Over the last month, South Korea has made headlines because of huge protests with more than 130,000 participating, and a pending general strike, called for 16 December. This will be the second general strike this year, after 100,000 workers rallied on 24 April to oppose planned labour law reforms by the conservative government of President Park Geun-Hye.
In the aftermath of the largest demonstration so far on 14 November, the leader of the radical Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), Han Sang-gyun, has been arrested by 2000 police officers surrounding the Buddhist temple where he had been hiding since 16 November. Their offices have been raided and another 14 trade unionists have been arrested as well. Despite the government’s attempts to ban the follow-up demonstration on 5 December, another 30,000 took to the streets to oppose their actions. The labour law reforms foresee a wage-cut for older employees, a rise of the pension age in public services, an extension of irregular working contracts to four years and to more industries amongst others. These measures are only the latest in a series of attacks against the living-standard of the working class.
The discontent and anger against the government has long been growing and more and more voices call for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. These demonstrations and strikes are not the first ones since the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee took office in 2012. Over the last few years, there have been several scandals surrounding the ruling party as well as harsh attacks on the living standard of the working class. While they plan privatizations and cuts in several sectors including health and education, any resistance by the workers is met with harsh repression by the government: trade unionist leaders are frequently sentenced to jail and met with heavy fines; the progressive teachers’ and education workers’ union, as well as public service unions, have been outlawed.
This fundamental curtailment of workers’ rights by Park is accompanied by other measures that are reminiscent of her father’s dictatorship. Right after her inauguration it became known that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) heavily intervened in the election campaign to favour Park’s candidature. Invoking a breach of the notorious National Security Law (which was frequently used under military rule), Park then banned the second-largest opposition party, the Unified Progressive Party, claiming that its leaders were collaborating with North Korea and planning an insurrection. She has further ordered unified history textbooks for schools, approved by the government, which will likely whitewash the dictatorial past of the still-young Republic. In another series of demonstrations, the public blamed her government for the bad handling of the tragic sinking of passenger ferry MV Sewol in April 2014, where 304 people drowned, most of them school-students.
These excessive displays of power by the state show at the same time the underlying instability and fragility of the political and economic situation in South Korea, which will intensify in the coming period against the backdrop of an economic slowdown.
The South Korean economy is heavily dependent on exports, which makes up 41% of its GDP – out of which more than 20% go to China. Important economic sectors include the car industry and shipbuilding, but also electronics and petroleum. After the beginning of the crisis in 2008, South Korea initially recovered quickly from a slump with a 6% GDP growth rate in 2010, which has decreased to around 3% or lower over the last few years. As the markets are shrinking on a global scale, export-oriented countries such as South Korea cannot maintain their growth much longer. In particular, the collapse of the Chinese markets this summer has hit Korea hard, with a 15% dent in export figures this year after a consistent decline since January. The ruling class is very well aware of what this implies. In a press release the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) stated:
“[W]ith regard to the slowing global economy, in particular China, we need to change our growth strategies by restructuring the corporate sector and addressing excess production capacity, and turn to China’s consumer markets by developing final goods and service products. (…) A task force has been launched to be prepared for prolonged drought, and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance will provide 9.4 billion won of support to accelerate the construction of irrigation channels in the country’s mid-western region.” (MOFS, 27 October, 2015)
The government has now decided to implement a large stimulus package of 10.5 billion USD in the hope that this will secure economic growth.
The recipe of increased public spending to “create jobs” and encourage consumption, in combination with a lowering of interests rate – which the Korean central bank has done twice this year – in the hope of more investments, is not new. In fact, Park’s plans of publicly-financed construction projects (that will likely favour her personal business friends) recall Japan’s corrupt construction projects, which have not borne out results since the 1990s, when they were started with a similar reasoning. Most central banks on a world scale have low or even negative interest rates, which so far have not had any lasting effect on the economy, since the capitalists cannot hope to get returns for investing in crisis-prone markets. From this situation follows the Korean government’s aggressive strategy to undermine the strength of organized labour, while implementing far-reaching restructuring and privatization plans.
