Feb 13, 2015
The following article originally appeared in the Class Struggle magazine (issue 104, Spring 2015) of the British revolutionary group, Workers Fight.
With its 52 million inhabitants crowded into a territory about the size of Utah, South Korea, on the eastern coast of China facing Japan, is portrayed as a capitalist “success story” in every respect, both economically and politically.
Economically, although South Korea was a latecomer to the industrial scene – it only joined the OECD industrialized countries’ club in 1996 – its industrial production per capita is now among the world’s highest. Its two main car manufacturers, Hyundai and Kia, are household names across the world. Its largest electronics conglomerate, Samsung, is Apple’s main rival on the world market for mobile phones and it is the world’s largest producer of semiconductors. The world’s most gigantic ships are built in its shipyards, owned by companies like Hyundai, Samsung or Daewoo. Of course, those who hail the South Korean “model” fail to mention how this economic development was achieved, especially the exorbitant price the South Korean working class paid in the past and continues to pay today.
Politically, South Korea is celebrated by the same media as a “democracy,” which is supposed to stand in stark contrast to North Korea’s opaque dictatorship. But if it had not been for the working class uprising of the late 1980s, South Korea would still be living under the yoke of the long line of military dictators brought into power by the Western imperialist armies, starting back in 1946. Likewise, little is ever said about the very narrow limits of South Korea’s so-called “democracy” nor about how its repressive state machinery imposes the iron rule of a handful of very large conglomerates on the working class.
So what does this capitalist “success story” really mean for the South Korean working class in general and for its activists?
Although the Cold War came to an end 24 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it still casts such a long shadow over the South Korean institutions and political scene that it is necessary to recall the partition of Korea in the aftermath of World War II.
In fact, this partition was the first in a series of developments which paved the way for the Cold War, becoming a permanent cause of conflict ever since.
A Japanese colony since 1905, Korea was part of the spoils of the Japanese empire to be shared out among the victors of WWII. Initially, it was meant to remain under the “joint trusteeship” of the U.S., Britain, the USSR and China for 20 to 30 years, before being granted independence. But events took a different course. In August 1945, as the Red Army of the USSR was making rapid progress from the north of Korea toward the south, while the U.S. army still did not have a single soldier there, U.S. leaders declared that Korea would be artificially partitioned along the 38th parallel as a “temporary” measure, thereby creating a Soviet zone of influence in the northern part, already occupied by the Red Army, and a U.S. zone of influence in the south, where U.S. troops soon landed to organize the surrender of the Japanese occupation forces.
About a third of the Korean population thus remained in the northern part, under a communist-dominated alliance of the former anti-Japanese underground. The southern part was soon brought firmly under a viciously repressive, anticommunist regime put together by the U.S., using the Korean personnel of the defunct Japanese colonial state machinery. In February 1946, an interim southern government took office in Seoul, under Syngman Rhee, a seasoned anticommunist politician, who had longstanding connections in U.S. political circles.
Soon afterwards, in September 1946, social discontent came to a head when 250,000 workers staged a general strike across the south. It took over three months for the U.S. and Korean troops to defeat the strikers. It was a bloodbath. Over a thousand workers were killed and 30,000 arrested. Some of the activists who escaped crossed over to the north, but many resumed the guerilla warfare of the colonial days, which they carried on for the next four years.
Then the Cold War broke out. In China, Chiang Kai-shek’s U.S.backed regime was on the verge of collapsing in the face of Mao Zedong’s peasant army. In August 1948, the U.S. decided to make Korea’s “temporary” partition permanent. Syngman Rhee’s government became the only regime officially recognized by the Western powers – a regime which was as much a dictatorship as was previous colonial rule by the Japanese, except that it was now U.S.-sponsored. And its aim was clearly to reclaim control over the North by force.
However, in June 1950 the North Korean leaders preempted this threat by invading the South. Apparently, they hoped that, with the U.S. army protecting Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat in Taiwan, following Mao’s victory, the U.S. would not risk another military intervention, especially as the northern troops were likely to meet massive popular support in the South, which they did.
However, this proved to be a miscalculation. There was no question of the U.S. conceding anything to a regime which could join the Soviet Union sphere of influence. The U.S. mobilized an imperialist coalition and intervened under the convenient cover of the United Nations. The North Korean troops were finally driven back to the other side of the 38th parallel, but not without great difficulty.
