The Korean Working Class: From Mass Strike
to Casualization and Retreat, 1987-2008
Similar to patterns that have been played out in Spain and Portugal
(1974-76) as well as in Brazil (1978-83) since the mid-1970’s, the
Korean working class in the late 1980’s destroyed the foundations of a
decades-old military dictatorship with remarkable mass strikes in the
years 1987-1990. The strikes resulted in the creation, briefly
(1990-1994) of radical democratic unions and in high wage increases
across the board. But, as in other cases, the working class was
relegated to the role of battering ram for a “democratic” political
agenda that quickly embraced globalization and the neo-liberal mantra
of free markets. In fact, even before the strike wave but particularly
thereafter, Korean capital was already investing abroad and pushing
neo-liberal austerity at home. In 1997-98, the Asian financial crisis
forced Korea under the tutelage of the IMF and greatly accelerated the
casualization of the Korean working class which had been the main
capitalist riposte to the breakthroughs of the late 1980’s. Today, at
least 60% of the work force is casualized in the most brutal way,
subject to instantaneous layoffs and half or less the wages and
benefits of the 10% of the work force classified as “regular workers”.
The bureaucratic remnants of the radical democratic unions of the early
1990’s are today reviled corporative organizations of that
working-class elite, and as many struggles take place between regular
and casualized workers as against capital itself.
Part One: Historical Background
Starting in June 1987 and continuing in significant ways until 1990,
the strike wave known in Korea as the Great Workers’ Struggle (Nodongja
Taettujaeng) ranks with Polish Solidarnosc (1980-81), the Iranian
workers councils of (1979-1981) and the Brazilian strike wave of
1978-1983 as one of the foremost episodes of working-class struggle of
the 1980’s. The strike wave shattered the foundations of almost
uninterrupted dictatorship following the end of the Korean War, won
significant wage increases for large sectors of the Korean working
class, and briefly established (from
1990 to 1994) radical democratic unions in the National Congress of
Trade Unions (ChoNoHyop), committed at least verbally to
No sooner had this strike wave triumphed when its gains began to be
seriously undermined. The ChoNoHyop was destroyed by government
repression of its best militants. The government was on the other hand
prepared to tolerate the more conservative activists of the Korean
Confederation of Trade Unions (Minju Nochong or KCTU), starting in
1995; in December 1996, the government attempted to ram through a labor
casualization law that the KCTU half-heartedly opposed in the January
1997 general strike. In the fall of 1997, the Asian financial meltdown
brought South Korea under the tutelage of the IMF in exchange for a $57
billion bailout, with the IMF explicitly demanding casualization of
labor and mass layoffs as part of its restructuring program. In
December 1997 long-time democratic oppositionist Kim Dae Jong was
elected president of Korea, and in February 1998 he brought the KCTU
into the “historic agreement” to accept hundreds of thousands of
layoffs and downsizings in accord with IMF demands, in exchange for
For window dressing, the Kim Dae Jong government in 1998 also
established the Tripartite Commission of state, capital and labor along
corporatist lines, a meaningless body which has acted, of course, only
on behalf of the state and capital.
In spite of this grim tableau and almost unending series of setbacks,
the Korean working class has had to be beaten down step by step, with
long, bitter strikes, and recent events show that this combativity is
far from eliminated.
Today, twenty years after the Great Workers’ Struggle of 1987, the
Korean labor situation has evolved into one of the most successful
capitalist casualizations in the world, certainly in any advanced
industrial country. Approximately 10% of the Korean work force is
organized in KCTU unions with regular jobs and salaries, while another
60% is casualized, outsourced and downsized. At Hyundai Motor Company,
for example, one of the bastions of the industrial militancy of
1987-90, regular workers and casual workers work side by side, doing
exactly the same jobs, with the casuals earning 50% of the wages of the
regular workers (the latter earning between $50,000 and $60,000 per
year, plus bonuses and overtime). The KCTU is broadly hated in the
casualized working class as a corporatist mouthpiece for the
highly-paid regular workers, and regular workers for their part have
even physically attacked casual workers when the latter wildcat (as
happened for example at Kia Motor Company in August 2007). In the
recent (December 2007) elections, large numbers of workers voted for
the hard-right One Nation Party (Hanaratang) presidential candidate Lee
former Hyundai CEO and mayor of Seoul, in the vain hope of a return to
the expansive economy of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
How the Korean working class went from offensive struggle and victory
to casualization and retreat in a mere two decades, then, is the
subject of this article.
Part Two: Democracy Sells
Austerity; Class Struggle In An Authoritarian Development Regime
We would do well to situate the experience of the Korean working class
in the larger cycle of transitions from dictatorship to (bourgeois)
democracy, starting in Spain and Portugal (1974-1976), and continuing
in such countries as Poland and Brazil. We can
also note that, after the Iberian “transitions”, the subsequent
explosions took place during a period of rollback and retreat in the
North American and European working classes.
