On 19 January Housmans bookshop in King’s Cross was packed with around fifty people coming to hear Loren Goldner speak on the recent history of the militant South Korean working class. Goldner, a left communist and a former Shachtmanite talked about modern labour movement activism in the face of rapid economic development, and the post World War Two era and the labour movement’s attitude to the Stalinist state in the North.
The South Korean labour movement has long faced difficult circumstances. Immediately after the end of World War Two, with Japanese troops replaced with American occupiers and the local yangban landowner class discredited by their collaboration with the Japanese, a popular labour movement set up workers’ councils to assert its authority. These councils, dominated by Stalinists and sympathetic to Kim Il-Sung, were broken up by the government and its American backers at the end of 1945.
After the 1950-1953 Korean War came a period of “stability” for the South Korean bourgeoisie, with a series of authoritarian regimes savagely repressing all dissent. The country was in these years no “tiger economy”.
Until the early 1970s its economy was actually weaker than that of North Korea. Democratic struggles such as the student movement which brought down president Rhee Syngman in 1960 found it difficult to maintain influence in the face of repression. Park Chung-hee seized power in 1961 and held onto the presidency for eighteen years.
Park Chung-hee’s presidency saw massive industrialisation and the development of South Korea from a backward peasant country to a modern power. A former member of the Stalinist Workers’ Party of South Korea, he was no friend of the working class, and regularly employed “states of emergency” to buttress his authority. But although he managed to keep a lid on the labour movement and student activists, the fight for democracy would explode after his 1979 assassination by the head of the Korean CIA.
The first flashpoint came in May 1980 with the Kwangju Commune, where unions and students fighting protesting against a military coup occupied the impoverished south-western city of Kwangju. Solidarity strikes and demonstrations broke out across South Korea, but the army moved into Kwangju and regained control, killing thousands of people in the process.
But the labour movement was only just getting started. A fierce wave of strikes over the 1987-90 period saw workers’ wages increase of around 25-30%, and an assertive working class won a significant extension of democratic rights. The newly-formed organisations of the labour movement would stand the working class in good stead for future confrontations — a December 1996 move by the government to make it easier to sack workers, implement more casual contracts and delay official union recognition was met by a general strike in the car-building and ship-building industries, which soon won support in the public sector and other industries. The government backed down, only to reintroduce the law a few months later.
The resulting casualisation of labour presents a major obstacle to the South Korean labour movement. Some 60% of the labour force are on 90-day contracts, with the “elite” stratum of the working class who enjoy job stability representing just 10%. Goldner reported that there are as many conflicts between regular and casual workers as there are between bosses and workers in general, with regular workers at Hyundai breaking up the picket lines of casual workers who they believed to pose a threat to their jobs.
Workers’ unions in South Korea also face organisational difficulties. The government regularly uses troops and police to break up picket lines, although three-year compulsory military service means that most workers are fairly militarily proficient — Goldner said that there were even cases where strikers had won pitched battles with the forces of order and seized their weapons.
The speaker also touched on the subject of Korean unification. While the semi-Stalinist leaders of the trade union federation and the Democratic Labour Party take a positive view of the politics of the murderous North Korean police state, the South Korean bourgeoisie see a window for economic expansion in the North. Although the local bourgeoisie is unwilling to repeat the West Germans’ experience of having to subsidise the East after unification — and so is opposed to unification — it is increasingly able to set up factories just north of the border and thus take advantage of the cheap labour costs of North Korean workers, who are denied any political or organising rights by the Stalinist government. Loren Goldner said that North Koreans working for South Korean companies like Samsung earn just 1% of the wages of equivalent workers in the South.
Over the last twenty years South Korea has seen militant strikes, displaying the power of a young working class to secure itself organising rights, make democratic gains and win high wages. But the workers’ gains are precarious. Over the last five years, under president Roh Moo-hyun, one thousand worker activists were arrested, and the Korean Confederation of Trade Union expects that the figure will be ten times higher under the new right wing government. Casualisation and attacks on union activity are rampant, and hard-won democratic rights are never safe. Such are the challenges which the international labour movement faces in an aggressive period of neo-liberal change.