At that point, the U.S. leaders thought that they could finish off North Korea. Had it not been for a massive counteroffensive by the Chinese army to stop the imperialist forces, Korea would certainly have been reunited – but under Syngman Rhee’s dictatorship. Rhee’s forces were, at that very moment, busy “cleansing” Seoul of any opposition, in a bloodbath which claimed 100,000 victims, according to U.S. military documents.
In the end, however, the U.S. leaders withdrew their troops south of the 38th parallel. By the time the armistice was signed, in July 1953, 900,000 soldiers and a million and a half civilians had been killed, with the majority of the victims on the Northern side, due to the imperialist coalition’s total control of the air war.
In a sense, the Korean war never really ended. South Korea did not sign the 1953 armistice and still claims sovereignty over the North. According to its authorities and institutions, the country is still living under the threat of an attack from North Korea – and this is what children are taught from the youngest age at school.
However, this obsessive scare-mongering is first and foremost an instrument of social and political control over the population in general and the working class in particular. It also provides a justification for the state’s huge repressive machinery.
In any case, the South Korean capitalist class itself does not act too worried about the “threat of the North.” This is illustrated by the Kaesong Industrial Region which was opened for business in 2004. It is a South Korean enclave in North Korea, six miles north of the demilitarized zone between the two countries, which was conceded to the South under a 50year lease, in order to allow South Korean companies to take advantage of the North’s low-paid workforce. In 2014, over 50,000 North Korean workers were employed in 123 South Korean factories, under the control of a few hundred South Korean managers and supervisors who cross the border every day. In other words, for the South Korean capitalist class, business is business, even when they do it with the “threatening” North.
Nevertheless, the North Korean bogeyman is used to justify the continuing existence of an overinflated military, something which has not changed since the days of the dictatorship. Today, although South Korea is only the world’s 26th largest country in terms of population, it has the sixth largest active military force and the second largest military reserves. Together, they gobble up 15% of the country’s public expenditure – far more than the entire GDP of the alleged North Korean “enemy.”
However, there is method in this madness. The compulsory two-year military service imposed on young workers is highly valued by South Korean companies. Indeed, some of these workers are conscripted to work in designated factories, thereby providing the factories with a regular flow of recruits who are bound by the same discipline they would face on an army base. The army is also praised for “training a skilled workforce with a high sense of its duties,” to use the words of the bosses, meaning, a pliable workforce. Like any army in this capitalist world, the South Korean army might pride itself in being able to “break hotheads,” but it does not seem to be all that successful, judging from the relentless militancy of the South Korean working class!
There are other reasons for the disproportionate size of the army. A whole layer of the state bureaucracy owes its social status to its army connections – something that has changed little since the days of the dictatorship. And, obviously, its supply contracts represent a huge bounty for both local and imperialist, mainly U.S., arms manufacturers.
In addition to this overinflated army, 29,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in eight different facilities across the country – 62 years after the formal end of the Korean war! Not only that, but South Korea has to bear part of the burden of maintaining these troops on its territory, much like an occupied country. This annual cost is estimated at an additional 3% of its own massive military budget.
As another remnant of the Korean war, the U.S. army operates a permanent Korea-based regional central command, ready to automatically take over direct control of the entire South Korean army in the event of a war. According to a longstanding agreement, this arrangement is meant to end in December 2015, by which time the South Korean army is supposed to become fully “independent.” But successive governments have tried to convince the U.S. to postpone this deadline, probably out of a not unreasonable suspicion that South Korea is not an important enough pawn on the imperialist regional chessboard for the U.S. to always remain as protective of South Korean interests as in the past – especially when it comes to South Korea’s on-going territorial conflicts with neighboring Japan.
Politically, this ant-iNorth scare tactic serves all sorts of useful purposes for the ruling class and its state, in particular to eliminate, or at least tame, any opposition to the regime. This was true under the past dictatorships, of course, but it remains just as true under today’s democratic regime of South Korea.
