The issue is a choice, in schools and classesFor most senior high school students in Korea, now is the time to devote all their energy to studying for the College Scholastic Ability Test on Nov. 17. The test, which is mandatory for most students hoping to get into a college, is a critical hurdle in the entry process, and for this annual judgment day, students, teachers and parents try to be in the best condition.
Kang Ui-seok, 18, a third-year student at Daekwang High School, is well aware of this, although he has spent the past five months skipping classes, barely eating and even running away from home. No one, from Mr. Kang himself to his parents and teachers, ever imagined that he would be expelled from school. The matter is now in litigation.
Not that Mr. Kang was a juvenile delinquent. With the dream of becoming a judge one day, Mr. Kang loved to go to school until early June. Faithful to his responsibility as a student union president, he was a model student at school, striving for the top ranks.
But one thing changed him ― what he says is a mandatory religion class every Wednesday at the Christian missionary school.
In June, he announced on a radio broadcast that the religion class should not be mandatory, and that he would fight against it. Now that Daekwang High School, located in Sinseol-dong, northern Seoul, is a missionary school, every student is assigned to the weekly Christianity class, which the school says is optional but Mr. Kang says is mandatory. All students, divided by grade, go to the school auditorium to sing hymns and pray, even if they are Buddhist or atheist.
The problem is that students are automatically assigned to high schools, regardless of their religion. According to Mr. Kang, who says he has no formal religion but believes in God, the school tells students to bring parents’ notes when they refuse to attend the class. Those who choose not to take the class are told to clean the classroom, he says.
Lew Sang-tae, 48, who worked as the school’s minister, says, “Only a few students have refused to take the class. Most of the students cannot do much about it, because their one and only concern is to pave the way for college. They don’t bother to put energy into other matters. They feel something’s wrong, but they just let it go, which Ui-seok refused to do.”
While transferring to another school might be considered an option, the problem lies in the fact that students are automatically assigned to high schools based on their place of residence, regardless of their religion.
According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, among 289 high schools in Seoul, 59 schools, or about 20 percent, are missonary schools, with Christian schools accounting for the majority. Among the missionary schools, 25 have religion classes with no other options for those who do not wish to take them, which goes against the government’s policy of having such optional classes.
Mr. Kang began his campaign against the class requirement in earnest in June, after becoming student union president a few months earlier.
At the time, he stated on a school radio broadcast that the religion class should not be mandatory, and that he would fight against it.
In the days following his announcement, Mr. Kang went to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education with a picket sign asking for freedom of religion in the schools. He also formed an online club, called Religious Freedom at Mission Schools, which gathered 4,000 members, mostly students who shared similar experiences at other missionary schools.
With these actions Mr. Kang succeeded in attracting the attention of the press, but that was not sufficient to get a reaction from school officials, so he took more extreme measures.
A hunger strike begins
In August, he began a hunger strike, which lasted for 43 days until Sept. 23, drinking only water. By the end of his hunger strike, Mr. Kang, who is 180 centimeters (5 feet, 9 inches) tall, weighed only 52 kilograms (114 pounds), a drastic drop from his average weight of 76 kilograms.
His mother, Baek Wan-sook, had to bring him to class in a wheelchair when he grew too weak. When his father, Kang Jae-jeong, a Christian, told him to stop fasting, he ran away from home. He was missing for five days until he was found unconscious in a small bus terminal in Goseong, South Gyeongsang province.
In the meantime, some civic groups held press conferences in support of Mr. Kang’s position, after some pro-Christian groups said Mr. Kang was infringing on the rights of missionary schools. “It was hard,” Mr. Kang says, “but I got lots of support from friends, like a text message from a classmate saying, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes to my rights,’ which gave me a lot of strength.”
Daekwang High School had expelled him on July 8 for poor attendance, but Mr. Kang’s parents filed a lawsuit challenging the decision. The Seoul Northern District Court issued a ruling on Sept. 1 that said, “Until a judgment is confirmed, the ejection from school is suspended and Mr. Kang is thus temporarily in the status of a student.” Both the school and Mr. Kang are waiting for confirmation of the judgment.
Skeptics question why he has raised the issue now, when he is so close to graduation. Mr. Kang, who applied to the prestigious College of Law at Seoul National University through the year-round admission process, says, “I could not take action when I was in the first or second year. I also had to pretend I was singing hymns, although I had the least interest in the class. But I was awakened to the basic truth that I have the freedom and right of religion, as the Constitution says.”
Mr. Kang’s efforts, however, seem to have had some benefit, since he passed the first screening for admission to Seoul National University on Friday. The university reportedly regarded Mr. Kang’s social activism highly.
With public opinion favoring Mr. Kang, his school decided to meet him halfway and made a mutual agreement with him that the class would be completely optional. Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education officials also said they will take a closer look at the issue.
A resolution in sight?
The situation appeared to be resolved, but Mr. Kang began another hunger strike on Oct. 16, saying that the school had not kept its promise.
Six days later he ended the strike, listening to advice from his friends and family that this might be not the best policy. But one day before he ended the hunger strike, Mr. Kang, speaking at his home in Cheongnyangni, northeastern Seoul, said, “I’m the one who started all this. I’m determined to see it to the end.”
“He’s just too innocent to make a compromise. There’s no such thing as a happy medium to him,” says Mr. Lew. “He made the changes happen, which was what I had thought about for years.”
Mr. Lew, who supported Mr. Kang throughout his protest, was forced out of his school ministry post during Mr. Kang’s first hunger strike, although he remained a teacher at the Daekwang Middle School. But on Wednesday, Mr. Lew submitted his resignation to the school, ending a 15-year association.
He also resigned from his ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Korea. Although Mr. Lew appears to have lost a great deal from this struggle, he says he’s satisfied with his decisions. “We at least brought up the issue this time, which is another beginning of the movement for freedom of religion. And I’m happy about it,” Mr. Lew says.
The school, meanwhile, maintains there is no problem. “We kept our promise according to the mutual agreement. We don’t want to say anything more about it,” says Kim Myeong-sik, the vice principal of the school, declining further comment.
Mr. Kang might be expelled from the school when the court’s decision is rendered soon. In that case he would need to change to another school only two months before the end of his last semester of high school.
Ms. Baek says, “If the court ruling confirms that Ui-seok is expelled from the school, that’s another story, which is the hardest part for us now.”
Over the past months, Mr. Kang says he has become more determined about his decision to be a judge someday to improve the world. At the moment, however, he is not fully prepared for the exam that is fast approaching. But he says he has no regrets.
Every day he passes the front gate of the school that bears the saying, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” from the Book of Matthew.
by Chun Su-jin