Indeed, they took place in the overall context of world economic crisis
following the end of the post-World War II boom. In Iberia, Poland and
Brazil, as in South Korea, a major working-class intervention in
politics and society was preceded by a lengthy period of intensive
“economic growth” (of highly varying quality) and intensive repression
of independent working class activity,
organization and wages. In each case, workers’ struggles were central
to the battle of the broader “democratic opposition” against
dictatorship, and in each case, the broader “democratic opposition”
took power and implemented (always in close collaboration with
international capital) tough austerity programs that fragmented the
working-class movement. One might conclude that “democracy sells
austerity” and that, indeed, is my conclusion.
The Korean case, of course, has many specifics that should not be
submerged in any general comparison.
Korea was, in 1960, considered an economic “basket case”, as poor on a
per capita basis as India or Tanzania. In 1996, with great fanfare, it
was welcomed into the OECD as an “advanced economy” and only one year
later (as indicated) fell under the control of the
Nevertheless, Korea, one of the Asian “tigers” alongside Taiwan, Hong
Kong and Singapore, stood out in the period 1960-1997 as one of a
handful of success stories, set against the hundred failures and
retrogression of Third World countries that were recipients of Western
“aid” and IMF and World Bank tutelage.
What made Korea different? We can immediately cite its special status
(like the other tigers) as a “showcase” outpost of American
imperialism, whose economic success was an important propaganda
counterweight to the (so-called) socialist regimes in the immediate
vicinity, namely North Korea, China and the Soviet Union. The United
States, with tens of thousands of troops
in South Korea after the end of the Korean War, tolerated statist
development policies there that it routinely opposed or subverted in
the rest of the underdeveloped world.
Second, South Korea, like Taiwan, was different from almost all other
Third World countries by the agrarian reform which definitively
eliminated the pre-capitalist “yangban” aristocracy between 1945 and
1950. (This reform took place under the intense pressure of the
agrarian reform in the north, one extended to the south when Kim
il-sung’s armies briefly captured almost the entire peninsula in the
early months of the war.)
Third, South Korea, poor in natural resources and flattened in the
hostilities of 1950-1953, is the country par excellence of “human
capital”, with a heavy emphasis on, not to say mania for education.
Even in 1960, there was 90% adult literacy, hardly the case in
then-comparable Third World countries.
The country was divided at the 38th parallel in 1945 by the occupying
armies of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The defeat of Japan in World
War II ended 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, the latter having been
an important moment in laying the foundations of a modern capitalist
economy (the exact legacy of this period is controversial to this day).
When the Japanese occupiers fled in August 1945, one to two million
workers in the US zone built workers’ councils (Changpyong, or the
Council of National Workers in Choson) in the abandoned factories, less
from any specific commitment to worker self-management (the Korean left
was overwhelmingly Stalinist)
than from sheer necessity of producing the basics of daily life. This
system of workers’ councils was duly shut down by the U.S. occupation
authorities in December 1945.
As in the European countries occupied by Nazi Germany and whose
bourgeoisies had also been collaborators, the Korean yangban and small
capitalist class were politically and socially discredited. From such
motley forces, the U.S. occupation had to cobble together a viable
government capable of defeating the aroused workers and peasants, many
of whom were strongly favorable to Kim il-Sung and his guerrilla
forces, and generally in favor of radical change. The U.S. seized upon
the figure of Rhee Syngman, and oversaw and participated in the
merciless crushing of the left in the southern
zone in five years of partisan warfare and massacres prior to the
outbreak of the war with North Korea in June 1950. Whatever remained of
a serious left in 1950 was physically eliminated during the war years
or fled to the North (where many of them were also eliminated). The
continuity with the pre-1945 Korean left in the south was entirely
broken, a factor that played no small role in the reawakening that
began in the 1970’s.
Rhee Syngman ruled a generally inept, economically stagnant South Korea
until 1960, propped up entirely by American military support and aid.
He was finally overthrown in riots led by students in 1960, and South
Korea enjoyed a brief democratic opening. This opening was closed again
by the coup d’etat of Park Chung-hee in 1961, and a new era began.
Park Chung-hee was not, or at least not only the typical
American-supported two-bit puppet dictator of the post-World War II
period. He is widely believed (though to my knowledge no definitive
proof has come to light) to have been a Communist as early as 1943, and
in 1948 he was arrested as part of a Communist study group of young
officers. When he seized power in 1961, the U.S. initially hesitated to
recognize him, and several times during his dictatorial rule
(1961-1979) the U.S. distrusted his nationalist impulses (as in his
independent nuclear power program) and his occasional diplomatic
flirtations with North Korea.
