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Truth about Social Dialogue in Korea under President Kim Dae Jung

KCTU statement, 16 October 2001

Threat of Imprisonment Used to Force the KCTU to Re-join the Tripartite Commission

It has been revealed that one of the reasons the government proceeded to press new charges against the KCTU president Dan Byung-ho, despite all the risks it entailed, was because he refused to bring the KCTU back to the fold of the Tripartite Commission.

KCTU lawyer, who has met with president Dan on October 6, has learned from president Dan that the prosecutor handling Dan’s case had presented him a four-point list of demands as condition for his release.

Apparently, the prosecutor, brought Dan to his office on September 27, two days prior to the government’s decision to keep in jail and lay new charges against him, and demanded him to sign a statement of repentance as condition for his release.

That a prosecutor would demand such as statement would in itself be regarded as a serious violation of human rights. But, what is incensing the human rights groups and the KCTU is the specific content of the repentance Dan was forced to sign if he wanted to be released.

The statement of repentance put before Dan by the prosecutor was composed of four parts: an expression of repentance for illegal activities, a promise not to organise any rallies which may lead to violent clashes, a promise to restrain from waging strikes and not to organise and lead illegal strikes. The fourth and last element of statement of repentance the judicial arm of the Kim Dae Jung government was: a promise to re-join the Tripartite Commission.

KCTU has rejected the Tripartite Commission as an ineffective and meaningless body. The government has treated it as a garbage dump where the labour is forced to rummage through the ruins to pick out what ever is left after the bulldozer of restructuring has ploughed through employment security and dignity.

In last three years (going on four years), the government developed and implemented major restructuring programmes for public sector, financial sector, corporate sector, and the labour market. In all these major initiatives the government has refused to bring the plans and programmes for dialogue with the labour. The actual shape and direction were out of bounds for intervention by the trade union movement.

The trade unions were invited once most of the damage was done. Unions were basically invited to agree to the size and extent of retrenchment of employment, dismissal of workers. For example, the government had already declared that the public sector would need to shed 30% of employment, before the issue public sector restructuring was brought to the Tripartite Commission for discussion.

While the dialogue at the hallowed halls of the Tripartite Commission was going on, the government declared that it would not release any budget to those government-funded institutions which fail to complete the targeted reduction in cost and employment. The government was adamant that collective bargaining process should not stand in the way of government plans. Workers in those enterprises and institutions who had attempt to bargain and conclude a collective bargaining agreement covering the major concerns, suffered long period of non-payment of wages, as budget outlays from the responsible ministries were held back. Only when the union gave in and accepted the government plan, did the fund arrive to pay wages and finance the operations.

In private sector, where many enterprises needed emergency fund injection to ride through the liquidity crisis, it was the government which demanded the management of these companies to bring to it an from the unions. The agreement, however, was not one which contained specific elaboration of what would happen, but, a promise by the union to accept whatever was required of the company in terms of employment retrenchment and cost reduction and other restructuring agenda as set out by either the government or those banks which provided credit. Such an agreement, usually, was made up of no more than just two or three sentences. It was nothing more than a surrender notice, leaving the workers in the hands and whims of the management, the creditor banks, and the government (and the foreign investors and the IMF) which called the shots.

This was the social dialogue that was tossed around within the Tripartite Commission. It was this Tripartite Commission that the KCTU had rejected and decided not to take part in.

A prosecutor of president Kim Dae Jung’s government used the threat of re-incarceration (the carrot of release) to coax the KCTU president to accede to social dialogue.

It has not yet become clear whether the action of the prosecutor was made at his own initiative or directed by higher authorities. The whole idea, however, is farcical and a terrible affront to the KCTU.

No one could ever imagine a KCTU president signing a statement of repentance agreeing to any of the four items demanded by the prosecutor. The prosecutor went through the motions knowing this fully well. At the same time, Dan’s refusal could in no way be regarded as a serious act of breach of confidence, because his action was already expected, and he could not do otherwise. Then, why?

The action of the prosecutor, despite its ludicrousness, however, is in fitting with the formalism of the Kim Dae Jung government. It was a clumsy effort to obtain an excuse or rationale for reneging on the agreement the government had entered into with the Catholic mediator who made the arrangement for Dan’s return to jail in early August. Prosecutor’s Office could now argue: How can you let such a person off the hook when he refuses to repent for the illegal strikes he was imprisoned for and refuses to promise not to organise any more illegal strikes?

It is really no wonder that this government has put 218 unionists in jail this year.