The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

South Korea:
A Summer of Discontent

Oct 4, 2008

The following article first appeared in the September/October of Class Struggle, Issue 80, published by Workers’ Fight, a revolutionary Trotskyist group active in Great Britain.

From the middle of last May onwards, a wave of militant protest has swept South Korea. For over two months, tens—sometimes hundreds—of thousands of demonstrators took part in daily mass rallies in downtown Seoul and other South Korean cities.

This wave of protest involved significant sections of the youth, both school and university students, as well as large numbers of workers. Although triggered by what may appear in Britain as a rather minor issue—the government’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports—it soon turned into a general protest against the political agenda of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP).

Even more importantly, this wave of street protest doubled as a wave of strikes arose, affecting several industries, in which workers, who felt reinforced by the street protest, raised their own demands using their own class weapons—those of the class struggle.

Significantly, the South Korean regime, whose "democratic" credentials are so often hailed in the West, especially in contrast to North Korea, used its repressive machinery in an attempt to quash the rallies and strikes. To some extent, however, the very brutality of its repression backfired, by boosting the resolve of protesters and strikers. In any case, this brutality did not prevent the government from being shaken by these developments.

The Regime’s Dubious Credentials

Today’s ruling Grand National Party is none other than the latest reincarnation of the so-called "Democratic Republican Party" formed in 1963 by the then military ruler, General Park Chung Hee, to serve as a political vehicle for his dictatorship. Rather than a "center-right" party, as it is portrayed, it is a reactionary machinery, with strong links with South Korea’s business tycoons and generals as well as with the army’s U.S. mentors.

If its candidate, Lee Myun Bak, won the December 2007 presidential election, it was largely by default. In some respects, he was an unlikely winner. As a former CEO of Hyundai’s construction wing, he was the first ever presidential candidate to take the risk of presenting himself as a representative of the much-hated chaebols—the giant family-owned conglomerates, which were built from public funds during the four decades of military dictatorship after World War II, and which still dominate the economy. Moreover, he was the first ever presidential candidate to run while being under investigation for corruption in his previous position as Seoul’s mayor.

However, Lee Myun Bak’s only real rival was the candidate of the former ruling party—by then re-launched as the United Democratic Party (UDP)—which had become discredited as a result of its 8-year record in office. The former administration had peddled a lot of anti-American rhetoric as a means of forcing austerity measures down the throat of the population—which had not gone down too well. As a result, many potential UDP voters shifted their votes to "small" candidates or abstained, allowing Lee Myun Bak to win the race with 48.7% of the votes—a 22% lead on his UDP rival—but on a record low turnout of 63% of registered voters.

A significant factor in the GNP’s success, however, was probably also the alliance between the GNP and the country’s largest trade union grouping, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU)—the direct descendant of the dictatorship’s state-sponsored unions. This provided some credibility to some of Lee’s electoral promises—in particular to his pledge to create 600,000 new jobs every year, end discrimination against casual workers, introduce affirmative action for the poorest in education, cut taxes for low-income households, etc... Such language, explicitly endorsed by the FKTU, may have fueled illusions and won Lee some working class voters, especially as his main rival was careful to avoid making any commitment over social issues.

However, no sooner was Lee elected, than the unsavory practices of his party came to the fore. A long series of corruption scandals broke out involving the leading circles of the GNP, including the president’s own entourage, although Lee himself was finally cleared in the investigation launched against him.

The GNP’s pro-business agenda was soon highlighted by its announcement of wholesale privatization in the large state-controlled sector and public utilities. For good measure, the new president announced his intention to relax the regulations which prevent industrial chaebols from taking a controlling stake in financial institutions—thereby reversing emergency measures taken after the 1997 financial crisis, despite the huge scandals of the past years in which the heads of the chaebols (at Samsung and Hyundai among others) were convicted for embezzlement and other financial misdeeds.