Further, Park had been educated at a Japanese military academy during
World War II, and was greatly enamored of the Japanese economic
development model, which he promptly attempted to emulate in South
Korea, with a certain success. Since the Japanese
model had in turn been copied from the Prussian model in the late 19th
century, South Korea acquired a certain “German” veneer which is
generally obscured under the highly-disputed (and often obscured)
Japanese legacy. Park’s constitution, for example, was
written by a Korean jurist who studied law in Germany in the 1950’s,
and who became enamored with the theories of Carl Schmitt; hence “state
of emergency” was a cornerstone of Park’s ideology. Ahn Ho Sang, who
had been openly pro-Nazi in the 1930’s and had studied in Germany in
the Hitler period, wrote the postwar high school history manuals with
the kind of hyper-nationalist mythmaking inherited from German romantic
More fundamentally, Park cracked down on the parasitic capitalists of
the Rhee period and either eliminated them or dragooned them into
productive investment. He implemented the “New Village” (Se Maul)
policy in the countryside, designed to fully capitalize agriculture and
force large rural populations into the cities and into industrial
employment. Through the Cold War anti-Communist Federation of Korean
Trade Unions (FKTU), the regime exercised a draconian control over
labor, with seven-day, 12-hour shift work weeks not untypical, and
enforced when necessary with police terror and torture. During the Park
era, the famous chaebol (conglomerates) rose to pre-eminence, under
state control of credit and selection of “national champion”
industries, the practice later denounced as “crony capitalism” when the
Korean economy ran into trouble in the 1990’s.
Korea, like the other tigers and unlike most Third World countries in
that period, developed by making its way, with an export-oriented
strategy, up the international “product chain”, beginning with textiles
and other light consumer industries, then proceeding to manufacture
(auto, shipbuilding) and finally to high-tech,
capturing important world markets for computer components by the 1990’s.
The economic success of the Park chung-hee decades, obviously, cannot
be separated either from his dictatorial methods or from the
international conjuncture of the time (two realities widely overlooked
today in debates about South Korea’s mounting economic problems; the
December 2007 victory of the hard right in the presidential elections
drew on a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the Park era). In addition to
benefiting from its high profile in U.S. Cold War geopolitical
strategy, the South Korean economy also rode the growing wave of
industrial investment which, beginning ca. 1965, began to search for
venues outside of North America and Europe. Remuneration of Koreans
abroad also played a significant role, as South Korean troops
repatriated millions of dollars from service in the Vietnam War and
tens of thousands of South Korean workers went to the Middle East to
work on construction projects in the post-1973 oil boom.
Given the centrality of light manufacture in the 1960’s “takeoff”
period, then, the rebirth of the Korean working-class movement not
accidentally began in the textile industries, and also not accidentally
(since the work force was predominantly made up of young women) led by
The contemporary Korean workers’ movement marks its symbolic beginning
from November 13, 1970, when Jeon Tae-il, a young textile worker,
immolated himself at a small demonstration in one of Seoul’s sweatshop
districts. Jeon had previously pursued every legal form of redress for
the sweatshop workforce, to no avail.
The movement of the 1970’s was characterized by a rising number of
strikes conducted in the most extreme conditions by women textile
workers. The demands were simple and straightforward, aimed at the
inhuman working hours, low wages, authoritarian foremen and enforced
dormitory life of the women, who were generally recruited directly from
the countryside and from the shantytowns that sprang up around Seoul
and other cities. The strikes were met almost without exception with
brutal repression by factory security personnel, police, soldiers and
hired thugs from the Korean underworld. The struggle for a democratic
union at the Dongil Textile Company in Inchon from 1972 to 1976 was
exemplary in this regard.
The 1970’s also saw the beginnings of involvement in the workers’
movement by (mainly Christian) religious groups and radical students
(the latter known as “hakchul”, or “coming from the university”). The
religious groups were inspired by Catholic liberation theology and
similar Protestant social doctrines. The religious groups and students
formed night schools for textile workers, teaching literacy and
secretarial skills but also basic workers’ rights.
The 1970’s, finally, saw the rise of the minjung (popular culture)
movement, closely connected to the religious and early hakchul
movement. The largely middle-class minjung movement reached into Korean
popular culture, fast eroding under the impact
of forced-march modernization, and attempted to utilize it in the
creation of a “counter-culture of struggle” using music and dance from
Korean shamanism and rural peasant traditions, creations that were
successful in solidifying group determination to struggle against very
heavy odds and repression. To this day, singing, reminiscent of the
American IWW, remains an important part of the Korean workers’
movement, with demonstrations and strikes singing dozens of songs that
everyone knows by heart.
The Korean movement of the 1970’s, whether labor or hakchul or minjung
or religious, remained very much in the framework of liberal democratic
ideology and tended to look sympathetically to the United States as a
force that would steer the Korean dictatorship
toward democracy. All this changed with the Kwangju uprising and
subsequent massacre of May 1980.
Korea has historically been a country of intense regional loyalties,
loyalties which have persisted into the era of modern capitalism.
Cholla province, in the southwest, has traditionally been a region of
agriculture and backwardness. Park chung-hee, on the other
hand, was from the southeastern Gyeongsang province, and his industrial
policies were primarily directed there, giving rise to the major
centers of Ulsan, Pohang, and Pusan. The people of Cholla province
resented this neglect.
