[Reportage] University instructor struck down for ‘impure lectures’

Posted on : 2014-10-06 06:20 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Former NIS director Won Sei-hoon was exonerated of breaking Election Law, but Yoo So-hee was convicted

By Jeong Eun-joo, Hankyoreh 21 staff reporter

“She took advantage of her position to support an opposition candidate in the election.”

Yoo, 47, who used to lecture in the sociology department at Yeungnam University, stood in the dock, accused of violating Article 85 of the Public Official Election Act. This is the same article that Won Sei-hoon, former director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), was charged with violating. But while the court cleared Won of charges, it found Yoo guilty.

Prosecutors’ pressure for having chosen only Hankyoreh articles

Yoo, who completed her doctoral coursework in sociology at Paris Descartes University, had been giving sociology lectures at Yeungnam University since 2008. She taught liberal arts classes like “Gender and Society” and “Understanding Contemporary Popular Culture.”

As she taught these classes, she came to realize the appalling degree of her students’ ignorance. The worst field was history. “Sociology is closely connected with politics, society, and the economy, but students don’t read newspapers,” Yoo said.

That was why she started clipping articles and columns printed in the Hankyoreh and handing them out during class in 2010. The articles covered a variety of areas, including books, films, and history. The articles were helpful for Yoo as she explained the relationships between power politics and culture in modern Korean history.

Yoo was still doing this when the second semester of 2012 rolled around. She handed out an excerpt from “My father’s letter,” a column by Cho Han-wook, professor of history education at Korea National University of Education. The column introduced “Glimpses of World History,” a book by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian independence activist who went to prison nine times because of his resistance to British rule, and eventually became India’s first prime minister.

She also gave her students an excerpt from “The apology principle for principled people,” a column by Kim Ho, president of The Lab H, which explains the principle of apologizing and why leaders need to learn it.

Another column was “What it takes to be a politician that the public will remember” by Choi Hyun-hyuk, professor at Sodertorn University in Sweden. Holding up Swedish politician Tage Erlander, who served as the country’s prime minister for 23 years, as an example of a successful politician, Choi urged the Korean president to provide Koreans with a vision for the next twenty years.

These columns included advertisements talking about the documentary “Memories of Yushin: Takagi Masao in his prime” and a cover story exploring the connection between the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation and MBC in weekly magazine Hankyoreh 21.

The election law investigation was prompted by a report to police by a student. According to the Daegu Police Department‘s report on the investigation, a 27-year-old student from Yeungnam University called the 111 call center. The caller said that Baek Cheong-wook, a pastor with New People Church in Daegu and a guest lecturer in “Understanding contemporary popular culture,” had given an “impure lecture.” They also said that Yoo So-hee had handed out newspaper articles criticizing Park Geun-hye, who was running for president at the time.

Yoo explained that she had been handing out newspaper articles for several years, but the police took issue with the timing - and with the newspaper. They pointed out that she had only chosen articles from the Hankyoreh, a newspaper that was critical of Park Geun-hye, and that she had done it just before the presidential election. Yoo said that she had “no idea what was going on” when she was being questioned.


Prosecutor: Have you handed out articles to students that you clipped from newspapers other than the Hankyoreh like the Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, or Dong-a Ilbo [South Korea’s main conservative newspapers]?
Yoo So-hee: I subscribe to the Hankyoreh.
Prosecutor: Have you handed out an article that was sympathetic to Park Geun-hye?
Yoo So-hee: It was supplementary material for class. I wasn’t selecting articles based on whether they were sympathetic to or critical of Park.
Prosecutor: Then what standard were you choosing them based on?
Yoo So-hee: I clipped articles that talked about something new - a movie or a person - that I thought the students wouldn’t know about.
Prosecutor: Do you feel any remorse for having handed out articles to students that criticized a specific candidate?
Yoo So-hee: I wasn’t handing the articles out to students with the hope of keeping a specific candidate from getting elected. I handed them out in order to share socio-economic knowledge with students.


Nothing favorable to Park, so it’s election campaigning?