Meanwhile, a new labor minister, Lee Young Hee, was appointed. The new minister taunted workers with threats of "massive layoffs" if they resisted the regime’s "reform plans," declaring to the media that wage increases did not need to be granted every year, claiming that labor laws were "over-protecting workers" and reiterating ad nauseam his determination to clamp down on "illegal strikes." Unemployment increased at a faster rate than ever, while rising prices were cutting workers’ standard of living.

As a result, whatever illusions may have existed among workers about Lee Myun Bak and his promises promptly melted away. By the time the South Korean parliament was up for re-election, in April this year, Lee’s approval rate in opinion polls had dropped well below 30% and the GNP barely managed to win a majority of 2 seats on a 46% turnout, the lowest ever recorded in an election, and an expression of the electorate’s growing disaffection for the regime.

From the U.S. Beef Issue to a Wholesale Protest

The trigger of the wave of protest—the GNP’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports—should be seen in the context of a saga going back to 2003, when the previous administration suspended the import of U.S. beef following cases of "mad cow disease" in the U.S. For the U.S. meat industry and cattle farmers, this was a significant blow as South Korea is one of the world’s largest importers of beef and a big U.S. customer.

Since 2003, the issue of South Korea’s U.S. beef imports has been a major bone of contention in the economic horse-trading between Washington and Seoul. On April 18, an agreement was signed and Korea agreed to resume U.S. beef imports on the basis of the agreed standards.

By that time, however, the issue had turned into a political hot potato, including among the rival factions of the GNP itself. Building on the understandable suspicion felt by the population, the fears of Korean cattle farmers who stood to lose out to U.S. competition and the anti-US feelings which are widespread in the country, politicians turned the issue into one of national sovereignty as well as public health. To that extent, the first anti-U.S.-beef rallies, starting from May 2nd, before the ban on beef imports was actually lifted, had a very perceptible nationalist slant—so much so that a right-wing rival of the GNP, the Liberty Forward Party, felt comfortable enough with this protest to try to put itself at the head of the protesters, although, it should be said, without much success.

In the capital, initially, while farmers were staging their own separate protests, most of the participants in the largest rallies were school and university students, many of them carrying a placard in one hand and a lit candle in the other—a symbolism inherited from the days of the dictatorship, when sections of the pro-democracy movement inspired by lay priests promoted this as a sign of non-violence. But, by the end of May, after the protesters’ numbers were swollen by the government’s official decision to lift the ban on U.S. beef, the nature of the rallies changed significantly.

This decision suddenly pushed many more tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of life into the streets. By that time as many as 1,700 organizations and local committees had expressed their support for the protest, joining ranks under the umbrella of a so-called "People’s Conference Against Mad Cow Disease." Besides the usual placards stating "Eat the mad cow yourself, Lee Myung Bak!" or "Cancel the beef deal," others began to appear demanding Lee’s impeachment or condemning his privatization plans. Over the following days and weeks, as the rallies became daily occurrences in the largest cities and new contingents of protesters joined them, more diverse demands were to make their way onto these placards—for instance for the right to a living wage, for decent pensions and welfare provisions for all.

A significant factor in expanding the scope of the protest far beyond the beef issue was the decision of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU—the country’s second largest union body, which emerged out of the working class explosion which brought down the military dictatorship in the late 1980s)—to throw its militant resources behind the protest. Not that the KCTU leadership tried to intervene in the protest to provide it with a different direction, something it could have done by putting forward demands and objectives offering a fighting perspective to the working class and the youth against the wholesale offensive of the bosses and GNP regime. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the KCTU chose to align itself entirely alongside those organizations which wanted to confine the protest to the U.S. beef issue only. Thus, the first initiative taken specifically by the KCTU was to send hundreds of activists to blockade cold storage depots where imported U.S. beef was kept, while instructing its members in the transport and port unions to boycott cargos of such meat. The KCTU leaders were thereby choosing to put workers in the tow of a mixed-bag of nationalist and environmentalist petty-bourgeois groupings.

