Top Seoul educator walking tightrope
Supreme Court set to rule on Kwak’s bribery case
By Kim Bo-eun
As the National Assembly has approved nominations of three Supreme Court justices, the court is expected to soon set the date for sentencing Seoul’s top educator Kwak No-hyun who is charged with bribery.
The ruling on Kwak’s case has been delayed due to weeks of partisan bickering over the qualification of a justice nominee, former Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office head Kim Byeong-hwa. Kim withdrew last week following corruption allegations raised against him.
The court said it will choose a justice who will deal with Kwak’s case in early August and fix a date for the ruling. The justice that had been in charge of the case retired last month.
The ruling delay was an embarrassment for the 58-year-old liberal educator as well as teachers in Seoul.
Kwak had been at odds with the education ministry over his school policies, which conservatives criticized as radical or unrealistic. Analysts say the conflict represents a widening ideological divide between the conservative government and liberal-controlled education offices.
Kwak was indicted in September last year on charges of bribing a rival candidate to drop out of the 2010 election. A district court found Kwak guilty and fined him 30 million won ($26,400) without imposing a jail sentence, so he was able to return to work. A jail sentence would have meant he must step down as superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE).
In April, an appellate court sentenced him to 18 months in prison in April, saying the 30 million won fine by a lower court was too light. The court however deferred the prison sentence until the Supreme Court ruling, allowing Kwak to continue to serve as Seoul’s education chief until then.
Under the Election Law, if a person elected to a public post is given a penalty which is greater than a fine of 1 million won, he or she will be stripped of the post. If the Supreme Court confirms Kwak’s jail sentence, he will have to step down as chief of the education office.
If the Supreme Court hands down a prison sentence to Kwak before Nov. 19, which is 30 days prior to the presidential election, reelection of the superintendent will take place together with the presidential election on Dec. 19. But if the ruling is given after that date, reelection will have to take place in April next year.
On July 10, Kwak held a press conference commemorating the second anniversary of his taking office, and announced plans for his remaining term.
The main policies included innovating curriculum content to encourage critical thinking and practical problem-solving skills along with implementing a system which allocates the budget to alleviate the gap between the rich and poor in education.
When reporters asked about the prospects of his school polices in case he has to step down, the education chief quoted the words of Dutch philosopher Spinoza “Even if the world comes to an end tomorrow, I will plant an apple tree today,” adding that he believed this was the right attitude.
“The policies were devised together by all the staff members of the office, so the office will see to it that the policies are not canceled,” he said.
It is uncertain whether he will be able to finish his term. But his early departure is expected to cause confusion as it’s uncertain whether his successor will actually continue his policies.
Kwak is known for his liberal policies such as providing free school lunches and ensuring students’ rights. An ordinance which was made public in January this year allows students to hold assemblies and rallies on school grounds, prohibits corporal punishment and discrimination based on student pregnancies or sexual orientation, and doesn’t restrict clothing or hairstyle.
The education office also introduced another follow-up measure that took effect early this year, which designated a human rights officer who is empowered to investigate cases of students’ rights violations in schools.
The policies have been criticized by conservative educators, including Education Minister Lee Ju-ho as being too radical and lacking social consensus.
It is uncertain whether the ban on physical punishment of students will be kept. Some conservative teachers’ groups have called for annulling the ban, saying it is difficult for teachers to discipline misbehaving students.
Some education officials are even calling for a revision of the law to abolish elections for regional education chiefs and make the president or education minister appoint them.