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Kim Dae Jung Enforces IMF Austerity

Workers Vanguard, no 696, 11 September 1998

SEPTEMBER 5-Some 10,000 South Korean riot police stormed six Mando Machinery auto parts plants two days ago to drive out workers occupying the factories. Cops hauled off up to 1,600 strikers in two plants alone, including union leaders, and bloodied untold numbers of workers. This brutal assault was ordered by South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in order to break the I 8-day strike against threatened mass layoffs at the country’s largest auto parts supplier. Coming amid a wave of worker unrest against layoffs and other attacks dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout of the crisis-ridden South Korean economy, this massive cop strikebreaking was a warning by the Kim regime to the whole of the South Korean proletariat.

Kim’s election as president last December was hailed by a host of leftists and liberals in South Korea and in the West as a victory for democracy. Kim won his spurs as a reformer while he was a political prisoner under the former U.S.-backed military dictatorship. But he came to office with the solid backing of U.S. imperialism. A White House spokesman hailed his election as a big opportunity, while the New York Times (20 December 1997) declared that his credibility with the unions put him in a good position to convince his followers that they need to endure a year or two of pain. We warned that the democratic Kim regime’s declared intent to enforce IMF austerity would mean intensified repression against the workers movement (IMP ’Bailout’ Means Misery for South Korean Workers, WV No. 681, 2 January). Kim has now demonstrated that he is every bit as prepared as his dictatorial predecessors to unleash police-state repression against workers who resist the IMP’s starvation dictates.

With the deepening of the East Asian economic crisis, South Korean workers this summer were being thrown out on the streets at a rate of 8,000 per day. But the crisis has also provoked a wave of workers struggles as well as a tide of nationalist sentiment in broad layers of the society. A prolonged strike against Hyundai the country’s largest auto maker-ended last month in the face of a massive cop siege. Despite the threat of military repression, Hyundai workers this week overwhelmingly rejected the agreement ending the strike, defying union leaders who had caved in to demands for hundreds of layoffs.

As South Korea’s capitalist rulers cracked down on the trade unions, the U.S. and Japanese imperialists were issuing hysterical tirades against the Stalinist regime in North Korea after its launch of a test missile that flew over Japanese territory. Washington seized on the missile test to again rail that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, while Japan called off efforts to normalize relations with the North. These imperialist provocations are part and parcel of a long counterrevolutionary drive to crush the bureaucratically deformed workers state in the North, which issued out of a social revolution that overthrew the capitalists and landlords. In the 1950-53 Korean War, U.S.-led forces under the aegis of the United Nations slaughtered upwards of three million people and 1eveled whole cities.

To this day, the U.S. has over 37,000 troops in South Korea, and another 40,000 in Japan. The massive American military presence is a dagger aimed at the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers states and an assertion of the U.S. capitalist rulers’ interests in the region against the dependent South Korean bourgeoisie and against rival Japanese imperialism. It also serves as a warning to South Korean workers, threatening to drown in blood any challenge to the capitalist order. As proletarian internationalists, the Spartacist League demands: U.S. troops out of Korea! We stand for the unconditional military defense of North Korea against imperial-ism and internal counterrevolution. But the nationalist Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, which promotes suicidal illusions in a peaceful reunification with the South, itself undermines the collectivized foundations of the North Korean deformed workers state. Trotskyists fight for the revolutionary reunification of Korea through socialist revolution in the South and proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy in the North.

Continuing in the footsteps of its predecessors, the Kim Dae Jung government has combined its drive against the unions with police-state repression against the left. In May, Kim’s secret police rounded up 26 supporters of the International Socialists of South Korea (ISSK), co-thinkers of Tony Cliff’s British Socialist Workers Party and the American International Socialist Organization. Like the left and labor movement in general, ISSK supporters have repeatedly been victimized under the draconian National Security Law, which can send people to prison for as little as listening to a North Korean radio broadcast. The government’s repression is aimed at silencing even the mildest dissent. In fact, the Cliffites share the South Korean rulers’ anti-Communist hatred of the North, refusing to defend it against the Seoul regime and U.S. imperialism.

Among those backing Kim’s election last year were leaders of the Korean Con-federation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The KCTU emerged in the late 1 980s in opposition to the government-sponsored KPTU labor federation, which had been set up under the auspices of the South Korean secret police. Following Kim’s election, the KCTU joined a tripartite committee with representatives of the government and the chaebol monopolies to oversee the implementation of layoffs, wage cuts and other IMP austerity measures. Now, in response to the police attack against the Mando plant occupations, a KCTU spokesman has threatened to pull out of the committee and announced, We will stage a general strike. But KCTU leaders have repeatedly pulled back from such confrontations-including a threatened general strike in July-out of loyalty’ to Kim.

South Korea’s independent unions have displayed unquestioned militancy. But this combativity is undermined by the nationalism which pervades the left and labor movement. As we stressed in our January article: The South Korean proletariat can go forward only on the basis of complete and unconditional independence from the bourgeoisie. This is all the more urgent today, as the South Korean ruling class seeks to line the workers up to sacrifice their livelihoods and struggles in order to appease imperialist dictates.

The Asian economic crisis poses pointblank the need for a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist order. To lead the fight against imperialist oppression and degradation in dependent countries such as South Korea requires the leadership of a Trotskyist party based on the perspective of permanent revolution: the seizure of power by the proletariat, marching at the head of women, poor peasants and all the oppressed and linked to the fight for socialist revolution in the imperialist centers.