As the stir created by the suicide of Bosung Elementary School principal continues to spread, parts of the media have launched a "witch-hunt" aimed at the National Teachers' Union (NTU) and the schoolteacher involved. This has prompted a call on the media to put a stop to irresponsible and judgmental reports.
What is even more worrying is that the sparks flying off this case are threatening to burn women schoolteachers, who are already bearing the brunt of much discrimination at work.
The principal of Bosung Elementary School, a 48-year-old Mr. Suh, committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree next to his mother's house in Chungnam province. He was discovered around 10 a.m. on April 4. Part of the media took up the case and condemned the NTU, reporting that when Suh had forced a woman intern teacher to serve him tea, undermined her authority as a teacher and derogated the NTU, the NTU applied undue pressure on Suh by demanding a formal apology.
Countering such accusations, the NTU held a press conference on April 9 and claimed, "Reforms are in order in an education system where it is openly stated that 'entertainment of superiors' is part of schoolteachers' duties, particularly women schoolteachers' duties. Suh's death is regretful, but it is wrong to condemn the entire NTU when the exact reasons behind the suicide have yet to be discovered."
Through its editorial on April 9 entitled "NTU, look at yourself now in the mirror of your original intentions," The Chosun Ilbo accused the NTU of "creating a legacy of negative influence on education with its over-enthusiasm, political rather than educational struggles, ideological tendencies, self-righteousness and obstinacy, and a self-centered attitude that challenges vested interests while seeking to maximize its own profits." In short, The Chosun Ilbo seems out to blame the whole suicide incident on the NTU.
The JoongAng Ilbo joined the witch-hunt with its article on April 8 entitled "Funeral Turns into Censorial Debate on NTU." The article condemns the NTU and the schoolteacher involved as murderers, using such expressions as "the principal who committed suicide due to harassment from the NTU demanding his apology."
The possibility that such pronouncements of the "death sentence" on the NTU and the schoolteacher even before the conclusion of fact-finding would mislead the public has led to a call on the media to restrain itself.
The Hankyoreh , for example, expressed its concern through an editorial on April 9 saying, "In a situation where the motive behind the suicide has yet to be confirmed, extreme precaution must be taken against those who to want to put the entire blame on an organization that it has always considered a pain in the neck."
The intern teacher in question, a Ms. Jin, says, "For picking up the courage to speak out against injustice, I have become the target of hurling accusations. I have lost all hope, even before realizing my dream of becoming a teacher."
The National Parents' Association for Good Education issued a statement saying, "That women teachers are still forced to serve tea is a reflection of the undemocratic school administration system that has failed to break away from outdated practices and authoritarian inclinations." The statement goes on to claim that "unilateral condemnation of a specific group or individual even before the truth of the case is discovered will lead to even greater conflict."
A schoolteacher belonging to the Gyeongbuk branch of the NTU posted an article on the Internet expressing her concerns. After "offering the deepest condolences to the bereaved family," she went on to say, "Nevertheless, the savage slander against all of NTU's past achievements is going too far." Her worry is shared by a considerable number of women teachers who are hoping against hope that the incident will not become a stumbling block in seeking rightful treatment for women teachers.
As one netizen put it, "No amount of justification can make up for a person's death, and the schoolteacher involved should apologize, but it is a pity that the gravity of the situation has scared off a much-needed debate on the unacceptable practice of degrading women teachers to the extent of forcing them to serve tea to principals."
Park (aged 28), who works in an elementary school points out, "There is no mention anywhere of the tremendous psychological suffering that the teacher in question must have gone through in asking the principal for an apology in an environment that is so conservative that even joining the NTU requires considerable courage. The incident has become an alarm signal for the treatment of women teachers, which is bad enough as it is."
Kim Mi-young, director of welfare at the NTU, expressed her frustration, saying, "The teacher involved is clearly also a victim, but media coverage bent on sensationalism has suddenly turned her into a murderer. How much longer must we wait for people to stop thinking that it's perfectly alright for women teachers to serve tea? The ridiculous turn of events following the suicide has deprived women teachers facing similar discrimination of even the right to complain."