“I thought that the police and prosecutors would use common sense if I explained myself enough, and I was flustered when they didn’t understand me,” Yoo said, recalling the experience. Yoo’s students also testified that she had not tried to dissuade them from voting for Park Geun-hye or to persuade them to vote for another candidate.

But the police pressured Yoo using negative student evaluations that they had dug up at Yeungnam University. “The professor did not stay politically neutral, and a lot of what she said and assigned was left-leaning.” “She handed out a lot of newspaper articles that only criticized one of the presidential candidates. This affects our voting by creating an unfavorable impression about a specific candidate.” “Her political tendencies were apparent during class.”

In the end, the prosecutors charged Yoo with violating the election law. “I didn’t realize that professors were being prosecuted for their student evaluations,” complained Yoo’s lawyer, Koo In-ho. Koo and eighteen other lawyers helped out with Yoo’s defense.

But the Daegu Local Court (Dec. 2013) and the Daegu High Court (Mar. 2013) found Yoo guilty, sentencing her to pay a fine of 1 million won (US$940). “Yoo’s actions cannot be seen as merely expressing her opinion or indicating her support or opposition. Rather, her actions were calculated to predispose the students against Park Geun-hye and to decrease Park’s chances of winning the election. As such, there is adequate reason to regard this as an example of election campaigning,” the court said.

In support of its decision, the court noted that none of the articles that Yoo had distributed had been favorable to Park, nor had any of them contained criticism of opposition candidates. In the blink of an eye, Hankyoreh articles and columns had become election propaganda, and Yoo, a reader of those articles, had turned into an election campaigner.

“Yoo was not in a position where she had to maintain political neutrality; she was not a journalist, a political commentator, or a member of an election committee. She is a sociologist, and she had no legal responsibility to criticize each of the election candidates during her classes,” Koo said.

“The implication is that you will be prosecuted if you say something negative about the ruling party. This is a far cry from the freedom of education that is guaranteed by the constitution.”

During the second semester of 2012, Yoo distributed class material on 10 occasions, but only three of these were cited in the court’s decision in her appeal. The rest of the handouts - which had nothing to do with the election or with Park Geun-hye - were deliberately ignored.

This is the point where you really have to wonder. If the courts are this concerned about strictly enforcing the election law, why didn‘t they convict Won Sei-hoon, former director of the National Intelligence Service?

Let’s examine the grounds for the court‘s exoneration of Won.

First, the court said, the employees of the NIS psychological warfare division had been carrying out political activity online for a long time, so just because they also did so during the election doesn’t mean that that activity necessarily counts as election campaigning.

Second, Won Sei-hoon did not explicitly tell anyone to support or oppose any particular candidate.

Third, while Won’s actions could be described as having influenced the election and the results of the election, they cannot be regarded as intentional, active, and calculated election campaigning.

According to these criteria, Yoo shouldn’t have been convicted either.

First, Yoo had been handing out clipped newspaper articles every semester, so just because she also did so during the election doesn‘t mean that that activity necessarily counts as election campaigning.

Second, Yoo never explicitly told her students not to vote for a particular candidate.

Third, Yoo did not begin with the object of supporting a candidate in the election or with a plan to keep a certain candidate from being elected.

Most importantly, while it was illegal for the NIS to engage in political activity, it was legal for Yoo to express her political opinions. That means that being critical of the current administration doesn’t constitute grounds for prosecuting her as a criminal.


A long way back to her university

Yoo has appealed her case to the Supreme Court, and she has also filed a petition with the Constitutional Court.

Some people might think this is a lot of fuss to make over a fine of 1 million won. Yoo explains that she is appealing so that she can return to school.

“During the ten years that I spent studying abroad, I dreamed of standing at the lectern one day. I finally achieved that dream, and I was especially fond of Yeungnam University, since that was my alma mater. And then someone reported me to the authorities for ‘impure lectures’ and I was investigated and put on trial. For now, I can’t go back to the classroom. If the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court clear me of the charges, we will find out whether . . .” Her eyes red from crying, Yoo was unable to complete her sentence.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]





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