poll, just over 50 percent of respondents said they opposed the punishment of the KTU, but more than 30 percent supported it.
The union plans to fight the action in court.
JJ Kim contributed to this report.