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Principal's suicide gives nation a culture shock


THE death of a 57-year-old school principal who hanged himself from a tree earlier this month has led to disputes between two rival unions with calls for a culture change in South Korea's schools.

Seo Seung-mok killed himself after a dispute with a female teacher at his school, but left no note. His death has prompted one teacher union to call for a change in the centuries-old Confucian-based tradition of respecting and obeying one's elders - especially if they are male.

The Korean Teachers and Educational Workers' Union, or Chongyojo, made up of 40,000 mostly junior teachers, wants to scrap the age-and-sex-dominated hierarchy for a more Westernised system based on ability and performance.

"The unfortunate death underscores the urgent need to get rid of the unreasonable customs and feudalistic hierarchy remaining in schools," said Song Won-jae, the group's spokesman.

However, the 182,000-strong Korean Federation of Teachers Association has expressed outrage at Chongyojo's stance.

The exact details of what drove Seo to take his life may never be known. On April 4, he left his house early in the morning to make his daily visit to his 78-year-old mother. When he did not return for breakfast, his wife searched and found him hanging by a nylon washing line from a ginkgo tree.

Events leading up to the suicide are disputed by Chongyojo on one side, and the Korean Federation of Teachers Association and Seo's wife on the other.

Chongyojo says that Seo and his deputy at Bosung elementary school in Yesan - 60 miles south of Seoul, told 28-year-old teacher Jin Ha-kyong to serve them tea whenever they wanted - even if she was teaching.

Jin refused and said that Seo threatened to dismiss her. She then complained to Chongyojo, which publicly accused Seo of sexual discrimination and demanded that he apologise in writing. He refused to do so.

The Korean Federation of Teachers Association claims Chongyojo then launched a campaign of "systematic pressure and unjust intervention" against Seo.

Seo's wife, Kim Soon-hee, said the union's "threats drove my husband to take his life". She is suing Jin and four Chongyojo members for alleged defamation, for accusing her husband of sexual discrimination.

Chongyojo denies that its actions drove Seo to kill himself, citing instead a meeting two days before he died as a possible factor. The group claims that on April 4, Seo attended a meeting of principals in which his peers may have belittled him for being challenged by a younger, female staff member.

Parents of pupils at Bosung have stopped their children attending the school and say they will not return them until all teachers who are members of Chongyojo are dismissed.

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