In 1979, mass demonstrations were sweeping the country, demanding
democracy. Workers were in the forefront of many of these
demonstrations. In October of that year, Park chung-hee was
assassinated by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency,
allegedly after an argument about how to contain and repress the
Part Three: The Kwangju Uprising
and the Turn to “Marxism-Leninism”
A brief democratic opening, similar to 1960, took place, but Park was
succeeded by another military dictator, Chun Doo Hwan. In May 1980, the
army fired on a demostration in Kwangju, the largest city in Cholla
province. The result was an uprising in which the population of Kwangju
took control of the city, armed themselves
with weapons taken from a military armory, and fought the forces of
repression, including an elite unit withdrawn from the DMZ with North
Korea, for days. Estimates of the total dead on both sides (most of
them obviously from the repression of the revolt) in Kwangju run as
high as 2000.
Kwangju was sealed off and extreme censorship prevented any serious
information from leaking out. (Korea’s draconian National Security Law,
dating from 1948 and still in effect today, made it a serious
crime, well into the 1990’s, to discuss the Kwangju uprising in
public.) .It was, however, widely believed that the U.S. government,
smarting from the recent overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, in the
midst of the Tehran hostage crisis, and wanting no more mass radical
movements against pro-U.S. dictators, had been deeply involved in the
decision to use extreme force (a belief greatly strengthened by more
recent disclosure of documents on government-to-government
communication during the crisis).
From that point onward, the Korean movement shifted quickly away from
the liberal democratic and religious ideologies of the 1970’s to a more
radical, essentially “Marxist-Leninist” orientation to revolution.
This ideological turn shows the importance of the whole earlier period:
the virtually total discontinuity with the left that emerged after the
Japanese collapse in 1945 and which was destroyed by government and
U.S. military repression between 1945 and 1953; the decades of
dictatorship after the Korean War which branded the mildest social
criticism as North-inspired; the isolation of South Korea from the
world ferment of the 1960’s and beyond. (When Korean students joined
underground opposition groups in the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the
first tasks was often to learn Japanese, in order to read all the
political (and particularly Marxist) books which could not be published
in Korea.) Thus the decades-long erosion of Stalinism as it was lived
in Europe and the U.S., the impact of 1968 and the Western New Left,
the radical critique of Leninism, the Hegel renaissance and the impact
of the popularization of the 1840’s Marx, were all unknown or seen
through a glass darkly in South Korea. (In the early 1980’s, a
clandestine study group formed to read Lukacs’s and Hegel’s writings on
aesthetics—in German—and was discovered; its members were sentenced to
six months in prison.) As a result, the radicalization of the Korean
movement after Kwangju proceeded almost invariably along Stalinist,
“Marxist-Leninist” lines, pro-Soviet, pro-China, pro-North Korea, but
Stalinist across the board. Trotsky was little known until the late
1980’s, to say nothing of left-wing critiques of Trotsky.
Some of the Marxist-Leninist factions that emerged in the 1980’s were
the starting point of the two major tendencies in the organized Korean
movement today (in both the previously-mentioned KCTU and the Korean
Democratic Labor Party or KDLP). Those factions are the pro-North Korea
“National Liberation” (NL, or juche-ists, so called because of North
Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance doctrine) and the large minority
“People’s Democracy” (PD, more Social Democratic). In the run-up to the
December 2007 presidential election, the Juche-ists took full control
of the apparatus of the KDLP, and purged some PD
members. (It is also important to note that both the NL and PD factions
have their base mainly in white-collar unions, such as banking,
teachers and other civil servants, whereas blue-collar workers are
largely indifferent to both. Under NL leadership, the KDLP vote
nationwide dropped, relative to 2002, in the December 2007 elections
from 5 to 3%, and in Ulsan, the bastion of the Korean working class,
from 11 to 8%.)
Nationalism is endemic in Korea, including in the working-class
movement. The reasons for this are to be found in the centuries of
foreign domination (Chinese, then Japanese, then American), the
post-1945 division of the country, and Korea’s geopolitical position
at the “crossroads” of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and American spheres
of influence. The Korean peninsula, or hegemony there, was the prize of
foreign intrusions centuries ago, and more recently the China-Japan war
of 1895, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-
1905, and most recently the Korean War. “When whales fight, the minnows
run for cover” is an old Korean proverb expressing this reality. The
Japanese attempt, over 35 years (1910-1945) of colonial domination, to
virtually eliminate Korean culture further
strengthened this nationalist impulse. Finally, myths of ethnic
homogeneity, furthered by mythic populist history textbooks or more
recently historical dramas on television about eras of Korean
greatness, complete the picture. (A different, even more virulent
version of this nationalism is promoted in North Korea.) In this
context, even sports events, such as the 1988 Seoul Olympics or the
successes of the Korean team in the 2002 World Cup playoffs, become
events in the forging of national identity.
For the same geopolitical reasons, any emergence of serious class
struggle in South Korea immediately takes on an international dimension.
Nationalism was hence unquestioned in the revival of the left in the
1970’s and 1980’s. As a Stalinized “Marxism” pushed aside the
pre-Kwangju liberal democratic orientations of activists in the course
of the 1980’s, the dominant imports were variants of Lenin’s theory of
imperialism, monopoly capital theory and dependency theory, popularized
by the Marxist-Leninist groups and by influential underground journals.