A fighting working class
Faced with these attacks, the Korean working class has once again risen and is prepared to fight for its right and working conditions. Over the last few years there have been numerous strikes by health workers, truck drivers, Hyundai workers and others. There have been three general strikes, maybe most notably in 2013, when railway workers went on a three-week strike against restructuring plans and were supported by the two largest umbrella organizations, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) and the KCTU, who organized a general strike on 27 December that year.
A short history of the workers’ movement
The Korean workers’ movement has great revolutionary and militant traditions, of which it is very conscious. Under the Japanese colonial rule that lasted from 1910 until the end of World War 2, anti-imperialist and socialist ideas spread quickly within the still small proletariat. In 1919 the first strike took place, and after the retreat of the Japanese oppressors in the summer of 1945, a revolutionary movement swept across the country with farmers redistributing the land and workers taking over the production in factories. The councils that had sprung up all over the country proclaimed a People’s Republic and implemented progressive labour laws as well as equal rights for women and men and other measures. When the US troops arrived only a few months later, this movement was brutally crushed and, over the following years leading up to the separation of the country in 1948, thousands of activists were killed.
After the Korean War that raged from 1950-53 between the North and South and its corresponding power blocks, the Soviet Union, China and the US, the working class of South Korea was severely reduced in numbers and robbed of all of its organisations. In the face of a very weak Korean bourgeoisie to lean on, the US propped up authoritarian, Bonapartist regimes, first under Rhee Syng-man and then under Park-Chung hee, who took power through a military coup in 1961 and ruled until his assassination in 1979.
The atomized but fast-growing working class made its first attempts to build a union movement in the 1970s, started by the self-immolation of the tailor Chun Tae-Il in protest against inhuman working conditions under Park’s state-led industrialisation. In the 1970s it was noticeably female workers in the light industry who started to build a grassroots movement, independently of the governmentally controlled FKTU unions. During a memorable strike action in the YH Trading Company, female activists occupied the building of the opposition party and thus catapulted the issues of workers into the political sphere for the first time.
Unfortunately the movement was interrupted again by the assassination of Park Chung-hee, and the crushing of the subsequent democratic movement of 1980, which reached its peak with the week-long armed self-defence and uprising of Gwangju city by its citizens. General Chun Doo-Hwan took over in another coup and led ferocious attacks on any critical opposition under the cover of anti-communism.
However, the economy, which had shifted from light industry to heavy and chemical industry towards the end of the 1970s, created a large industrial proletariat that continued the unionisation efforts in the 1980s under severe repression and illegal status. Meanwhile, a wider popular movement, the “Minjung”-movement (kor. “popular masses”) grew stronger and was finally one of the main factors that brought down Chun Doo-Hwan’s dictatorship in 1987. The Korean working class showed its full might in the Great Workers’ Struggle of 1987-8 in which impressive strike actions in the heavy and chemical industry won up to 20% increase in wages and for the first time consolidated the Korean working class as a visible and very powerful social force. It was out of this struggle that the predecessor of today’s radical umbrella organization KCTU was born.
The working class needs a political instrument – struggles in the 1990s
Despite the heroic efforts and militancy of the Korean working class, the movement also has weaknesses which are partly due to the difficult objective situation into which it was born. What the working class in Korea needs is its own political formation, a workers’ party which can transform its various economic struggles into a political one. The election of a friend of the previous dictator, Rho Tae-woo, as the first president heralded the start of the new democratic Republic in 1987. The liberal opposition candidates had not been able to settle on one candidate, thus split the vote between three, though none of them were “workers’ candidates”. Following the transition, the inability of the trade union movement to address wider social topics led to the building of numerous active civil-society groups and associations that did not see themselves as linked to the workers movement.
The trade union activists soon realized their need for a party on their own and took some steps in this direction in the 1990s. However, when the state resumed its repressive policy towards organized labour, the movement was faced with many obstacles. With the full integration into the ‘free markets’ and the deregulation of the financial sector, the capitalists felt the need to redefine their approach towards labour radically. The introduction of casualisation of the workforce and new management techniques, as well as an ideological, neoliberal offensive posed great challenges to the unions who still operated under semi-legal conditions (the KCTU was only legalised in 1998). The separation of relatively well-paid workers in large firms, as opposed to temporary and irregular workers, especially in smaller subcontractors, led to a tendency of larger unions to oppose the KCTUs approach which they found “too political”. For example, in 2009 several Hyundai unions formerly associated with the KCTU distanced themselves, arguing that they wanted to bargain with the management in a friendlier manner. On the other hand, however, many sectors that were previously unorganized, in particular white collar workers, formed unions during the first half of the 1990s.
