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Analysis of national policies

Seen in the context of Korea’s unique historical background, recent political changes have been overwhelming; bringing the issue of reunification to the fore, while a reconciliation mood has swept across the two Koreas since the summit meetings took place last June. This is certain to have far-reaching effects on the peoples of the peninsula, some of them undeniably positive. However, careful analysis of the direction that the reunification process has been taking gives cause for concern.

Although the progressive sector of Korea remains divided on some key issues regarding the current trends between the North and South, it is generally agreed that the on-going exchanges have been almost completely in terms of the circulation of capital and have thus excluded any opinions held by progressive organizations on the relationship between the two systems and the agendas/issues which need to be resolved for true peace and reconciliation to take root. The business sector, on the other hand, has been playing a central role in the exchanges. Hyundai, one of the three largest business conglomerates in South Korea, is at the forefront of the rush towards North Korea. Its founder and honorary chairman Chung Ju-yung (who recently died), even met with the leader of the North, Kim Jong-II.

Inside South Korea, the attack on the workers and the socially weak has been brutal. National policies implemented by the government ever since the mid-nineties have been dictated by textbook neoliberalism, and this has been accelerated by the agreement made with the IMF in late 1997. In the name of improving national competitiveness, the government has initiated and sustained a series of restructuring programmes that include the flexibilization of the labour market, privatization of the public sector, deregulation, and liberalization of the national and regional markets. The results have been devastating, as the IMF's neoliberal restructuring programme has increased dependency on foreign economies and international trends, exacerbating economic instability, lay-offs, precarious jobs, unemployment, polarization of wealth and the dismantling of social cohesion, among many other negative consequences, representing an overall and dramatic decrease in the standards of living for Koreans. The government, despite widespread opposition to the programmes is currently pushing ahead with the next stage of structural adjustment, announcing plans for further privatization and foreign sale of the public sector.


The three years following the Asian crisis have been an almost constant battle for the socially oppressed of Korea, in defence of the basic labour rights that had been gained through years of struggle. Workers, farmers, the poor, as well as progressive activists, have waged a continual battle against the combined efforts of international financial institutions, the government and corporations to implement the structural adjustment programmes, by organizing several general strikes, countless demonstrations and struggles in solidarity with other social movements.

Demands by the Korean left included the reduction of working hours, expansion of social benefits, elimination of the temporary employment system, job security, participation of trade unions in management decisions, guaranteed housing for the homeless and forcibly evicted, abandonment of plans for privatization of the public sector, termination of employment policies relegating women to irregular and casual work.

Below is a brief overview of just a few of the countless struggles that have been waged during the last year or so by various social movements.

The KCTU general strike

In May 2000, the workers, convinced that the government had no intention of engaging in sincere dialogue with them, or keeping its promises made during the financial crisis about extending labour rights and reducing working hours, organized a general strike to voice their opposition to the government's stance.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) had warned the government a few months previously that there would be a general strike if its three main demands were not met by the government : the reduction of working hours (from 44 to 40) and the 5-day working week ; compensation for damage created by the IMF and an immediate stop to the restructuring process ; reform of the tax system so that10 per cent of the GDP could be allocated to social security, elimination of all discrimination against irregular workers and the transfer of irregular workers to full-time work. By 31 May the KCTU was convinced that the government did not intend to commit itself, so it went ahead with its plans for a general strike. That same morning, the KCTU leadership announced a nationwide, 4-day general strike which mobilized, from the first day, some 70.000 workers across the country .

The strike brought some benefits for the KCTU: wages increased by an average of 10 per cent for workers in unions that had come to an agreement with management ; the KCTU received a positive response from the government concerning the 5-day working week (although concrete plans are still lacking) ; the Korean Air Lines pilots were able to form a union during the strike. Two medium-sized unions in the KCTU were able to agree to a 5-day working week with management and many unions solved the problem of irregular work by obliging management to agree to shift these workers to full-time jobs.

However, the strike was not a total success, as powerful unions, such as the Korea Telecom Union, the Seoul Subway Workers' Union and the major unions in the automobile factories did not participate. So the strike’s social influence was limited, at least compared with past strikes.

The demands of the KCTU were based on the needs of the workers but also reflected the needs of most people, who have suffered greatly from the restructuring process that resulted from the Asian crisis and globalization in general. During these years the Korean people had come to realize the sombre realities hidden behind the slogans of 'free trade,' 'increased investment' and 'liberalization' , and they firmly supported the actions of the workers. They started seriously to question the positions of the Kim Dae-Jung government on basic issues and to demand alternatives, such as the 5-day working week and more funds from the budget for social security. However, the government continued to push ahead with its neoliberal policies, continuing negotiations for bilateral investment treaties with Japan and the United States, as well as announcing new plans for restructuring the financial sector and the public sector.

The mobilization during the Asia/Europe Meetings

A month after the actions in Prague in September 2000, the people's movement of Korea organized another massive anti-globalization struggle to coincide with the Asia/ Europe Meetings in Seoul. With the slogan of "From Seattle to Prague to Seoul" the Korean left sought to promote action inther context of the world progressive movement.

The mobilization actually started on the night of the 19th, as activists gathered at the university of Seoul for the all-night anti-globalization culture festival. The actions resumed bright and early on the 20th, with the leaders of the Korean People's Action against Investment Treaties and the WTO (or KoPA) and the People's Rally Committee trying to deliver a letter protesting the neoliberal agenda of the Asia/Europe Meeting. But the police, using violence, soon put an end to their attempt.