The 1980’s also saw the acceleration of the hakchul movement into the
factories, as widespread as any comparable “turn to the working class”
in Western countries by middle-class radicals after 1968. At the peak
of the movement, thousands of ex-students had taken factory jobs, and
on occasion even led important strikes.
The Korean movement of the late 1980’s understandably viewed South
Korea as a “peripheral” country in the American imperial system, from
which only “socialism” (understood in the Stalinist sense) and national
reunification could extricate it. There was
thus a tendency to underestimate the depth of Korean industrial
development and above all the elasticity in the system that would make
significantly higher wages possible within a capitalist framework after
the 1987-1990 worker revolt. Such theories were
reinforced by the fact that South Korea only caught up with and
surpassed North Korea economically ca. 1980.
The convergence of all these factors meant that the 1991 collapse of
the Soviet Union, coinciding as it did with the downturn of the
workers’ struggles after 1990, took a far greater psychological toll on
militants in Korea than anywhere in the West, where the prestige of the
Soviet Union had been deflating since at least 1956 and certainly since
1968. The mood had already turned bleak in the spring of 1991, when a
Seoul student was beaten to death by police and the democratic left
candidates were crushed in the June 1991 municipal elections, as if to
underscore a sense of defeatism and futility after years of
mobilization and struggle. It could be added that the Korean economy,
in a boom phase in the 1986-88 period and the first phase of the Great
Workers Struggle, had entered new difficulties by 1990, difficulties
from which it has never fully recovered.
Very much like comparable developments in the west after the late
1970’s, thousands of activists gave up, withdrew into private life,
attempted to pursue middle-class careers or, in academia, succumbed to
the allure of post-modernism.
Part Four: National Politics and
The Great Workers Struggle, 1987-1990
A discussion of the political backdrop to the course of class struggle
is also indispensable.
Beginning in the 1980’s, worker struggles for democratic unions shifted
(along with the Korean economy itself) from light to heavy industry.
The Chun Doo Hwan military dictatorship that succeeded Park chung-hee
was forced to relax controls in the mid-1980’s, under mounting pressure
from the broader democratic opposition in the run-up to the Pan-Asian
Olympics (1986) and the Seoul Olympics (1988). In particular, the
“democratization declaration” of June 1987, made in response to the
threat that the working class would join in the pro-democracy protests,
was the immediate trigger for the Great Workers Struggle of that
summer. For the first time, the movement shifted from the Seoul-Inchon
region to the new southern industrial zones of Ulsan, Masan and
Changwon. All told, there were more than 3,000 strikes in 1987, winning
unionization, 25-30% wage increases, and abolition of the hated
military discipline (enforced hair length, mandatory morning exercises)
in factories. Ulsan, in particular, the Hyundai company town, saw
massive street mobilization and street fighting that lasted into 1990.
The 128-day (December 1988-April 1989) strike at Hyundai Heavy
Industries (HHI) culminated in a coordinated military attack on the
occupied Hyundai shipyard by 9,000 soldiers and police, coming from
sea, air and land. This was followed by ten days of street fighting
(mobilizing not merely workers but their wives and children) in the
working-class neighborhoods of Ulsan. This struggle in turn was
followed in 1990 by the Goliat strike, again at HHI, and which ended in
bitter defeat. (Hyundai did built extensive high-rise worker housing in
response to these struggles.)
Part Five: Decline and Rollback
The ebbing away of the mass offensive struggles of the 1987-1990
period, and the general atmosphere of defeat that ensued, opened a new
phase in Korean worker organizations. The wage increases won in the
late 1980’s briefly reinforced the illusion of the possibility of
capital-labor cohabitation, and hence the reformist currents.
In particular, within the National Congress of Trade Unions
(ChoNoHyop), the right-wing and openly reformist (pro-North Korean)
National Liberation faction began to gain the upper hand against the
weakened radical faction. (The Korean name of the NL faction, Kukminpa,
means literally ‘Labor together with the nation”.) This faction was
always oriented to bureaucrats and politicians. As mentioned earlier, a
government policy of repression aimed at the best militants in the NCTU
and toleration of the open reformists destroyed the NCTU by 1995 and
led to the regroupment in the KCTU under the right-wing leadership.
(Indeed, at the very founding of the NCTU in January 1990, most of its
leaders were in jail or in hiding.) The long experience of dictatorship
and cronyism also made some workers initially sympathetic to bourgeois
democracy and neo-liberalism.
Ulsan remained in intense ferment, however, and in June 1991, when Park
Chang Su, a labor leader, was killed in prison, 20,000 HHI workers and
30,000 HMC workers attacked Ulsan City Hall, with the struggle
ultimately lasting one month.
In 1992, South Korea joined the International Labor Organization (ILO),
just about the same time that the capitalists were regrouping for a
crackdown on wage gains. In this period, lower-wage public sector
workers started to organize, the Korea Telcom (KT) workers being the
most militant, even if their struggles tended to be mainly
wage-focused, though linked to a push for workplace democracy.
