Thousands rallied in support of Korean teachers in Yeouido Park on Saturday evening. They demanded President Park Geun-hye change course and restore the union’s legal status, taking the opportunity to protest against the government’s general education policy and its reaction to the Sewol ferry accident.

The government withdrew recognition of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, or KTU, on the grounds that it violated labor laws that state “an organization shall not be regarded as a trade union…where those who are not workers are allowed to join it.” The union allowed nine fired teachers to remain members. The government action was upheld in court.

The KTU assert the teachers were fired unfairly and that the union has the sole right to decide their membership, not the government. “An unjust law is not a law. Since an unjust law is not a law, we don’t have a duty to abide it. Since an unjust law is not a law, we must smash it,” said Union President Kim Jung-hoon in an emotional speech to the members.

The teachers were fired for various reasons including protesting school corruption or overall policy, illegal campaigning and preparing material for a seminar with other teachers using a North Korean textbook. Those gathered on Saturday night felt the government was using the dismissed teachers’ membership in the union to pursue a political agenda and banish the union.

“When she was a lawmaker seven or eight years ago she said one harmful insect makes the Korean Peninsula red. It is exactly what she has in mind about the teacher’s union,” says Hwang Hyun-Su, the KTU international secretary. “She thinks that the teacher’s union members are just followers of North Korea or something. It is very old fashioned thinking that exists among Korean conservatives.”

Despite the serious nature of the protest, the event on Saturday also had many light-hearted moments. President Park was portrayed as a foolish chicken throughout. One skit on stage featured union members from Gangwon Province throwing their region’s famous potatoes at a mock-up of the president, to the crowd’s delight.

The right claims the union is ignoring the law and their responsibility to be political neutral. “They even included a fired teacher who was found guilty in the court because he ignored election law. It is doubtful if they are really a teachers’ collective,” says Saenuri party spokesman Kim Hyun-suk.

The KTU has been riddled with controversy since its inception in 1989. The Roh Tae-woo administration declared the KTU illegal and dismissed all 1537 members, however the union defeated the government on appeal in court. President Kim Dae-Jung legalized the KTU when he created an amendment in the law for teacher’s unions. It remains the second largest teachers’ union with 77,000 members behind the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association.

In the KTU manifesto it says that they believe the Korean education system “cultivates students who are selfish and obedient; we do not teach them to be independent human beings who live collaborating and fulfilling lives.” It also calls for teachers to develop students that can “carry out democratization and destroy all vestiges of the decades of military dictatorships, and who can achieve the reunification of Korea.”

Criticism of the government decision has also come from outside of Korea. The International Labor Organization (ILO) argues that allowing retired and dismissed workers to become union members and leaders was internationally accepted. As early as 2002 the ILO recommended to the Korean government that “eligibility for union membership is something for the union to decide through its bylaws, and the government authorities may not infringe this right of labor unions.”

The ILO has eight key agreements seen as crucial to the rights of free association. South Korea is one of only seven countries of the total 183 ILO member states that have not ratified four of those eight agreements. The others are China, Brunei, Fiji, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu.

“The Korean economy is ranked 11th or 12th in the world, but the labour rights and teachers’ rights are very low. The situation is not good,” says Hwang.