What critics call old-fashioned Korean politics is likely to undergo a major change later this year in the wake of the change to the labor laws. Labor groups are expected to form their own political force in the near future as new labor laws, passed by the National Assembly early this month, allow workers to become involved in politics. The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the nation's second largest umbrella union, is seeking to play a role in December's presidential poll.
In a conference of representatives from member unions Thursday, the KCTU decided to actively participate in the coming presidential election either by fielding its own candidate or by forming an alliance with opposition parties. In the meeting, KCTU leaders also agreed to launch an ad hoc panel, which they said will be composed of more than a thousand union leaders, during the first half of this year to carry out joint activities with dissident and civic groups.
After this, around September at the earliest, they plan to stage a full-fledged election campaign backing an independent pro-labor candidate who they believe would work in the interest of workers, KCTU officials said. They also plan campaigns against those who voted for the old labor bills passed through the Assembly in a secret predawn parliamentary session last December with only ruling party members present.
The labor group, which remained outlawed until it acquired legal status via the new labor legislation, spearheaded a month-long protest strike against the old labor laws. An official said that the organization will "seek to form a joint front with dissident and opposition groups against the ruling party or launch an intermediate political group before the December vote.''
The KCTU also plans to stage a full-scale election campaign against the established political parties right after its member unions approve the plan in a vote slated for August. "We will actively play a role in the upcoming presidential election as it's about time we pursued the interests of workers and citizens and reinforce our strength on our own,'' an official said. The ultimate goal of the organization goes beyond the December poll, says Chang Yong-hwa, another official.
"Our objective is to launch a reformative party in which workers would have the initiative as stipulated in the KCTU's platform, and secure a negotiating group in the National Assembly in the year 2000,'' he said. Chang said his group has had a political committee in operation since the inauguration of the KCTU in late 1995 and the panel has studied ways of building a party of their own.
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) which claims the largest membership doesn't seem to be interested in forming a political party. Federation officials said they, instead, focus their efforts on backing a candidate who they believe would work for union interests. As soon as they agree on whom they support, they will begin campaigns, they said.
Established politicians seem to accept the possible inauguration of a pro-labor party as "inevitable'' but feel "uncomfortable.'' "The advent of a labor-backed political force is expected to greatly affect boss-dominated and regionalism-based Korean politics,'' said Rep. Chun Jung-bae, a lawyer-turned legislator of the opposition National Congress for New Politics.
But he said that many politicians will feel uneasy about the new political force, which is likely to challenge their old-fashioned political practices. Chun, however, predicted that labor groups are likely to fail if they seriously aim to win the December vote by fielding an independent candidate. Chances of victory look very slim, he said. Han Sang-jin, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, agreed with him.
"With their reformist features, their potential is enormous as they would be able to successfully set themselves apart from existing parties,'' Han said. By competing the established political parties in an election, they may contribute to modernizing old-fashioned politics, he said.
"But they should be able to come up with various programs that could attract the lower classes estranged by the established political parties and create improved political competition,'' Han said, adding that any hasty move by workers to launch a political party without extensive studies would only lead to an early collapse.