Nevertheless, regardless of the KCTU leaders’ agenda, the mere fact that they called on workers to join the protests, even if it was only in the name of defending their health against the risk of potentially infected U.S. beef, had a social impact on the nature of the protest wave. The workers who joined the protest were not too concerned with the tactical niceties of the KCTU leaders’ strategy, and rightly so. They saw this mobilization as an opportunity to express their anger against the bosses’ offensive and against the GNP pro-business policies, and they used this opportunity to vent their frustration and raise their demands in the middle of the general clamor against U.S. beef.

The Protest Develops

On the weekend starting on 31st May, which was a bank holiday weekend, the rallies took a new form in Seoul, which continued during the following month, in addition to the daily evening rallies. This time the protesters occupied the square outside the City Hall for a full 72 hours. During that long weekend the estimated number of participants in Seoul alone reached 100,000 according to the organizers and 40,000 according to the police.

This time, however, the regime had decided to make a show of strength. Thousands of riot police were mobilized in full battle gear, equipped with water cannon. When, late on Saturday night, thousands of demonstrators marched on the "Blue House" (the presidential residence), there were brutal clashes. Videos and photos of police thugs beating up isolated protesters were later posted on the internet. During that weekend the police reported 228 arrests among protesters, while 70 were injured—although this last figure is certainly an underestimate as many injured protesters were treated there and then by medical volunteers to avoid being taken to the hospital, for fear of arrest. In any case, news of the police’s brutality spread like wild fire, prompting more protesters to join the rallies, this time to protest against police violence as well.

Rallies went on daily over the next days, until Tuesday June 10th. This day is somewhat special in South Korea, as it is the anniversary of a huge protest held in 1987, against the murder of a demonstrator by the police. This 1987 demonstration is largely considered as the turning point in the process which led to the downfall of the dictatorship—even though it took all the might of the subsequent working class explosion to actually relegate the army to its barracks. So, given the GNP’s repression over the previous days, this anniversary appeared to many as an opportunity to protest against methods reminiscent of the dictatorship.

On that evening, in the words of the pro-business Korea Times, which cannot be suspected of being over-sympathetic, "hundreds of thousands of protestors packed the 16-lane Sejong street in downtown Seoul.... The coalition of civic groups claimed one million citizens participated nationwide, including 500,000 in Seoul alone, while police estimated the total number at around 200,000. Tens of thousands of citizens also held separate gatherings in Pusan, Kwangju and dozens of other cities around the country.... Some 40,000 riot police were mobilized at major rally sites." Such estimates are worth what they are. But if 40,000 police were mobilized, the odds are that the number of demonstrators was significantly higher than the police claimed.

This huge show of strength threw the regime off balance. Having bragged so often about its resolve never to give in to "illegal" protests, it felt it necessary to make a token gesture of appeasement. The trade minister was rushed to Washington to try to reach a new agreement with the U.S. Trade Department, in order to give Seoul some breathing space. As it happened, however, the Bush administration did not give a damn about its South Korean ally’s predicament and refused to make any concession. Seoul was in no position to impose anything on Washington, for fear of compromising the fat profits that the chaebols hoped to make on the U.S. market as a result of the Free Trade Agreement. So, the GNP government was left with no option but to try to weather the storm, hoping that it would die out sooner or later, while resorting to a mixture of harassment and arrests to discourage the protesters and weaken the rallies’ organizers.

In terms of numbers, June 10th marked the peak of the protest rallies, although, until the end of June, tens of thousands of protesters kept pouring into the streets day in and day out. Thereafter, the protest continued on a more or less daily basis till the end of July, but the number of protesters shrank slowly and the rallies became less regular.

But long before the street protest ended, the government was confronted with a potentially much more serious source of trouble, when the focus of the protest shifted to the working class.

The Weight of Casualization

The use and abuse of casual workers—i.e. the over-exploitation of workers—has been one of the key factors, together with state aid, in the massive growth of Korean industries, ever since the days when the past military dictatorship embarked on the development of an export-oriented manufacturing industry.

