The strike wave that has hit south Korea continues a long tradition of militant struggles by Korean workers.
For decades prior to World War II, a militant national labor movement fought for workers' rights during the colonial occupation of Korea by Japanese imperialism.
During the war, the vanguard of the workers' movement participated with the communist-led guerrilla struggle that fought the Japanese occupation army.
After liberation in August 1945, these forces became the core of the new workers' state that consolidated in the north. But the U.S. army occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel and established a U.S. military administration with the cooperation of former collaborators with the Japanese colonial government.
For five years, the U.S. army administration carried out attacks on all organizations and sympathizers of the labor movement, socialists and supporters of an independent Korea. Tens of thousands were killed, and many more were jailed or beaten.
When the Korean war broke out on June 25, 1950, it was a war of the peoples' army defending the socialist north from the U.S. army and its neocolonial, capitalist administration in the south.
Although the war ended in a cease-fire in 1953, the Korean nation has remained divided, with about 40,000 U.S. troops still occupying the south. While the north pursued a path of socialist construction, in the south the U.S. military administration gave rise to a series of military dictatorships that promoted a state-capitalist, neocolonial economy.
Heavy investment from the U.S. and Japan, coupled with severe repression of labor rights contributed to the growth of the choebols--the huge Korean conglomerates like Hyundai, DaeWoo and Samsung. Bribes from the big corporations flowed freely to the military governments, and government subsidies for industry flowed back.
Statistics in 1994 showed that workers in Korea had longer working hours than any other workers in Asia. The enormous profits from this intense exploitation were the basis for a prolonged period of capitalist expansion.
In 1987, a huge strike wave of workers and students shook the U.S.-backed military government of Roh Tae Woo. The workers were demanding higher wages and democratic rights. At the same time, the corporations had outgrown their need for state capitalist methods and were chafing at the excessive cost of bribes and support of the expensive tastes of the military-bureaucracy.
One of the bourgeois opposition leaders, Kim Young Sam, was coopted into the government and in 1992 prepared for the first civilian government since a popular government appeared for a brief period following student uprisings in the early 1960s. With the new government in 1993, the National Security Law was amended to remove the labor movement from the jurisdiction of the Korean CIA.
Until then, this hated, brutal arm of the state could investigate, harass and jail union leaders along with others in the opposition. Almost all labor leaders have been in jail for at least one or two years for union work, including the chairman of the Korean Federation of Labor or Minjunohchung, Kwan Young Kil.
From the first days of the U.S. military occupation of the south of Korea, through the war and right up until today, there has not been a legal, national labor organization in the south. A variety of anti-union regulations under what Korean unionists call "the notorious labor law" have been used against the labor movement.
Under these laws any support of a strike by non-strikers is considered illegal third-party intervention. They also make illegal membership in the independent unions that are part of Minjunohchung and that are leading the current general strike.
Only the government-dominated Hanguknoh chung (Federation of Korean Labor Unions) unions are legally recognized. The strength of the strike movement and the widespread opposition to the government's labor policy has forced Hanguknoh chung to support the strikes so far.
Since 1993, the independent unions have been able to function a little more openly, with offices and literature. Kim Young Sam had promised in his campaign to repeal the repressive labor laws. This never happened, and the independent unions are still banned from legally representing the workers.
Despite the legal ban, the unions have successfully carried out strikes--that are almost always declared illegal by the government--and negotiated wage increases.
In addition the workers had some legal protection from layoffs. The corporations would find ways around the law, with false charges of misconduct or by bribing officials. Nonetheless the law offered some protections.
But the long period of capitalist expansion in the south started winding down last year, and it seems that a classic crisis of overproduction, as described by Karl Marx, has begun unfolding.
To resolve the crisis, the Korean corporate giants are looking to do more investment abroad and to "restructure" the south Korean work force with layoffs and conversion to a provisional, temporary or "contingent" work force. To do so meant repealing the law that prohibited layoffs.
Along with this strategy, south Korea applied for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But as a result of pressure from the International Labor Organization and some social-democratic representatives in the OECD, reform of the labor laws was made a condition of joining.
At the same time, with the prospect that a decline in the economy along with layoffs would lead to more labor unrest, the Kim Young Sam government tried to pass new legislation that would allegedly legalize the unions but only after three years and with all sorts of restrictive conditions.
These laws would restore the power of the successor to the KCIA to investigate and prosecute labor activists and would allow corporations to legally lay off at will and hire replacement workers as temporaries and provisionals.
The struggle to block this new anti-labor legislation and to immediately legalize the unions is at the heart of the current strike struggle.
U.S. policy toward north Korea, like U.S. policy on Cuba, has combined economic embargo with military threats and promises of economic aid if the socialist state was dismantled. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. government officials have been predicting the fall of the socialist government in the north.
It is undoubtedly unwelcome news to the U.S. government and Wall Street that mass rebellions are taking place in the south, not the north, and that it is the south government that is in crisis. But this is welcome news to all class- conscious workers who are in complete solidarity with the struggle of the Korean workers.
Trade unionists and others who would like to send messages of solidarity to the union can address them to Chairman Kwon Young Kil, Minjunoh chung and send them via fax care of 301-989-0037 and they will be forwarded.
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