The results of these mobilizations nevertheless pose some very basic questions for the progressive movement in Korea. The achievements are remarkable, having mobilized over 20,000 people in various actions, reactivating the struggles of Seattle, Washington and Prague in the South, demonstrating that there really exists a worldwide popular movement against neoliberalism and engaging in an active discussion with the people of Korea on the effects of globalization and what could be the alternatives. But an analysis of the limitations of the movement is not simple. The struggle had no direct effect on the Asia/Europe meetings themselves, the relationship between the civic movement and the workers’ movement was a constant problem and democratic decision-making processes within the organizing committee were called into question.

The mobilization of women workers at Hyundai Motors

The Hyundai Motors struggle against the neoliberal restructuring process goes down in the history of the movement as one of the most militant struggles of the period. It was also one of the worst cases of discrimination against women workers committed by the trade union. In 1998, the wave of restructuring struck Korea and it was presented as the only possible way of overcoming the economic crisis. Hyundai Motors was no exception.

In August of that year, the company and the trade union entered into long negotiations about which workers should be the first to be dismissed in the framework of the company’s restructuring. They came to the conclusion that it should be the women workers in the company cafeteria. Out of the 277 workers subsequently laid off, 144 were women. They were mostly in their 40s and 50s, many of them the sole breadwinner of the family. What was so disgraceful, however, was not only the fact that women make up around 0.4% of the whole workforce and yet they were more than half of those fired, but the fact that the union refused to do anything about it. In fact, the union had used the women to 'save the men' and later boycotted the struggles of these women who fought for more almost two years to be reinstated.

It could be thought that this example merely shows how the bureaucracy of major unions teams up with their capitalist counterparts. But it also clearly shows the deep and widespread discrimination against women in major unions, which had up until then been concealed. It exploded into the open by the (unexpected) struggles of these women, who even risked their lives to fight for their basic rights.

And such discrimination is not confined to the unions. Women activists have been experiencing it elsewhere, from grass-root organizations to major federations. The patriarchal mentality is also to be found in the progressive movement.

Thus most women are excluded from decision-making, not because there are only a few of them in the organizations but because they are considered too emotional and illogical. Women are therefore still at the base of the hierarchial pyramid. In the worst cases, numbers of women activists have left the movement as they felt their confidence had been abused or they were sexually harassed. Then they were silenced ‘in the name of the movement', by the men they had believed were comrades, those whom they thought were really 'progressive'. Perhaps it is also asking too much for the movement to be as progressive in gender as it is on class issues, in a society where traditional Confucianism based on sexism and ageism still dominates peoples’ attitudes, whatever their political philosophy might be. Perhaps it is also asking too much to want such change when the success of the Korean movement derives from its strict unity based on hierarchy and authoritarianism. But it is now vital to ask whether those victories were indeed victories, or whether they were not based on the sacrifice of women. Are women included in the programme of social change or are they mere supporters, to be called in only when their 'services' are needed?

Mobilization at Daewoo

Perhaps the Daewoo events best demonstrate the devastating effects that neoliberal globalization has had on the people of Korea. Two years ago, the management of Daewoo Motors laid off more than 1,700 workers and the government sent riot police into the factory to forcibly break up trade union strike. Workers at Daewoo, family members of laid-off workers, trade unionists from affiliates in the Korean Federation of Metal Workers and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, students, and social movement activists have all been involved in the struggle against lay-offs and police repression. This current struggle is perhaps the most intense and violent show of resistance on the part of the working class over the last few years. For the first time since the Seoul Subway union strike of 1999, Molotov cocktails have reappeared. Thousands of protestors have regularly taken part in the numerous demonstrations, and the struggle is still continuing despite brutal oppression by the government and the police.

The Joint Struggle Committee Against Daewoo Motors, comprised of various social and people's organizations, has been formed to coordinate and organize support for the struggle. It has been actively involved in organizing the demonstrations and neutralizing the government's oppressive measures, while also promoting the struggle both nationally and internationally. A Joint Independent Media Group has also been formed to publicize the mobilizations of the Struggle Committee, to counteract the distortion of the mainstream media. The KCTU, of which the Daewoo Motors Trade Union forms part, has correctly declared that this struggle is a struggle of the entire working class and it targets not just the management of Daewoo Motors, but also the neoliberal restructuring plan of the government as well.

The struggle revealed once again the brutal anti-working class and anti-people stance of the Kim Dae-Jung government. The police suppressed the basic civil rights of workers. The area around the Daewoo factory and the nearest subway stations were reminiscent of the dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, as hundreds (sometimes thousands) of policemen in riot gear were stationed there to prevent demonstrations. It almost seemed as though martial law had been declared, for any sort of gathering was violently dispersed. Dozens of workers had to be hospitalized. The struggle has also been carried out with broader aims and on a larger scale than ever before, as it was joined by independent media activists, international solidarity activists, students, family members of the dismissed workers, progressive party activists, telecommunication workers as well as union workers and social movement militants.

None of the struggles mentioned above, nor the problems that they highlight are independent from one other. Nor are they the remnants of a buried past. It is a battlefield in which the task of progressives is to come up with a mobilization strategy. The problems and the social structures that underpin them are still unresolved.

It is hard to say that the struggles of the past few years have been successful, for the movement remains mostly on the defensive, with no breakthrough in sight. However, the recent history of the Korean people and their struggles for a more human world remains in peoples’ minds, in spite of all the repression they have experienced.


TANG, Kwong Leung and CHEUNG, Jacqueline T.Y. , An Insider View : Opinions and Assessments of Retraining Policy from Hong Kong Workers, Hong Kong : Asia Monitor Resource Research Center, March, 2001