Today, casual workers of all descriptions represent roughly half (8.7 million out of 15.9 million workers) of all wage workers. To this total must be added 2 million more comprising those of the "self-employed" who are really casuals in disguise. This brings the proportion of casual workers in the employed working class to 60%—a proportion which has been increasing constantly since the financial crisis of 1997.

Beyond a bewildering variety of situations, casual workers have two things in common: only a small proportion of them enjoy any form of welfare protection and their wages are lower than those of comparable non-casual fellow workers. In particular, casual workers make up the bulk of the 2.2 million workers who earn the miserly minimum wage currently in force in the country.

Casual workers also have fewer rights than their non-casual counterparts. Many companies do not tolerate unions at all. But even in those which do, the mere fact of casuals joining a union means risking their jobs, unless they keep it secret.

Bitter, Protracted Struggles

Up to last year, casual workers’ employment rights were covered by legislation passed in 2004, which provided that during the first 3 years of casual employment, a worker’s contract could be terminated at any point without any justification. Beyond these three years, the employer did not have to upgrade the status of the worker. His only duty was to provide a "just cause" to justify a subsequent decision to fire him. In such a case the worker’s only redress was a judicial procedure taking anything up to five years!

In 2007 new legislation was enacted and phased in from July 1, at first in companies employing over 300 workers. This cut the previous 3-year free-for-all period for the bosses to two years and added the obligation for them to promote any casual worker still employed after two years to a non-casual position—although it did not require (and this was not an oversight!) that the casual worker’s wage and conditions should be upgraded as well. Compared to the previous position, this new legislation could appear as a small amount of progress. Many employers simply took to sacking casuals before they reached the end of their second year of employment, while others simply cut the number of directly employed casuals—it was then easy for them to orchestrate a merry-go-round of phantom onsite contractors between whom casuals were shifted periodically.

The conditions imposed on casual workers and the bosses’ attempts to by-pass their minimum employment rights have led to many protracted disputes in the past. The 2007 legislation sparked off another round of such disputes. Among these, for instance, were disputes at the New Core department stores and the Homever supermarkets (formerly owned by French giant Carrefour), which both have large proportions of casuals: out of Homever’s 11,000 workforce, 72% are casuals, with half being employed directly by Homever and the other half by on-site contractors. Out of New Core’s 8,000 workforce, 84% are casuals, most of whom are employed by on-site contractors.

In the run-up to the 2007 legislation coming into force last year, both companies moved to avoid having to upgrade casuals to non-casual positions. In June, Homever, which had already fired 400 outsourced casuals in April, announced the firing of 350 directly employed casuals in order to subcontract their jobs. At the same time, New Core announced plans to transfer 300 directly employed casuals to in-house contractors. New Core even went so far as to resort to gangs of thugs in an attempt to terrorize the targeted casuals into resigning "voluntarily." However this backfired when the gangsters were met with strikes and hundreds of angry union members. Starting on June 10 last year, when a one-day strike of stores was called by the KCTU affiliated union, the fight against these firings developed into a long series of store blockades and occupations, in which the strikers often had to confront large contingents of riot police and their union leaders had to face the courts and, in some cases, jail terms.

The dispute at New Core finally ended in August this year, after over 14 months. By then, all but 36 of the 350 casual workers originally under threat had been forced to find alternative employment and only these 36 were reinstated. In return for this derisory concession, the union had to drop most of its previous demands and pledge to refrain from any strike action until 2010! The Homever strike is still going on.

Another strike, which caught the attention of the Korean media due to the determination of the women strikers concerned, provides an even more shocking illustration of the desperate situation of casual workers. It concerns Kiryung Electronics, a factory located in the Guro area of Seoul—the very same area out of which grew the tide of working class militancy of the 1980s. This company was known for employing an unusually large number of female workers through more or less bogus contractors. In 2005, the union went on strike for the direct employment of all casuals—a very modest demand since the strikers were not demanding non-casual status. However the company did not budge. It used every trick in the book to try to break the strike, to the point that it was even fined by the courts, which are not known for their leniency towards strikers, for using illegal hiring practices. On June 11 this year, with no perspective in sight as the strike was about to reach its 1000th day, the union decided to resort to the most desperate method: 10 union activists embarked on a hunger strike in a tent set up at the factory’s gate. On August 20, after 70 days of hunger strike, they had to be taken to the hospital, without the company having made the smallest concession.