Use of the word “communism” is still illegal in South Korea, amounting to evidence of “treason,” and no political organization can legally use it in its name or propaganda. The publication of Korean translations of classic communist writings has become possible only recently and only in so far as they do not refer to anything recent, nor to any kind of communist tradition in Korea or in the region. Any contemporary writing must still be carefully edited in order to avoid prosecution.
In the capital, Seoul, discreet posters are still posted up on metro cars and in buses, inviting “concerned” citizens to call a phone number should they notice any “subversive” behavior – anonymity guaranteed, of course. In fact, the law still says explicitly that a conviction for “treason” may attract not just long terms in jail, but also the death penalty. And although the death penalty hasn’t been used since the days of the dictatorship, this threat still hangs over the head of any communist organization.
The instrument used for this anticommunist repression is the National Security Law (NSL), which was enacted by Syngman Rhee’s dictatorship in December 1948, and has remained in force since then with practically no modifications. Under past dictatorships, it was used to arrest, jail, torture and even execute thousands of opposition activists, in order to crush any form of political or trade-union opposition. Anyone who was suspected of sympathy for the North or simply did not show enough enthusiasm in condemning its regime could be accused of “espionage,” which automatically fell under the provisions of the NSL. The “suspect” was then dealt with by the appropriately named Korean CIA (KCIA), a secretive body in charge of enforcing this Cold War legislation.
After the dictatorship ended, this brutal repressive machinery remained in place with hardly any change. The KCIA became the National Intelligence Service (NIS), having gone through a number of name changes. But the nature of this brutal institution did not change, nor did the law that it operates under, the NSL, the name of which did not even change. The mad anticommunism of the Cold War has remained a part of the repressive arsenal of the state. This is especially true after President Lee Myung-bak came into office, just as the banking crisis broke out in 2008.
A report published in 2012 by Amnesty International noted that the number of new cases brought under the NSL had been rising every year, from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011. And while the courts were no longer always prepared to go along with the dubious evidence offered by prosecutors, the legal procedure often took years to unravel and in all likelihood the defendant could face repeated periods of detention before the trial.
This report mentions, for instance, the case of bookseller Kim Myeong-soo, who was charged under the NSL in 2007, for having tried to sell 300 books “with the intention of endangering the existence and security of the State.” These books included a biography of Marx and Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China. When his first trial took place four years later, the defendant proved that all the incriminated books were freely available at the National Assembly Library and he was declared not guilty. Despite this, following a prosecutors’ appeal in February 2012, he was given a 6month jail sentence suspended pending a two year probation.
Another significant case mentioned by Amnesty International is that of the Socialist Workers League (SWL), a small socialist group which was formed in 2008. Six months later, eight leading members of the SWL were charged under the NSL for “propagating or instigating a rebellion against the State.” The only evidence ever produced was the SWL’s participation in the large anti-government protests during that summer and leaflets it had subsequently produced during strikes in the car and construction industries. Nevertheless, in 2012, the eight defendants were given jail sentences of 1 to 2 years, suspended pending probation of 2 to 3 years. The permanent threat of more activists being prosecuted effectively prevented the group from operating publicly and it had to disband – for voicing its opposition to the government and, probably more importantly, advocating the need for the working class to fight back against the bosses’ attacks.
Today, this repressive arsenal may well be tightened up. Thus, under the headline “Another Step Back to Dictatorship,” the liberal Korean daily Hankyoreh reported on January 21: “During a joint briefing by eight agencies at the Blue House [the South Korean equivalent of the U.S. White House], the [interior] ministry reported plans to establish a legal basis for blocking the activities and establishment of groups recognized by courts as enemy aiding or anti-state. The measures would mean a preemptive response to such activities in addition to current after the fact punishments. As a next step, the ministry plans to order the disbanding of enemy aiding groups or to amend the National Security Law to assess compliance charges when groups defy a disbanding order.”
Here the key term is “pre-emptive response.”
In fact, even before any amendment to the NSL has been made, such a “preemptive response” had already taken place. This was the case with the banning of the United Progressive Party (UPP).
Formed in 2011, the UPP was the merger of a number of small left reformist parties. The largest of them, in terms of electoral support and the only one which had a real activist presence on the ground, especially among the working class, was the Korean Democratic Labor Party, the political wing of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). This confederation was formed by the “democratic” unions which emerged during the working class uprising of the late 1980s.
