From Solidarity 3/21, 11 January 2003
Workers face new attacks
By Gerry Bates
South Korea elected a new president - Roh Moo-hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party - just before Christmas. His election offers little for the super-exploited workers of the country.
Roh beat Lee Hoi-chang of the conservative Grand National Party, taking 49% of the vote, 2% ahead of his rival. Roh polled strongly among young people, winning 62% of the under-30s vote. Of the 35 million eligible voters, roughly 70% turned out - lower than in previous elections.
Kwon Young-ghil, former president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), representing the Democratic Labour Party, got 3.9%, up from 1.2% at the 1997 election. In the industrial city of Ulsan, Kwon received 11.4% of the vote.
Roh based his campaign on continuing the "sunshine policy" of current president Kim Dae-jung, aimed at restoring links between the two Koreas and opening up the North to capitalism. The Hyundai group, for example, is involved in linking railways across the border and building the Kaesong industrial complex.
Roh gained support from those Koreans who want closer links with the North (and eventual reunification), and who feared that relations would sour after North Korea admitted it had nuclear weapons capability in October. South Korea has been closely aligned with Washington since the Cold War, and Lee's Grand National Party lined up with the US to denounce the sunshine policy.
However Roh is not anti-American, and is expected to support US pressure on the North. His room for manoeuvre is limited by a hostile parliament - the Grand National Party holds 150 seats in the 272-seat National Assembly, and the Millennium Democratic Party only 102.
Roh is expected to continue the neo-liberal austerity policies of Kim Dae-jung, pledging to make the central bank independent and tackle "labour flexibility" - doublespeak for facing down militant unions. His pledge to reform the chaebol (conglomerates) that dominate the Korean economy is more about easing foreign investors' concerns than tackling business power or inequality.
Independent unions are still severely repressed in Korea, but continued to develop. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was formed in 1995, and in December 1996-January 1997 led massive strikes against government anti-union laws - with 400,000 workers coming out at the height of the strikes.
The KCTU was only legally recognised in 1999, and has over half a million members. It is strong in car making and shipbuilding, finance, media, nursing, teaching and the public sector. It has discussed forming a "party that fights for the working class".
In November 120,000 workers went on strike over the government's plans for working time changes. Unions have been campaigning for a five-day working week, but the government's plan to introduce it involves cutting public holidays, annual leave, menstruation leave and night pay - overall imposing a wage cut.
The government announced it would delay the legislation pending the election result - and as business opposes any shortening of the working week, the issue will be a defining issue for Roh's attitude towards the working class.