A common feature of the New Core, Homever and Kiryung Electronics strikes—and, in fact, all strikes involving casual workers—was their isolation. Even if the KCTU did organize some support, it did not go beyond a few demonstrations of activists and fund collections, whereas the strikers were confronted with employers who were all the more determined to hold out as they had the backing of the government and other bosses.

Strikes in Transport and Beyond

The transport strike, which started spontaneously, but became a national strike due to the KCTU’s efforts, is somewhat different in many respects, in particular because its trigger was the rise of the cost of diesel fuel. But what it has in common with the casual workers’ strikes mentioned above is that the drivers involved in this strike are, themselves, casuals of a particular kind, and this status made the rise in diesel prices particularly onerous for them.

Several categories of unionized drivers were involved in this strike, starting June 10. Among them were so-called "cargo" drivers who move freight across the country, dump truck drivers and construction drivers who operate various kinds of heavy-duty construction equipment such as cement-mixers, bulldozers and excavators. These drivers are self-employed, having therefore none of the welfare protection enjoyed by non-casual workers and no regular income either, and their conditions, income and social status are very close to that of many casual workers.

With the exception of a very small minority, the drivers who were involved in this strike do not own their vehicle and have to rent it from specialist outfits. Most of them do not work for a particular employer, but depend on agencies acting as intermediaries between them and businesses which need their services. The drivers get paid a fee for the job by these business customers, out of which they pay their agency, the cost of maintaining and running their vehicle (insurance, diesel fuel, road tolls, etc.) and, usually, the cost of renting their vehicle. The sharp increase of the cost of diesel fuel triggered demands for fee increases.

The first group to come out on strike, on June 10, were the 13,000 cargo drivers organized in the KCTU-affiliated Korea Cargo Transport Workers’ Union. Although they operate less than 4% of the country’s trucks, KCTU members handle around a quarter of all container traffic. As a result, within a few days, Pusan and Inchon, the country’s largest container terminals, were clogged up by waiting containers and brought to a standstill, thereby blocking a large part of both imports and exports. As of June 17, factories started to be hit, either by parts shortages or by the accumulation of stocks: Samsung Electronics closed its big home appliances factory in Gwangju, Daewoo Electronics reduced production in several plants and so did steel makers POSCO, Hyundai Steel and Dongguk Steel.

In the meantime, on June 16th, construction drivers and dump truck drivers belonging to both the KCTU and FKTU had joined the cargo drivers’ strike and rapidly paralyzed the majority of the country’s large construction sites (90% of them, according to the business press).

The government had expected the drivers’ strike to be widely unpopular. As it happened, public opinion proved supportive of a strike which was challenging the GNP over a problem that everyone was confronted with—the huge hike in the price of gasoline. The government was caught between the anti-GNP protest in the streets, the economic impact of the drivers’ strike and the sympathy enjoyed by the strikers among the public. Having boasted initially that it would never concede to the drivers’ "blackmail," government ministers rushed to broker some sort of a deal.

Eventually, a deal was struck by the cargo drivers’ union, resulting mainly in a 16% increase of freight fees—short of its 30% demand, but still significant. In addition, the government introduced a package of measures ranging from free motorway tolls for night freight to tighter regulations on cargo agencies and truck hiring companies. By June 23, most cargo drivers returned to work, if not with an outright victory, at least with significant gains. As to the dump truck and construction drivers’ strike, it went on a bit longer, with similar results on fees, and with the promise of the government to pay the diesel fuel costs to drivers working for state-controlled projects.

But even before the transport strike ended, other sections of the working class were taking action or threatening to take action, in a whole number of sectors, ranging from the health service to the insurance industry and the media, and, more importantly, in the auto industry, the country’s biggest export earner.