In 1993-1994, debate raged in the movement about the way forward,
including a felt need for political strikes. The more radical currents
wanted to shift the unions from company-based unions (the dominant form
of Korean unions to this day) to industry-wide unions, and to create an
umbrella organization. As the NCTU further declined under the blows of
repression and the machinations of the NL faction, the way was open to
the creation of the KCTU, formally created (though not legalized until
the IMF crisis) in November 1995.
Some successful strikes continued in 1995-96, notably a KT strike, that
won major wage gains. Because of such strikes, blue-collar wages were
surpassing civil service wages. At the same time, Korean employers were
increasingly shifting from the chaebol model to an orientation to the
advantages of globalization. Both sides were gearing up for the
1996-1997 confrontation over the labor casualization law.
In the fall of 1996, rank and file pressure as well as preparation for
a general strike grew. Under this pressure, the KCTU had to withdraw
from discussions leading to the infamous Tripartite
(state-labor-capital) Commission, which, once again, would be created
in the midst of the IMF crisis in spring 1998. There was growing
rank-and-file rejection of the NL group.
One important counter-measure of the radical militants was the
formation of the “hyung-jang jujik”, or shopfloor organizations, which
attempted to fight the degeneration of the unions and the KCTU with
alternate organization, not “outside” the unions but as a
shadow power both within the unions and with “horizontal” ties to
militants in other unions, fighting against a trend to company-based
parochialism. The arc of the hyung-jang jujik extended from 1990 to
2005. In different circumstances, the hyungjang jujik managed to take
power in major unions and thereupon often succumbed itself to
bureaucratization; in their final years, they became prey to various
groups seeking a back-door route to power in the unions, and finally
collapsed. But at their best, in a generally defensive situation, they
preserved a continuity with the radical impulse of the 1987-1990 period.
Part Six: The General Strike and
the IMF Crisis, 1997-1998
Just after Christmas, 1996, the Korean government of Kim Young-sam, in
a special night session of parliament with no opposition present,
pushed through the first of a series of labor casualization laws aimed
at bringing the South Korean economy fully into the era of
“globalization” and making layoffs easier for employers, as well as
introducing multi-tier contracts. Employers, as indicated
previously, had been steadily chipping away at the worker gains
of the late 1980’s, and the economy was further weakening through 1996
with accelerating bankruptcies, but this was the first head-on
confrontation with the newly-won working-class power.
The KCTU, firmly in the hands of the right-wingers who had defeated and
displaced the NCTU, called an immediate general strike under intense
rank-and-file pressure, a general strike which was widely followed.
Even the conservative, Cold War-era “yellow” FKTU joined in.
White-collar workers joined as well, and at its peak three million
workers were on strike. (The initial legislation was withdrawn, but a
virtually identical law passed in March 1997, with no significant
reponse from the KCTU.) Again, the historical experience of the Korean
working class and the novelty of casualization made the strike more
“anti-fascist” than anti-neo-liberal. The KCTU did everything in its
power to avert a confrontation with the government, and actively
demobilized where it could. The rank-and-file, for its part, showed
great spontaneity, such as at Hyundai and Kia Motor Company. The KCTU
was rumored to have met secretly with the capitalists to assure them
that the strike was under control, and waning. They proposed the
impotent tactic of the “Wednesday strike”, a tactic repeated again and
again in later years. The general strike petered out in late January,
with (as indicated) nothing resolved.
In the wake of the general strike, the Korean Democratic Labor Party
(KDLP, or Minju Nodong Tang) was founded in spring 1997, with the same
right-leaning elements dominant in the KCTU majority.
The failure of the general strike of January 1997, however, was in turn
eclipsed by the devastation of the Korean economy during the Asian
financial meltdown of 1997- 1998.
Beginning in Thailand in July 1997 with the collapse of the Thai
currency, the crisis rolled through Asia in subsequent months as every
country that had embraced the “free market” and hence loosened capital
controls saw a massive flight of capital and the plummeting of its
currency, with Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea being the hardest
hit. The Korean won fell 40% by November 1997, when the Kim Young Sam
government obtained a $57 billion bailout from the IMF. All four
candidates for the December 1997 presidential elections had to sign an
acceptance of the IMF agreement as a condition for disbursement. Thus
Kim Dae Jong, finally elected president of Korea after decades in the
wilderness of the democratic opposition, had to devote his term in
to implementing the IMF’s draconian package of layoffs, cutbacks of
government services, the leveraged and deregulated foreign buyout of
Korean industries and banks, and the casualization of labor. Korean
democracy, like Korean organized labor before it, triumphed at the very
moment when the fulfillment of its earlier apparent promise became
impossible, and triumphed as the necessary fig leaf for such harsh
medicine. Bankruptcies cascaded and suicides skyrocketed. The IMF
initially demanded that Korean banks lay off 50% of their personnel
(the figure was later lowered to 30%) and similar numbers of civil
servants. The unemployment rate tripled by 1999, and millions were
thrown back into poverty.
In this situation, Kim Dae Jong and the KCTU played their appointed
roles. As previously mentioned, Kim pulled the KCTU leadership into the
February 1998 Tripartite accords, with the KCTU assenting to mass
emergency layoffs. The KCTU rank-and-file revolted against such abject
surrender and ousted the leadership that had signed off on the deal.