In the 2012 general election, the UPP won 2.2 million votes (10.3% of the popular vote), but due to the way the electoral system favors larger parties, the UPP won just 13 seats out of 300, while the right-wing Saenuri Party (New Frontier Party) and the more liberal Democratic Party gained 279 seats between them. Nevertheless, the UPP became the third largest parliamentary party.
The UPP was, however, hardly a threat for the Saenuri Party’s authoritarian regime – neither in parliamentary nor in extra-parliamentary terms, given the low ebb in the class struggle at that point. Nevertheless, President Park Geun-hye decided to launch an all-out offensive against it.
In August 2013, the NIS raided the homes and offices of ten UPP leaders. Eight of them, including one of its Members of Parliament (MPs), Lee Seok-ki, were jailed and charged with sympathizing with and praising the enemy in violation of the NSL, as well as with conspiracy to incite an insurrection. The charges were based on an allegation by the NIS that Lee Seok-ki had presided over a secret gathering of an underground subversive organization plotting the overthrow of the government. A hysterical media driven trial followed, exposing Lee’s alleged links with North Korea, even though this allegation was later dropped in court by the NIS itself.
In court, the NIS case turned out to be based solely on the transcript of a speech by Lee Seok-ki. Nevertheless, at his first trial Lee was sentenced to 12 years in prison. But, in August 2014, the Seoul High Court found that Lee’s words had been grossly distorted in the original transcript and dismissed the charge of conspiring to overthrow the government. However, despite the absence of any other evidence, it upheld the charges of inciting an insurrection and violating the NSL. Today, Lee and his codefendants still remain behind bars, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.
However, on the basis of this blatant NIS frame-up, at President Park Geun-hye’s request, the Constitutional Court has banned the UPP and disbarred its MPs. What’s more, public protests or criticisms against this ban are also illegal!
For the ruling Saenuri party, this spectacular move serves two purposes. The first one is to reinforce the idea that North Korea is an immediate threat for the South, thereby justifying its aggressive demagogy as opposed to the Democratic Party’s support for a policy designed to normalize the relationship between the two countries.
But the principal purpose is probably to isolate the KCTU, whose only political vehicle was the UPP, and, more generally, against the backdrop of today’s ongoing economic crisis, to clamp down on any attempt from the working class movement to intervene on the political scene.
During three decades of dictatorship, this combination of Cold War scare-mongering, anticommunism and state of siege mentality was an instrument for the capitalist class to impose on the working class the sacrifices necessary to build a national industrial base in what was otherwise a poor country. And if, eventually, the working class explosion of the late 1980s brought the dictatorship down, the country’s state machinery remained largely untouched. Also untouched were the main characteristics of its capitalist class.
It should be recalled that this capitalist class is one of the world’s most highly concentrated, centered around a handful of very large family controlled conglomerates known as “chaebols” (which is a combination of two Korean words meaning “wealth” and “clan”). The past dictatorships engineered the development of these giant conglomerates by handing over control of whole sections of previously Japanese owned industries to a few wealthy, well connected families. The chaebols’ assets were allocated so that each had a monopoly over its own segment of the domestic market, which was protected from foreign competition by high tariff barriers. At the same time, they were offered state funding to export, in order to provide the country with foreign currencies, especially to fund its huge military expenditure.
Other factors contributed to the relatively fast development of South Korean industry: the fact that South Korea was used by the U.S. army as a major logistical base during the Vietnam war; then, from the 1970s, Japanese companies took part of their production to South Korea, and later, U.S. companies followed their example.
But above all, of course, if the chaebols were able to accumulate so many assets and profits, it was thanks mainly to the systematic repression of any form of working class organization by the dictatorship, in the name of the fight against communism. This policy made it possible for the bosses to raise capitalist exploitation to a level which would have been impossible otherwise.
This was how the highly concentrated chaebol system developed, in the shadow of the dictatorship, thanks to its subsidies and repression, and as subcontractor for the most powerful imperialist economies.
Today, as a result of the successive economic crises which shook the country’s economy first in 1997 and then in 2008, this system has become even more concentrated. The original highly specialized “chaebols” have become vastly diversified to the point where they have formed gigantic empires, spanning many different industries.