National annual wage negotiations had been under way in the metal industry. However the big auto manufacturers—such as Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, Sanyong and Renault-Samsung—had refused to take part in these talks. As a result the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), the KCTU’s largest affiliate, with 140,000 members, embarked on a campaign in the auto industry, starting with a national 24-hour stoppage on July 2. That day among the 170,000 strikers, there were 80,000 workers in 13 of the biggest auto factories in the country.

Thereafter, from the beginning of July to the end of August, eight partial 24 to 48 hour stoppages took place in the auto plants. Among the issues at stake were the fate of the large numbers of casual workers employed by these companies; a change in working patterns which, while involving an end to the exhausting 10 to 12-hour night shift, implied speedups and lower wages; and the low wage increase offered by the bosses at a time when even official figures were putting price inflation above the 6% mark.

Nevertheless, instead of continuing to give the movement a character unified for all auto, which would have allowed the workers to test their strength against the bosses’ arrogance, the KMWU allowed its various unions to organize movements independent one from the other. This diminished its potential power at a time when political life was still marked by the national truckers’ strike which had just ended, as well as demonstrations opposing the regime, which continued. As a result, the strikes ended in separate agreements with each of the different companies between the end of August and the end of September. Reaching these agreements was not so easy because at many companies, the workers rejected the agreements that the union leaders proposed. This happened at Hyundai, the biggest car manufacturer in the country, where the contract recommended by the union leaders was turned down twice before finally being ratified by a slim majority of 54% on September 29. Anyway, judging from the demands that the workers gained, the bosses were shaken. At Hyundai for example, the final agreement contained a wage increase of 5.6%, a bonus representing three months of wages and an exceptional bonus of 3 million wons (3000 dollars) which more or less compensated for the wages and bonuses lost during the work stoppages. These agreements were much greater than what the workers got from the annual agreements over the last decade. Nevertheless what was very important was that none of the big companies made the smallest concession about issues concerning casual workers. Thus the organizations of the KMWU, which are essentially based in the full time work force, once more demonstrated their corporatist character. They did not raise the situation of the casual work force as the corner stone of any agreement with the employers.

The Consequences of the KCTU’s Policy

The KCTU-affiliated unions and their activists were unquestionably the driving force behind this summer’s strikes, even though some of these strikes—such as the drivers’ strike and the Hyundai Motors dispute—began originally without the KCTU’s sanction. As such the leadership of the KCTU and its affiliate, the KMWU, came very soon in the firing line of the government’s repression, together with the organizers of the protest rallies.

It’s not unusual in so-called "democratic" South Korea, for the state to arrest, fine and jail activists for participation in an "illegal gathering"—the "legality" of which is arbitrarily decided by the prosecutors. Just as it is not uncommon for union activists to be subjected to the same treatment for "obstruction of business," which is a criminal offence in Korean law. On top of losing their jobs and doing time in jail, it is not uncommon either for union activists to be bankrupted by having to pay huge amounts in damages to employers, as a result of civil suits filed against them for loss of business revenue due to a strike. This is what happens in most significant disputes. The state was, therefore, likely to retaliate against the leaders of the protest wave and those of the KCTU, as soon as it felt it could get away with it.

Significantly, however, as long as the protest wave was gathering pace, up to mid-June, and then during the transport strike, the government refrained from making spectacular repressive gestures. Many protesters were arrested, but few were charged and, by and large, the police kept their hands off the rally organizers, no doubt for fear of inflaming the protesters’ anger even more. Likewise, during the transport strike, the authorities kept a low profile, avoiding arrests which might have led to a confrontation with the drivers and steeled their determination.

Once the transport strike was over, as the rallies seemed to be losing momentum, the authorities took to the offensive. On June 30, they moved against the protest organizers, raiding the offices of two of the main umbrella groups which had been at the forefront of the rallies and issuing arrest warrants against eight of their leading figures.