There were some large-scale strikes against layoffs in 1998, such as
the Hyundai Motor Company (HMC) strike, but the new top KCTU officers
were imprisoned and the strikes generally defeated.
During the IMF crisis, many small factories were wiped out, including
ones with a militant work force originating in the late 1980’s strike
wave and previously sympathetic to the NCTU. For the first time, in
keeping with IMF demands, contingent workers became a major
phenomenon in the Korean work force. In response to the imposed
sell-off of Korea Telcom shares to Wall Street investors, for
example, a strike erupted. This strike showed growing evidence of the
rift developing between regular and casual workers. In addition to
drawing higher pay for less work, the older regular workers
lacked the computer skills of the young casuals, and felt increasing
job insecurity. The union leaders talked tough but did nothing.
Ultimately, both regular and casual workers did strike, but not
at the same time. The KT strike ended with the dismissal of 10,000
The February 1998 agreement between Kim Dae Jong and the right-wing
leadership of the KCTU for mass layoffs led to a rank-and-file revolt
in the KCTU, and the entire leadership was ousted after worker
militants occupied the KCTU offices armed with steel pipes.
A new left-wing leadership took control, as mentioned previously, and
did attempt to relaunch a general strike against the new labor law in
May, June and July, but to no avail. The old leadership remained
entrenched in the heavy industry unions, and opposed militant action.
In June-August 1998, a 28-day strike took place at HMC, leading to the
firing of 10,000 regular workers. Within two years, 10,000 casuals had
been hired to do their jobs. KT and various banks also fired regular
workers and rehired them as casuals.
Part Seven: Post-1998: Regular
vs. Casual Workers Becomes The Issue In the Working-Class Movement
From the IMF crisis onward, the question of casual workers loomed
larger and larger in the Korean movement, as well as antagonism between
regular and casual workers, with regular workers seeing casual workers
as undermining their jobs. (In 2000, a nation-wide casual workers’
union was founded, and is now an umbrella organization with over 50,000
As early as 1999, a 32-day nationwide strike of 4000 tutors of the
Jaenung schools (hakwon, or private academies for after-hours
schooling) won collective bargaining rights. The government had denied
that they were workers, calling them instead “independent contractors”.
The strike was important in showing that organizing casual workers was
possible, against state and employer resistance.
In 2000-2002, a renewed KT strike lasted 517 days. In the aftermath of
defeat, the KT casual workers union was dissolved. The regular KT
workers were generally hostile to the irregular workers. After the
strike, KT hired people as “indirect contract workers”. In 2002, 49% of
KT shares were sold to US investors, with increased severance pay
packages as a tradeoff, along with shares given to regular workers.
In 2000-2001, an air-conditioner factory strike lasted over a month,
and was betrayed by the regular workers, over and against casual worker
A counter-example, however, was the Lotte Hotel workers organizing
drive in 2000, which showed that a regular workers’ union could in some
circumstances organize irregular workers. After tremendous repression
by the hotel owners and imprisonment of strikers, the hotel agreed to
regularize workers over a two-year period.
During these same years, however, the KDLP was shifting to the right,
and the dominance of the NL line, oriented to the bureaucrats of the
KCTU and the politicians of the KDLP, prevented organizing casual
workers. (In 2004, the KCTU even helped a Hyundai CEO in his electoral
campaign as an independent.) In the view of some militants, the KCTU
was an integral part of neo-liberalism, almost to the point of
In 2003, for example, Pusan truck drivers successfully pulled off a
strike, but the government, employers, KCTU and KDLP sabotaged it. In
the same year, a large strike erupted at the LG Caltex (now GS Caltex)
refinery, but the KCTU did nothing to help the strikers.
In 2005, 10,000 casual oil and chemical workers in Ulsan struck for 83
days over working conditions. The complicated hiring structure imposed
by labor laws and company strategy hobbled the strike. A “Committee for
the Ulsan Area” was created to settle, including capitalists, CEOs,
smaller businessmen, NGOs, and the Ulsan branch of the KCTU. An
agreement was limited to the recognition of the union. The workers
returned to work during six months of committee “discussion”, leading
to nothing. The return to work was brought about by small company
concessions, but after the KCTU and KDLP withdrew from the scene, no
part of the agreement was ever implemented.
Over the summer of 2005, a battle raged again at Ulsan HMC over
casualization. One worker immolated himself in protest, and the union
refused to link his death to the labor situation. The casual workers
tried to stop the assembly line, but the regular workers refused to
collaborate. Company managers and scabs restarted the line while the
regular workers stood by, doing nothing. All casual workers
involved in the struggle were fired.
In June 2006, the metal workers union voted to form an industrial union
of in attempt to overcome the fragmentation of workers in the myriad of
spinoff subsidiaries with different contracts, but HMC still negotiates
with the HMC company union. Many militant workers opposed the
industrial union initiative because of its corporatist agenda.