In 2014, the total revenue of the country’s ten largest chaebols was estimated to be equivalent to 40% of South Korea’s GDP, with the four largest grabbing 30% of GDP. These supergiants are all groups formed in the early years of the dictatorship and are still controlled by their founding families. They are Samsung (450,000 workers), Hyundai (150,000), LG (220,000) and SK (70,000).
These facts are probably enough to give an idea of the chaebols’ economic and political power. It is no coincidence that the current president, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who, between 1961 and 1979, developed the chaebol system, nor that her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, had been the CEO of a company belonging to the Hyundai empire.
Together with the chaebol system, the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee had conceived a quasi military system of control over the workforce, which was run jointly by the Ministry of Labor and its Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), whose local officials acted as auxiliaries of the chaebols’ management. The police were always available to put away any “troublemakers.” With such a system, the chaebols were able to impose whatever conditions they wanted on their workforce.
Then came the uprising of 1987 which put an end to this beautiful construction. Starting at Ulsan, Hyundai’s southern company town, a tidal wave of strikes spread like wildfire with an estimated 3,400 strikes during the first four months. Everywhere illegal “democratic unions” emerged out of the movement and, by the end of 1989, there were over 2,700 of them.
It took a long time for the chaebols and their state to realize that, this time, concessions had become necessary. Hyundai, for instance, stubbornly stuck to its guns for no less than 20 months, despite ongoing protests across its plants. Only after a 104day-long strike by its entire 80,000 strong Ulsan workforce, and the failure to break it despite using airlifted troops, did the Hyundai chaebol finally decide to recognize the strikers’ unions.
But even then, working class activists did not get a free ride over the next few years. This was a period marked by a high level of militancy, especially in the industrial working class, but also by systematic repression against all those trying to give an organized expression to this militancy. In 1990, for example, over a thousand working class activists were still behind bars.
As for the KCTU, it took time to gain legal existence. The predecessor to the KCTU was formed in 1990 by illegal “democratic unions” based mostly in the big factories of the industrial chaebols and by the National Teachers’ Union. But it was immediately banned under the official pretext that it was “waging a pernicious struggle based on an ideology which sees the class struggle as a weapon for Labor emancipation.” It took a long series of general strikes for the confederation to be formally legalized in 1996 under its present name. Obviously, having tried to get their state to repress the KCTU out of existence, the chaebols had come to realize that the KCTU’s illegal status was causing more trouble than it was worth.
It should be said that, in the meantime – with a few exceptions – Samsung being the main one – the chaebols had been implementing age-old tactics of the capitalist classes, that is, “if you can’t beat them, buy them.” The local KCTU branches were recognized and branch officials were granted various perks, like full-time positions. All this, of course, was meant to drive a wedge between the workforce and the activists who became increasingly integrated into the management machinery of their workplaces.
The legalization of the KCTU itself was based on a similar strategy. The KCTU was invited to join all sorts of “tripartite” committees involving state officials and representatives of the bosses. Within a few years of its legalization, the KCTU had been integrated into the machinery of the chaebol state at every level from the very top down to plant level.
But fighting traditions are resilient. No amount of repression or perks could erase the memories of the late 1980s for the generation of activists and rank and file workers who had experienced such an exhilarating feeling of collective strength – the power of a class which had brought the dictatorship down and forced the all powerful chaebols to their knees. And so, despite the integration of the KCTU unions into the machinery of the chaebol state, these traditions keep reemerging over and over again.
In order to undermine these fighting traditions, the chaebols have been increasingly using another way of splitting the ranks of the working class, by developing a multi-tier system of employment.
Before 1987, the norm among the chaebols was generally similar to that of their Japanese counterparts, so-called “lifelong” careers with the same employer promising various benefits in return for unwavering loyalty. However, in the late 1980s, these “lifelong” workers formed the base of the “democratic unions.” So, the chaebols changed tack and developed a second tier of workers who were doing the same jobs, but paid less for more hours.
In practice, such methods were not new. In the past, the chaebols had often altered the employment contracts of certain groups of workers, according to the bosses’ needs. But then, in those days, workers had no rights and the chaebols did not fear any substantial resistance.
