Resistance to repression in South Korea

December 17, 2015

Tim Goulet reports on the wave of protests and strikes shaking South Korea.

HUGE PROTESTS have erupted on the streets of South Korea's capital of Seoul over the past few months, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye and an end to government attacks on workers' rights.

On December 16, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), South Korea's second largest union federation, organized a partial general strike to protest the conservative government's proposed labor law "reforms" that would make layoffs easier and expand the hiring of temporary workers.

Some 74,000 workers from 26 KCTU member unions, including workers at Hyundai and Kia, walked out. Another 17,000 unionized workers took to the streets to join the rallies. The KCTU, one of South Korea's more militant unions, previously organized strikes on April 24 and July 15 to oppose the new labor laws. The first strike involved about 260,000 workers, and the second 45,000.

A relatively peaceful protest of some 14,000 took place on December 5. This followed a demonstration of thousands on November 14, where the police responded with harsh repression, spraying the crowds with tear gas and water cannon, seriously injuring several demonstrators.

Han Sang-gyun speaks to supporters outside the Buddhist temple where he took refuge from arrest
Han Sang-gyun speaks to supporters outside the Buddhist temple where he took refuge from arrest (KCTU)

In its appeal for solidarity with the KCTU, the organization Labour Start reported, "Police have arrested nine members and officials of the Public Service and Transportation Workers union over the past two weeks, and imprisoned five officials of the Construction Workers union."

Police also raided various KCTU offices as well as several other affiliated unions and regional branches, confiscating computers, internal documents and hard drives.

Last spring, the government stripped 60,000 members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union of its representation rights and outlawed the Korean Government Employees Union, according to Tim Shorrock, writing for the Nation.

THE KCTU is at the center of the resistance to the government's anti-labor onslaught. Representing 800,000 members and the interests of some 9.4 million South Korean workers, it represents the biggest roadblock to the authoritarian and neoliberal policies of the Park government and her ruling New Frontier Party (NFP), known as Saenuri.

KCTU President Han Sang-gyun was recently arrested by police at the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, where he had taken refuge. The police had issued an arrest warrant for him last spring due to the KCTU's alleged violation of assembly and traffic laws during last year's May Day demonstrations. When 2,000 police surrounded the temple and threatened to raid it, Han turned himself over to authorities.

It is easy to see why Han would be a target. In 2009, Han led an occupation of a Ssangyong motor plant where 900 workers locked themselves in for 77 days to protest layoffs, costing Han three years in jail. Upon being released, Han climbed a 124,000-volt electric transmission tower 164 feet in the air for 171 days with other comrades to force candidates in the 2012 presidential election to take a position on the Ssangyong dispute, a battle that still goes on today.

It was this courage and militancy that won Han the leadership of the KCTU--he ran on a pledge to launch a general strike if elected. "Because without a fight, what's left of organized labor, the only means to defend the rights of workers, can ultimately become obsolete," said Han in November.

Recent protests have included a coalition of some 52 organizations known as the People Power Coordinating Body, organized principally by the KCTU and the Peasant League. The coalition unites workers, students, farmers and sections of the urban poor opposed to not only the government's anti-labor agenda, but also a series of pro-corporate policies and anti-democratic initiatives meant to help enforce the labor law reform.

The proposed "reforms" would greatly empower the country's huge business conglomerates, or chaebols, in order to tilt the balance of power away from the labor unions, make it easier to fire workers and allow greater "labor flexibility."

Sold as a measure to "combat youth unemployment," Park and South Korea's ruling conservative party have proposed instituting a performance-based wage system in place of the existing seniority-based system, beginning in the public sector. This reform would also make it easier to terminate workers, increase the use of temporary contract labor, and allow employers to make unilateral changes in employment rules without consultation with the unions.

"The reform initiative comes as South Korea pursues a series of free trade agreements (FTAs) that will further undermine the country's food sovereignty and limit its sovereign sphere by impeding its policy-making powers," explains Hyun Lee, a member of the U.S.-Korea Solidarity Committee for Peace and Democracy.

For example, the three-year-old Korea-U.S. FTA has egregiously "given foreign corporations the power to control South Korea's domestic policies through the controversial investor-state dispute system, which enables foreign corporations to challenge the country's laws on the grounds that they may interfere with the corporation's ability to make profits," according to Hyun.

SOUTH KOREA'S industrial development accelerated rapidly in the 1980s. The economy was based primarily on exports and was driven by the large family-run conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. Industrial production primarily included electronics, steel, textiles and automobiles. Due to a strong labor movement forged in the battle against dictatorship in the '70s and '80s, wages and employment conditions were relatively secure and rising along with the rapid growth of South Korea's economy.

This picture changed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Foreign capital swooped in and bought up ownership of South Korean businesses on the cheap, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to bail out the country--in exchange for the country's acceptance of an IMF "structural adjustment" program and market liberalization measures. This included two major reforms that severely devastated the working class and its organizations: legalization of layoffs and subcontracting of labor.

South Korea now has the highest amount of part-time/precarious workers in all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The International Trade Union Confederation considers South Korea among the worst countries for labor rights, where, according to the Wall Street Journal, workers "are systematically exposed to unfair dismissals, intimidation, arrests and violence often leading to serious injuries and death."

Due to the implementation of free-trade agreements, both industrial and agricultural workers have become heavily exploited by transnational capital. Farming areas have been devastated due to the noncompetitive nature of domestic agriculture, driving an exodus of youth from rural areas into the cities for work. Due to a dearth of full-time employment, most of those who arrive are subjected to day labor, barely earning minimum wage.

In order to impose these draconian policies, the state has turned to police repression and heavy punitive measures to attempt to quell resistance. Article 33 of the South Korean Constitution guarantees workers the right to form unions, collectively bargain for wages and working conditions, and take part in collective action to press for their rights. Activists say these rights have been progressively trampled on with the onset of neoliberal restructuring.

THE KCTU has accused the government of "regressing to the dictatorial era," particularly with Park's denial of the constitutional right to assembly. This is clearly alludes to Park's father, Park Chung-hee, the dictator who took power in a 1961 military coup and whose policies are being recycled today.

Recent protests have also drawn in a significant number of academics and students in response to what they claim have been attempts by the government to curtail free speech. The Park government is attempting to impose a policy to order the nation's schools to use a single government-approved history textbook in place of the eight different books utilized now. Opponents to Park's plan maintain that the new book is intended to glorify former right-wing governments and cover up previous human rights violations.

Still, Han Sang-gyun, the KCTU president, although currently in government custody, has vowed to continue the fight. In a recent press statement, Han wrote, "This is a historic struggle, which we can and must win."

The major demands of the KCTU are to put an end to the labor-market reforms, abolish precarious employment and hold the government and chaebols responsible. But overall, the goal is to radically transform a system that invariably produces class inequality and oppression.

The KCTU, along with the People Power Coordinating Body, have been busy with a number of tactics to build momentum and raise consciousness. Every region has been holding rallies, and a national bus tour has been established to spread the organizing campaign across the country. In Seoul, an ad campaign on city buses has been put in place to appeal to the general public about the problems with the labor-market reforms.

South Korean workers are showing how to fight back against neoliberal austerity and attacks on working-class living standards. They need our full solidarity.

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