Later that summer the casual construction workers of the giant POSCO
steel works in Pohang wildcatted and were defeated. In August 2007, the
casual workers of Kia Motor Company wildcatted and occupied part of the
factory, where they were physically attacked by the Kia regular workers
and forced back to work.
In one positive development, in November 2007 regular and irregular
workers of Hyundai Motor Company in Ulsan for the first time organized
a rank-and-file movement together.
Part Eight: The E-Land Strike
Lights Up the Social Horizon
The still-ongoing (as of this writing, March 2008) E-Land strike is the
latest and in some ways the most important struggle of all in placing
the question of casual workers front and center in South Korean
In November 2006, the Korean government passed yet another in a series
of laws on casual labor, called in Orwellian fashion the Casual Worker
Protection Law. The law was designed to create the illusion of “doing
something” about a condition now affecting over 60% of South Korea’s
active population. The law provided that after two years on the
job, all workers would automatically become regular workers. The
law went into effect seven months later, on July 1, 2007, and left huge
loopholes for employers who wanted to lay off casuals before the
deadline. Some companies complied with the law, but many more did not
and laid off their casual workers by June. The whole process came into
sharpest focus at a chain of department stores known as E-Land, with a
related struggle at a similar chain known as New Core.
E-Land had begun as a small family business, under a fundamentalist
Christian owner, and had grown to a $58 billion annual enterprise with
61 outlets around the country. It had taken over the stores of the
French Carrefour chain. The company was known for particularly harsh
conditions of employment, with mainly women casual workers earning $800
per month for 36-hour weeks, often compelled to work 12-hour shifts
without even bathroom breaks. Further, the company required all
employees, Christian or not, to attend chapel on the premises. The CEO
of E-Land tithed $10 million to his church in 2006. Just before the new
law went into effect, E-Land and New Core laid off 1000 workers who
would qualify as regular workers under its provisions.
The immediate response was a strike now (March 2008) in its 9th month,
and now facing almost certain defeat. But in the initial days of the
strike, all over South Korea, thousands of casual workers from other
sectors came to help shut down E-Land stores. The KCTU went into
action, doing everything to smother the strike under fulsome rhetoric
while diverting the energies of the rank-and-file and “outside”
supporters into meaningless symbolic actions. On July 20, however, 200
E-Land employees occupied an outlet in Seoul and shut it down. The
government response was to send 7000 soldiers, police and hired company
thugs to violently oust and arrest 200 people. The fading Noh Moon Yon
government (highly unpopular and due to leave office in February 2008)
had a great deal riding on the success of the new law. But it was
hardly alone in perceiving the importance of the strike. Many big
chaebol came to E-Land’s assistance with millions of dollars of loans.
The KCTU, for its part, promised to lend the E-Land and New Core unions
serious money when their strike funds were exhausted by the end of the
summer, then reneged on the offer. The KCTU constantly pressured the
company unions to come to the bargaining table while E-Land management
offered no concessions whatever. In Pohang, in November, E-Land even
attempted to open a new outlet with only casual workers. 500 E-Land
workers and other casuals not only blocked the entrance to the store,
but attacked and disarmed the police and thugs protecting it. Similar
actions, including blockages and store occupations, occurred
intermittently throughout the fall.
Perhaps most remarkable in the E-Land strike, in contrast to many
earlier strikes with casual labor as the main issue, was the broad
sympathy for and support of the strike among working people in the same
casualized situation. A nationwide boycott had by December 2007 reduced
sales nationwide by 30%, and even the media had given generally
favorable coverage to the strike, at least in the early weeks.
Whether the E-Land strike wins the strikers’ jobs back or not (at this
point it seems it will not), it will be a victory for the broader
working-class movement by finally making the casualization of labor in
South Korea a question that can no longer be ignored.
In December 2007, the hard right Hanaratang (One Nation Party)
candidate Lee Myoung Back won the presidential elections with
significant working-class support, a political development that
probably sealed the fate of the E-Land strike, since the new government
(now in place) would support E-Land management even more openly than
the outgoing, widely despised center-left government that had
disappointed so many people. E-Land management continues to benefit
from the financial backing of other major Korean chaebols, whereas the
E-Land strikers have been abandoned by almost all their allies, KCTU in
the lead. The new government promises a full offensive of
privatizations and “free market reforms” and must necessarily
disappoint its working- class supporters, who were expressing more
disgust for the former government than support for the new, along with
idle dreams that ex-Hyundai CEO Lee Myoung Back would bring back the
glory days of Korean capitalism, which ended 20 years ago. Losing
strikes in Korea have been known to drag on for years with a dwindling
hard core while most strikers find other jobs or crawl back to the old
ones. But, once again, because of the E-Land strike, the growing crisis
represented by casualized labor in South Korea can no longer be
relegated to silence.
Seoul, South Korea
(I have learned far more in conversations and collaboration with Korean
activists and pro-working class intellectuals for the above article
than from any book, with the exception of Koo Hagen’s Korean Workers
(2001), the only comprehensive view available in a Western language of
Korean working-class history. I am of course greatly hampered by
lack of proficiency in Korean. What follows is a summary bibliography
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