Under these circumstances, the world watched with great surprise, when a massive strike wave with a long general strike hit South Korea in 1997-8. The KCTU as well as the FKTU joined the strikes, week-long sit-ins and militant fights with the police force took place .The demands of the workers enjoyed large popular support. The workers’ offensive was initiated by the decision of the Kim Young-sam government to implement reforms in the labour law that had been drafted in secret and passed in Parliament in absence of the opposition members on 26 December 1997. This move led to an outcry in society and made the population highly sympathetic towards the workers’ struggle. Despite the collective effort of the Korean workers however, the strikes ultimately ended in a defeat.
In 1997, the Asian crisis hit South Korea hard and made the government agree to a huge financial “aid” programme from the IMF on 4 December, to bail out large corporations and banks. The pressure exerted on the unions increased by the measures dictated by the IMF and led to the acceptance of the labour laws with almost no alterations by the leadership of the KCTU and the FKTU. The new President Kim Dae-jung also proposed a Tripartite Council – which meant the inclusion of trade unions in discussions to preserve social peace, inspired by the social cooperation model of many Western European countries – which was initially agreed to by the trade union federations. However, the rank and file of the KCTU was enraged by this rebelled against the leadership which was deselected and replaced by a more radical one.
Political efforts so far
During these tumultuous times, the first political, left-wing projects took shape. However, the political baggage of Korea’s history is clearly visible in these attempts. The existence of North Korea has shaped left-wing politics in South Korea in several ways.
First and foremost, the ever-present anti-communism and repression have made it difficult for left activists to embrace openly the idea of socialism without being convicted for “support of the enemy”.
Furthermore, the left-wing has had strong influences of anti-imperialist (anti-US and anti-Japan) ideas and the struggle for national liberation. The demand of national reunification is very important to the left. During and after the Minjung-movement of the 1980s, two camps emerged within the South Korean left.
The ‘National Liberation’ faction is strongly motivated by solidarity with North Korea and defends Stalinist concepts such as popular-frontism and stage theory which dictate that Korea first needs a “bourgeois, democratic” revolution before it is ready for socialism. This was expressed in the support of liberal presidential candidate Kim Dae-Jung in 1987.
The other faction, the “People’s Democracy” faction, called for the creation of an independent workers’ party under the slogan “liberation of labour” (Nodong Haebang) and started the experiment of the so-called Minjung-Party which failed in the election of 1992 and disbanded after.
In an attempt to unify the two camps, the so-called People’s Victory 21 project was started in 1997 that led to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), which gained 13% in the 2004 elections – the first time that a left party gained a significant share of votes. However, the split between the National Liberation camp and the Liberation of Labour camp soon became prominent again and led to a split, whereby the NL-camp, true to its traditions, merged with liberal forces into the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) (which was banned recently by the president).
The remainders of the DLP went back to the original plan of an independent voice for labour, first as the “New Progressive Party” with no electoral success (1 seat in the 2009 National Assembly elections), then as the Labour Party, which had its official founding congress in 2013 and is affiliated to the KCTU.
The recent developments in South Korea show clearly that the objective situation is shaping the consciousness of the workers and youth who oppose the anti-democratic austerity regime of Park Geun-hye.
The heavy attacks on democratic rights and living standards call for strong solidarity and organisational efforts from the working class and the youth. The next years will bring great economic and political instability to East Asia as a whole, as recent protests in China as well as Japan indicate.
The problems of the region are rooted in the deep capitalist crisis and cannot be solved within this system. The working classes of China, Korea and Japan are huge and powerful and combined are an unstoppable force. The South Korean working class has shown fierce determination and militancy in defending its rights in the past and present. In order to succeed, it has to break through the political isolation of the left and lead a determined fight against capitalism, together with its class brothers and sisters in the neighbouring countries