I finished reading this book within three days of buying it. When I’d finished, I asked everyone I knew what they knew about Chun Tae-il — no one could tell me much. This surprised me because his story struck me as hugely significant to both the working classes (the “minjung”) of his time, and to the struggles we face today.
The author of this biography, Cho Young-rae, could for his own safety only be identified after his death. The first versions of the book were inevitably banned by the South Korean authorities. It has since been turned into both a film and a play.
Chun Tae-il set himself on fire in 1970 at the age of 22, in protest against the cruel and inhumane working conditions imposed on thousands of people in a local garment factory, known as Peace Market in South Korea. He has since been named “the father of democratic trade unionism” in Korea.
Chun was born into poverty, and as a result received no formal education. He spent the majority of his childhood selling newspapers by day and sleeping on the streets by night. He left home on several occasions because his father violently misunderstood Chun’s passion for learning.
Chun convinced himself that he would earn enough money to go to school selling newspapers and shining shoes in the city. In fact, he barely made enough money to buy a bowl of noodles every other day.
From the day he was born, every moment of his life was a struggle for survival — he had never known anything but misery. After his father died, Chun’s guilt over leaving his family overwhelmed him, and he returned to his family home in Seoul. He started working in the local garment factory and dedicated the rest of his life to transforming the working conditions of garment workers in South Korea.
There was a hierarchy of workers in the garment factory, which took years to move up — if you were lucky enough to get work in the first place. The lower ranks, jobs which were mostly occupied by young women and teenagers, had 16-hour working days in rooms with no natural light, so small the workers could not stand up. Workers suffered many and often fatal ailments.
This book captures the desperation of workers in a way that I had not experienced before; people working all day for little, or often no, money just to survive. That’s it, that’s their whole life. Women who had been working in the factories since they were 13 were not even considered good enough to marry, because the conditions have made them so unwell and unfit for bearing children. Often they died within a few years of starting work anyway.
Chun had to quietly organise in his workplace, holding secret meetings in his mother’s living room and producing surveys and bulletins to hand out in the factory.
In his last breath, after dousing himself with petrol and setting himself on fire on a picket line he had organised, Chun was screaming “we are not machines”.
The death of Chun Tae-il reignited the workers’ movement in South Korea, and workers and students began organising demonstrations highlighting labour issues which were reported in the press on a daily basis, something which had never been seen before.
“I hate this era where people have become commodities, where a person’s individuality and basic aspirations are scorned, where the branches of hope are lopped off. I hate a humanity that chooses to degrade itself into a commodity in return for existence.”