SEOUL, South Korea — There are three kinds of teachers in South Korea's primary and secondary schools, Noh Woong Hee was explaining Thursday: those who go with the flow of the government's doctrinaire curriculum, those hoping for promotion who preach it with gusto and those who rebel against it.
Noh, who was fired last April, counts himself among the last group, a small minority. Thursday, still out of the mainstream but eager to return to his classroom, Noh and more than 20 other teachers wound up a four-day hunger strike designed to call attention to their cause.
Their revolt is minuscule. South Korea has more than 300,000 primary and secondary school teachers. According to Noh, about 200 have been fired since Chun took power in 1980, about half of them in an initial purge of presumed leftists that included other government employees and journalists.
In the political turmoil of this year, a larger number of professors were expelled from university faculties, but many of them have been given or promised reinstatement. Dismissed high school, junior high and elementary teachers have been largely passed over in the government's recent conciliatory policy.
To call attention to their fate, Noh and others began a sit-in at the Seoul offices of the Korean National Council of Churches Human Rights Committee, culminating in this week's hunger strike and a Thursday night rally.
But there has been no sign of an immediate government response.
"I can bear it," Noh said of the discomfort of his strike. "Any teacher interested in the younger generation has to face these problems. I had this belief that students must be taught to think to qualify as future leaders."
To Noh and the others who said they had swallowed only water during their protest, that meant going beyond the curriculum, encouraging outside reading and even questioning the content of government-authorized textbooks.
Specifically, he said, he and some other teachers had "analyzed" the approved line on dealing with the touchy political question of eventual reunification with Communist-ruled North Korea. They had prepared a manuscript of their conclusions--that the textbooks' strong anti-Communist line was designed to use fear to prolong the power of President Chun Doo Hwan's military-dominated government. But it was seized before it could be distributed.
Noh concedes that he was a "problem teacher" in the eyes of the authorities, taking it as a compliment. He was reassigned from his position as a geography instructor at Seoul Commercial High School to a post on an island school off the port of Inchon. When he refused to go, he said, he was fired.
Last month, Education Minister Suh Myong Won, speaking of organizational efforts by dissident teachers, urged caution in testing the government approach in "the great task of educating innocent youngsters." He was not specifically addressing challenges to the content of textbooks and curriculum, but the warning was clear.
Government officials in the past have accused rebellious teachers of seeing just one side of the coin on the question of relations with North Korea. Noh, for instance, decried what he called an indoctrination of hatred and fear in the government curriculum. He told of an 8-year-old boy who approached a fellow teacher and asked for instruction in wrestling to protect himself from any invaders from the north.
But asked what he thought North Korean textbooks contain on the question of reunification policy, he said he does not know.
Another dismissed teacher, Chung Young Hoon, taught 10-year-olds in a Seoul fifth-grade classroom before he was fired last December. He drew the wrath of his principal when he refused to order his pupils to say a silent prayer at a monument to the late President Syngman Rhee. "I said he was a dictator," Chung recalled.