But after 1987, this was no longer an option. So, their strategy was to split the workforce into two groups. “Regular” workers, those in “life-long” jobs, would be covered by the relative protection provided by labor legislation and very limited welfare provisions, including the right to join a union, provided it was recognized in their workplace. “Irregular” workers would, on the contrary, have no rights at all – especially not that of joining or forming a union – under the pretext that they were employed on a short-term basis.
The proportion of “irregular” workers began to increase, but it really exploded in the aftermath of the 1997 South East Asian financial crisis, when the government used this crisis as a pretext to remove all existing limitations on the number of “irregular” workers that big companies could employ. At the same time, a bewildering number of different forms of “irregular” employment status appeared, especially through onsite subcontracting, as the law deprived workers in very small companies of their past “regular” status, and the bosses forced them to become “irregular” and/or self-employed subcontractors.
Since then the proportion of “irregular workers” has remained more or less the same in the big factories. Today, it is estimated to be between 50% to 60% of all wage workers, with higher levels in some industries like steel, construction, shipbuilding and car manufacturing.
These “irregular” workers are not covered by minimum wage legislation. Recent statistics from earlier this year show that the hourly wage of an “irregular” worker is about half that of a “regular” worker doing the same job. “Irregulars” work on average 7 hours less per week than “regulars,” and are not guaranteed a minimum number of working hours.
In addition to boosting the chaebols’ profits, the meteoric rise of “irregular” employment was meant to drive a wedge between workers. And it did so all the more successfully since the KCTU fell into the trap that the chaebols had laid for it. Since the law banned “irregular” workers from joining a union, for a long time the KCTU leadership resisted any attempt by its branches to recruit “irregular” workers, for fear of legal retaliation. Likewise any attempt by local activists to get “regular” and “irregular” workers to join ranks in fighting the bosses’ attacks, especially the wage cuts imposed on the working class after the 1997 financial meltdown, were resisted by the KCTU. The KCTU leadership chose to represent the interests of “regular” workers, leaving out the rest of the working class.
Predictably, the chaebols were doing their best to blame the demand of the “irregular” workers for a “regular” job, at a time when jobs “had to be cut,” as a threat to all “regular” workers. And the fact that the KCTU offered no perspective, to unite all the workers faced with this demagogy, only helped widen the gap that the chaebols had dug in the working class.
By the time the present crisis broke out, the KCTU leaders had come to realize that by allowing the bosses to engineer this split among workers without putting up any resistance, they had only managed to saw off the branch on which they were sitting. By playing one section of workers against the other, the chaebols had weakened both – and the KCTU, by the same token.
This, together with the emergence of a number of “irregular” workers’ unions outside the control of the KCTU, finally prompted its leaders to change strategy, especially in its industrial federations most affected by the rise of the “irregular” workforce, for example, the metal workers’ federation (KMWU). And although it did not embark on a systematic recruitment drive among irregular workers, at least it started providing some help to those who had begun to organize.
The 12year-long struggle of Hyundai Motors’ “irregular” workers provides a good illustration of what these workers had to go through in their bid to win decent employment status and the right to organize, in “democratic” South Korea.
In March 2003, this struggle began in earnest when the first “irregular” workers’ union was publicly launched at the Hyundai Asan factory in the west of the country. This example was soon followed in other Hyundai Motors factories in Jeonju, in the southwest, and in Ulsan, in the southeast. Over the following 10 years, while Hyundai’s profits increased fivefold, these unions soldiered on behind the demand for all “irregular” workers to be made regular. They organized petition upon petition, challenged Hyundai’s illegal abuses of the “irregular” worker system in court, organized work stoppages, often seeking the support of the “regular” workers’ unions, but seldom getting any help from them.
In November 2010, 600 “irregular” workers staged a sit-down strike in the Ulsan factory, paralyzing three production lines for several days. Hyundai’s only response, apart from sending in its private police, was to sue 22 activists for more than three million dollars in damages. And even if this sum was finally halved by the courts when the trial took place in 2013, it was so large that it bankrupted the defendants.
In 2010 and in 2012, the highest South Korean courts stated that Hyundai had been acting unlawfully by failing to give “regular” contracts to thousands among its “irregular” workers. But the chaebol just ignored these rulings.