Then came a general strike called by the KCTU on July 2 against both beef imports and the privatization program announced by the government. At this point the government appeared to back off, in order to see what was going to happen in the auto industry. But three weeks later, during which time four work stoppages were organized separately in the big plants, the authorities seem to have decided that it was now safe to start their offensive. On July 24, warrants for the arrest of nine of the main national leaders of the KCTU and KMWU were issued over their role in "instigating" the "illegal July 2nd strike" and the "illegal candlelight rallies." At the same time the central office of the KCTU in Seoul was raided and, to all intents and purposes, closed down by a permanent wall of riot police, while computers and documents were taken away as evidence. By mid-August, 21 members of the leadership of the KCTU and KMWU were either jailed or facing trial, and there were arrest warrants for 70 union officials.

By the end of August, in a zealous endeavor to re-enact the repressive methods of the past, the Seoul police even went so far as to dust off the old red-baiting "National Security Act" which in the past allowed the dictatorships to imprison or even condemn to death activists accused of sympathizing with North Korea. The dictatorship used it to jail seven leading members of a left-wing organization, the Socialist Workers’ League. This time, however, the judges found they had gone too far and released these comrades—although they will have to face trial later, on different charges.

Despite the fact the KCTU was the first victim of this repression, its policy still facilitated the regime’s offensive. Without offering a perspective of a united struggle to those who wanted to fight the regime’s policy, keeping the strikes isolated, the leadership of the KCTU weakened the movement as a whole.

As mentioned before, the KCTU leaders went out of their way to endorse the narrow objectives of the protest organizers around the U.S. beef issue, thereby failing to respond to the general frustration against the government’s policies expressed by the protesters themselves. This was true during the first ascendant phase of the protest, up to June 10th. But it remained true even afterwards, including when the collective strength of the 30,000 KCTU striking drivers could have become a lever powerful enough to give a second wind to the protest movement and shift the protest in a different direction from opposing the beef imports and provide other sections of workers with the sense that, this time, they could stand with a real chance to succeed.

Significantly, when the KCTU leaders decided to call a general strike for July 2nd, they chose to focus it on opposing U.S. beef imports and privatization in general. In fact it was precisely for this reason that union members at Hyundai voted against the call of their leadership and instead decided to go on strike for their own demands. Had the KCTU chosen to focus this general strike around objectives that offered a perspective to workers against the capitalists’ offensive, this general strike might have been able to unite all sections of workers as one block in front of the government and to pave the way, provided the KCTU-KMWU made that choice, for a counter-offensive across the auto industry and, possibly, beyond.

Instead of this, July 2 was a token strike, with no follow up planned. The car bosses were subsequently confronted one by one with partial work stoppages that did not really touch political life beyond the cities where the factories are located. The strikes were much less effective than an all-out strike and they deprived car workers of any means of measuring their own strength. Meanwhile the many strikes which were taking place in other industries were left high and dry by the policy of the KCTU, without being offered an opportunity to join forces with the larger battalions, first of the drivers and then of the auto workers.

As we go to press, the strike movement against the regime seems to have declined at least at this moment, although a protest movement of casual workers seems to have begun, this time outside of the KCTU. But it is too soon to measure its size and how deep it really is.

Whether this repression succeeds in cowing workers into submission remains to be seen, however. The government itself does not seem too sure about this, since it seems very careful to avoid causing any outbreak of anger among the working class. So, for instance, it has cut its initial program of privatization to almost nothing. And that is not only due to the actual economic crisis, because in Korea, many privatizations are carried out without any money being paid to the government. So it is not because of a lack of liquid assets that private banks had the government change its plans but because of the fear of a backlash from the working class.

After all, the South Korean working class has a long tradition of militancy and organization, even in the most repressive circumstances. Only two decades ago, this working class confronted a dictatorship and an army which was trained and instructed to shoot on sight. And many of the activists of that period are still on the shop floor. The decisive factor in future struggles will be the will of these militants to transmit their experience to younger generations

of workers, and, above all, that they will remember what proved decisive 20 years ago—the capacity of the working class to stand up as one, all sections together, against the exploiters and their armed thugs, which assured victory over the dictatorship.

Written September 13, 2008

Updated October 4, 2008