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Christian university under fire for punishing students hosting seminar on prostitution, gender

A Christian university in Korea has come under fire for punishing students and professors for their involvement in a seminar on gender identity and prostitution in December.

Handong Global University brought five students to the student guidance committee -- three of them for hosting an academic seminar on different perspectives on the subjects and two others for writing and posting about the seminar on social media.

English literature professor Na Youn-sook has also been investigated and is awaiting the personnel committee’s decision after she proposed giving extra points to her students if they submitted a report after attending the seminar. Chaplain Kim Dae-ok, who had given some lectures for the club, has been declined the renewal of his employment contract, which claimed he was the supervisor of the student club that hosted the seminar.

Handong Global University (Yonhap)
Handong Global University (Yonhap)

The club, “Wild Flower,” which seeks to promote the rights of social minorities, hosted the seminar titled, “You can be who you are” on Dec. 8. They invited Lim Ok-hee, an English literature scholar and the chairwoman of the Center for Women’s and Cultural Theory, and women’s rights activist sisters Hong Seung-eun and Seong-hee to speak.

According to the students, the school approved promotional posters of the seminar to be put up inside school buildings. Five hours before the seminar, however, the school tried to pressure the club into canceling the event, and when it refused, the dean of student affairs brought some 20 students opposed to the seminar to monitor the meeting.

Those against the seminar attended with signs reading, “Reject feminism that promotes promiscuous sexual behavior,” and “We oppose feminism that destroys the family orders set by God.”

“When we refused to cancel the seminar, the dean of student affairs said he only follows the regulations and not the Constitution,” Kim Ho-soo, a former member of Wild Flower, told The Korea Herald.

Kim was one of the students who has been referred to the disciplinary committee after she posted an account of the seminar day.

The 23-year-old student also explained that no professors were involved in the club, as it is not registered as an official school club.

“The club was established in 2015 to speak about the unfair treatment of school janitors. After the issue was resolved, members stayed to discuss and promote the rights of social minorities,” she said.

The school, on the other hand, denied claims that the students and the professors have been put under investigation for the alleged reasons.

“The school regulation states that hosting any kind of seminar is banned two weeks before and after the final exam, as it is the end of the semester period,” Professor Park Won-gon who is in charge of the school’s external relations told The Korea Herald.

“We have not decided anything about the students nor professor Na, and we are currently trying to figure out on the details of the case.”

While raising concerns that the public do not come to a hasty conclusion, Park said the school had warned of the regulation to the hosting students beforehand, but it was the students who pushed on with their schedule. 

The advertisement poster on the controversial seminar dubbed,
The advertisement poster on the controversial seminar dubbed, "You can be who you are" in Korean. (Wild Flower)

On the dismissal of Chaplain Kim of Handong International Law School, Park also explained that Kim failed to reach the re-employment requirements. However, Kim called it unfair treatment and expressed resentment after he was notified that his renewal had been denied on Jan. 1.

“In the rehiring process, the school repeatedly asked if I was the supervisor of Wild Flower, and, when I said I was not, it dismissed it as a lie,” he said in a statement.

He did give a number of lectures for the club in 2016, but stopped after rumors spread that he was secretly supporting the club, he said.

“As far as I know, the students gathered to create the club, Wild Flower, to pursue the teachings of Jesus who became friends with people regardless of their race, nationality, social status, age or religion and, who rejected any kind of discrimination,” he said. “I would like to express my regret that the school has denied the students of their right to approach issues with diverse perspectives while pursuing Christianity.”

Literature professor Na has also said she only gave the assignment to the students in her literature class because she saw it as academically helpful to listen to a different interpretation of literature works under feminist influences. She is currently waiting for the disciplinary committee’s decision.

While opinions are divided, students and professors say that the university’s reaction to those involved with the feminist seminar is too harsh.

“Handong Global University is not a church but a university. It is beyond deplorable to see the school suppressing the students’ rights to freedom of thought and learning, with their claim of school’s religious identity,” Seok Ji-min from the school’s Computer Science and Electrical Engineering wrote on Facebook on Sunday.

Those against the school’s decision to punish the club members have created Facebook pages to gather support. A number of professors have also created a taskforce team to demand the school to re-employ Kim.

Kim Ho-soo explained this was not the first time that the university has punished students over sensitive issues.

“The school tries to strictly control opinions on sexual minorities, and even on labor issues. In classes and sermons, the teachers often make discriminatory remarks,” she said.

“I experienced similar treatment when I put up a hand-written poster on school issues before. The long-standing problem has only now risen to the surface.”

A professor from the university, who refused to be named, told The Korea Herald on Monday that the school has been very strict on sensitive issues and has made it difficult for its members to speak openly about them.

“I cannot tell you much because the pressure is unimaginably high. We only hope for the school to stand upright and for things to work out for those who have been put in a difficult situation,” the faculty member said.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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