Finally, in late 2012, in a gesture of despair but also of defiance, two founding members of the Ulsan plant union, Cheon Ui-bong and Choe Byeong-seung, climbed up an electricity pylon next to the factory entrance and staged a sit-in there for the following 296 days in support of their union’s demands, surrounded by a cordon of police and company security. When they finally came down, they were immediately arrested and prosecuted for “obstruction” in connection with their sit-in and their participation in previous strikes.
The activists of the Hyundai “irregular” workers’ unions have paid dearly for their struggle: over this period, 320 lost their jobs due to their union activities and 32 served time in jail, with more awaiting trial. The Ulsan branch has been sentenced to pay seven and a half million dollars in damages and its secretary is in jail for calling a strike aimed at getting Hyundai to abide by the courts’ rulings.
By contrast, no court or prosecutor office has ever considered suing Hyundai for damages over its defiance of court orders, let alone putting its managers in jail.
But no matter – the Hyundai “irregular” workers are keeping up their fight and they certainly deserve a lot of respect for that!
Despite the comparatively better conditions enjoyed by “regular” workers, what is true for the “irregular” workers is just as true for them. They may have the right to form and join a union, but this right is limited in all sorts of ways, in particular when it comes to taking action in support of their demands. When it comes to strikes, the chaebols and their state know only one response to working class militancy – brutal repression by company thugs, the police and the courts.
Virtually all strikes in South Korea follow a similar pattern, with some rare exceptions. Apart from general strikes which the government feels it cannot suppress with a blanket ban, any strike going beyond a brief stoppage is illegal. The decision is up to the Ministry of Labor and it can be challenged in court. But the courts’ criteria can usually be summarized as follows: any strike that is detrimental to business is illegal, especially if it is indefinite.
This pattern determines the consequences that strikes usually have for workers who participate in them, especially for those considered “ringleaders” by the bosses. The police are issued arrest warrants by the prosecutor’s office against “ringleaders” designated by the employer. In practice, this means that these activists have to go into hiding for the duration of the strike and that the strike leadership meetings have to be held secretly. Constant harassment by the riot police limits the possibility of holding mass meetings without exposing more strikers and activists to arrest. On the other hand, plant occupations are not tolerated by the police for any length of time and are always brutally attacked using military equipment against which the strikers cannot generally resist. So organizing an effective strike is very difficult, requiring extensive preparations and the active involvement of other groups of workers in the same town or area to protect the strikers against the attacks of the police – precisely what made the strike wave of 198789 so powerful.
Then, once a strike is over, strikers and activists are usually victimized, unless the employer has reason to fear an immediate backlash. In most cases, the “ringleaders” are fired, put on trial for “obstruction of business” and sentenced to prison and/or huge damages designed to bankrupt them for years to come. As a result, those activists who want to carry on the fight after a strike are often forced to go underground until an alternative branch leadership is ready to take over, by which time they hand themselves over to the police to face prosecution. This is also why in many union branches, some of the core activists are fired workers, surviving on little precarious jobs and the financial solidarity of the membership.
Two relatively recent examples will illustrate the brutal class war waged by the chaebols and their state against the working class.
The first example is the 77day occupation of the Ssangyong Motor factory, at Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of Seoul, from May to August 2009. Following the announcement by the plant’s Chinese owner, SAIC, that half of the factory’s 5000strong workforce was facing layoffs, about a thousand workers occupied the plant on May 22. Just three weeks later, the government made a show of strength, issuing arrest warrants against 190 strikers. Some 20,000 riot police were sent to besiege the plant. Faced by such a police force, the strikers staged what their leaders described as a “tactical retreat,” withdrawing into the paint shop building where they prepared for a long siege. The number of strikers taking part in the occupation began to shrink, going down to 450 by mid July. Then, on July 20, the police went on the offensive, cutting off water, gas and electricity, using long distance taser guns and spraying the strikers with tear gas from helicopters. The battle lasted for seven days and nights while the strikers held out against their assailants with Molotov cocktails.
But by the end of the week, almost half of the strikers had been injured and they had to surrender. Most strikers were arrested. Within two months, 32 strikers had been given prison sentences, including the KMWU branch president, who was sentenced to 14 months. Another 80 union activists and strikers were facing trial, among whom 63 were already behind bars, including two vice-presidents of the KMWU. In addition, the courts demanded more than 20 million dollars in damages from a number of KMWU activists.
