Photo: Superintendent Roh Ok-hee accompanies Afghan children on their first day to school. Credit: Facebook page of Roh Ok-hee.
Superintendent Roh Ok-hee 노옥희, the chief of the Ulsan Metropolitan Education Board 울산광역시교육청장, passed away from a sudden heart attack on December 8. Roh most recently made headlines by being an advocate for Afghan students, children of the Afghan assistants of the South Korean presence in Kabul, who were resettled in Ulsan after the Afghan capital was evacuated. (See previous coverage, “Afghan Children in Ulsan.”) Roh personally escorted to school the Afghan students who were facing discrimination, in a photo that evoked the US National Guard escorting Black children at Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Roh’s dedication to the Afghan students was consistent with her life as an educator and labor activist. Born in 1957 in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do Province 경상남도 김해, Roh began working as a math teacher in 1979 at a high school in Ulsan, a newly developed city with Hyundai Group 현대그룹’s steel mills and shipyards. Many of Roh’s high school students worked part time at the factories.
Roh’s life changed in 1982 when one of her students lost a hand to an industrial accident. Trying to help her student and others in a similar position, Roh encouraged them to join a labor union, drawing the ire of the Hyundai Group which all but owned Ulsan. In 1986, Roh was fired from her job; the Hyundai Group took pains to not hire her students, fearing they were infected with a desire for labor organization.
Roh challenged her termination for the next 13 years, while acting as one of the founding members of the Ulsan chapter of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union 전국교직원노동조합 in 1989. After regaining her job as a math teacher in 1999, Roh ran and won a seat on the Ulsan education board in 2002 as one of the city’s first labor-friendly board members.
After failed runs for Ulsan mayor and National Assembly member, Roh was elected as Ulsan superintendent in 2018. As the education chief, Roh began a free school lunch program, gave financial assistance for uniform purchases, and stamped out petty corruption in school administration. In 2022, Roh easily won re-election, beating her rival by 10% even as liberals were drubbed in the June 2022 Local Elections 지방선거.