Finally, the Indian group Mahindra bought Ssangyong Motors and the media widely publicized their commitment to rehire the fired workers “as soon as the economic situation would allow it.”
Five years after the strike, in November 2014, 153 former Ssangyong workers who had been on “unpaid leave” since the strike, were still fighting in the courts for their reinstatement by the company, leaning on the commitment made by the Indian group Mahindra. After their request was dismissed by the High Court in December, two KMWU activists, Lee Chang-geun and Kim Jeong-wook, as spokespersons for the fired workers, carried out a sit-in on top of a 250-yard-high smokestack outside the plant for 101 days, but in vain.
Another example of the chaebols’ class warfare is the 22day rail strike, which took place in December 2013. Despite all the talk about the right of “regular workers” to join a union, the state always resisted any public sector workers’ attempts to organize. In the railways, the state could not stop them from striking, but all strikes – 2003, 2006, 2009 – were met with mass dismissals. And the December 2013 strike was no exception.
This strike was called on December 9 by the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU), an affiliate of the KCTU, over plans to create another subsidiary of the state railway company, Korail, to run one of its high-speed lines. The workers saw this as another step toward privatization. But, above all, if the plan was allowed to go ahead, working conditions were expected to be considerably degraded, as was already the case in existing Korail subsidiaries. There, Korail had forced a 50% cut in starting wages and a doubling of roster lengths up to 26 hours, with only a 3-hour break in the middle.
Fearing that the strike might be declared illegal otherwise, the KRWU called only its own members out, while asking them to scrupulously comply with the compulsory minimum service required by the law. But this self-limitation of the strike proved useless. The government immediately responded by declaring the strike illegal anyhow, and Korail proceeded to fire every striker. By the third day of the strike, 6,748 strikers, mostly KRWU members, out of 20,000, had received termination letters.
Then, rather than trying to rally support for the strike among the rest of the Korail workforce or among working-class commuters, the KRWU leaders focused all their efforts on organizing daily sit-ins outside Korail’s offices, apparently hoping the government would not resort to more repressive measures. This turned out to be a miscalculation. Arrest warrants were issued against the KRWU leaders themselves, and they had to go into hiding. Subsequently the police searched the headquarters of the KRWU and its parent, the KCTU, without success. Finally, mediation was organized by politicians of the main opposition Democratic Party. They promised that no KRWU leader would be prosecuted and that a parliamentary committee would be set up to examine the issue of the Korail subsidiary, in return for the strike being called off. But the fired workers were offered nothing.
As soon as the strike was over, Korail proceeded to fire more union members while announcing the compulsory transfer of many others, starting in February 2014. In many cases, given the high cost of housing and education, this amounted to forcing the transferred workers to resign from their jobs. That led to spontaneous work stoppages, despite the KRWU leadership’s strenuous efforts to discourage members from taking action.
Needless to say, the government delivered on none of the commitments it had made when KRWU ended the strike. Nothing has come out of the parliamentary committee. And the KRWU leaders won no rewards for trying to avoid breaking the law. Korail (i.e., the government) has filed a 25 million dollar lawsuit against the KRWU which, if successful, would bankrupt the union. Moreover, a total 176 KRWU members and officials have been charged by prosecutors, including all 35 members of the union’s leadership. And although the first four defendants to face trial were acquitted last December, the others are still under threat.
So, yes, the class struggle in “democratic” South Korea has all the features of a class war. Under the iron grip of the chaebols’ state, class relations are far more brutal and the contradictions between class interests far more clearly visible. If democratic illusions exist among a section of the working class, they are unlikely to exist for very long. In any case, it is what we can hope for the South Korean working class.
If it was able to sweep away the dictatorship of the past, if it is able to carry on fighting with such relentlessness against the chaebols’ exploitation and the naked violence of their state, it certainly has the resources to sweep away the chaebol system itself, that is, capitalism. But, like everywhere else, it will only be able to do this by reviving the communist tradition – not that of North Korea that has never been communist, but that of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky – and by building a revolutionary party, based on this tradition, on the tradition of the struggles of the past, and determined to lead its future struggles on the basis of working class interests.