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From ats@locust.etext.org Sat Mar 4 17:25:13 2000
Date: Fri, 3 Mar 2000 23:45:19 -0600 (CST)
From: Arm The Spirit <ats@locust.etext.org>
Subject: South Korean Marxists Regroup
Article: 90379
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

South Korean Marxists Regroup

By Iggy Kim, Green Left Weekly, Nr. 395, 1 March 2000

The January Marxism 2000 conference in Sydney hosted the first overseas delegation of South Korea’s newly formed Nodongja-euy Him, the Power of the Working Class (PWC). The delegation’s presence was the first contact between South Korea’s new Marxist movement and other Marxists from the Asia-Pacific region. The PWC delegation was composed of five activists in the independent trade union movement in South Korea and was led by comrades Park and Kwon.

As one of the most industrialised Third World countries, South Korea’s population is overwhelmingly urban working class. The majority of Koreans are well-educated workers resident in large worker-dominated cities. Many are concentrated in gigantic heavy industrial conglomerates. They are in contact with a vibrant and radical student movement.

The absence of a labour aristocracy, a history of military dictatorships, as well as direct oppression by United States imperialism, creates a very unstable capitalist country. The overthrow of South Korean capitalist system would be a substantial blow to world imperialism.

Until the late 1970s, the revolutionary left in South Korea consisted only of a smattering of pro-North Korea elements. They were isolated from a working class that was policed by a militaristic workplace regime inherited from the Japanese colonialists.

After US imperialism crushed the 1945 revolution south of the 38th parallel, during the Korean War of 1950-53, the evolution of the far left was severely stunted by a generational break and international isolation. By 1953, the southern revolutionary activists had either perished or fled north. US-backed autocrats, keen on preventing another revolution, tightly monitored and controlled foreign travel by South Korean citizens.

Kwangju To 1987

This changed with the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979. The resulting political vacuum within the ruling class emboldened the citizens of Kwangju, a historical hotbed of radical anti-imperialism, to rise and liberate the city.

A broad people’s movement seized arms from local armouries, formed democratic people’s committees, and successfully held off the army for more than 10 days. The stalemate was broken when a US-backed coup installed General Chun Doo-hwan as the new dictator. With a US promise that it would help crush any wider backlash, Chun sent tanks into Kwangju to massacre hundreds of men, women, and children.

In the wake of the Kwangju uprising and defeat, a mass radicalisation of youth, students, and the existing liberal democracy movement occurred. A vigorous debate erupted on the lessons of the defeat, fuelled and given direction by an influx of socialist and Marxist literature smuggled from abroad.

The debate concluded that what was missing was a political leadership to turn the uprising into a nationwide revolt against the dictatorship, Kwon told Green Left Weekly. Out of this process, a Marxist current emerged to address the spontaneist and liberal weaknesses of the popular movement.

The former student activists began to turn to the working class and work in the factories and industrial plants. However, under the Chun regime, they suffered widespread repression, with thousands of activists imprisoned in re-education camps.

Meanwhile, the student movement continued to flourish and its consciousness deepened. By June 1987, conditions had ripened for a mass student uprising that toppled military rule and achieved widespread political reforms. This democratic victory inspired a hitherto repressed working class to begin an enormous upsurge of strikes, plant occupations, and street demonstrations. In late 1987, over 3,000 new unions were formed.

This initial awakening was a social and human declaration of the working class, said Kwon, a period when workers first rose as a class to voice predominantly economic demands.

Further advances in consciousness and organisation were rapid over the next couple of years. Shop floor militancy and democracy were consolidated in the process of building the new unions and organising mass direct action. These mass actions won a number of victories, further lifting the confidence of the workers in their collective power. This deepened the participation of the rank-and-file in the running of their unions and directing their struggles. White-collar workers in the public sector, services, professions, and clerical sector were inspired by the victories of the industrial workers and formed their own unions.

This upward spiral, through ups and downs, culminated in November 1995 with the formation of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) as a nationwide federation of organised labour. It grouped all the new unions—both blue- and white-collar—that had formed since the 1987 upsurge. The KCTU also provided the organisational framework for the most advanced militants—including many trained in Marxism during their student days—to organise more coherently and wield national influence.

Under the impact of these militants, one year later the KCTU called a general strike in the winter of 1996-97. This strike—the first political general strike since the 1945-53 revolution—targeted president Kim Young-sam’s anti-democratic practices and attempts to downgrade labour laws.

Kwon pointed out that this step was the political declaration of the working class, when organised workers became conscious of their strategic political role in leading the masses. In contrast to the leaps and bounds in the wider labour movement, the 1980s Marxist currents were dogged by problems. After the successes of 1987, general agreement was reached to begin forming an underground revolutionary party.

However, it was in this period that the Soviet Union collapsed. As elsewhere, the impact among South Korean Marxists was tremendous. They were pulled apart by confusion, demoralisation, and retreat, regrouping only in inward-looking circles and factions. The healthy Marxists that came out of this sombre period survived by looking to the spectacular growth of the labour movement.

As Kwon said, There was a lot of disillusionment, but there was also the continuing struggle of the working class. It was this that allowed the political left to survive. We continued to emphasise this class struggle as the driving force of history. We continued to collaborate with the advanced workers even though militant activists were scattered. It was this process that led to the formation of the KCTU. In a sense, we grew up through activity among the workers.

Economic Crisis

Since the 1997 economic crisis, South Korean workers have again entered a new stage of struggle. The economic crisis was quickly followed by the December 1997 presidential election. Many workers looked to the reformist solutions of ex-dissident liberal democrat, Kim Dae-jung.

Before his election, Kim demanded that the terms of the International Monetary Fund restructuring be renegotiated for the benefit of workers and farmers. But as soon as he was elected, he changed his stance and stated that the only way was to follow the IMF’s dictates—he then became the protagonist of neo-liberalism, even though he insisted his government was a ‘people’s government’.

The Kim regime looked to an Australian Accord-style method of implementing its attacks, meeting with the KCTU to initiate a Tripartite Commission between the federation’s leadership, government, and employers.

The depth of the crisis of South Korean capitalism disoriented the KCTU leadership. For the first time, it was confronted with the fundamental question of what to do with the capitalist beast. Having neither an independent political strategy nor a programmatic alternative to capitalism, the KCTU leadership accepted Kim’s hand in February 1998.

Kwon told Green Left Weekly: In spite of a militant tradition, the KCTU leadership doubted the working class’s capacity to fight globalisation. They withdrew into a view that compromise was inevitable. But in our opinion, there was no other way than to fight back to block the offensive by capital both internationally and nationally. We, the militants, fought for this line within the KCTU; we put pressure on the leadership to fight back.

So when it became known that the leadership had agreed to sit on the Tripartite Commission, a big protest erupted from below. This forced the resignation of the leaders who had signed the deal, and an emergency committee was formed to fight the attacks.

Unfortunately, this committee similarly wavered and called off a planned general strike. During the rest of 1998 and 1999, struggles against anti-worker restructuring continued to heighten the stakes and put the KCTU to the test.

The federation’s leadership congealed into a more defined reformist bloc. This development was formalised with the birth of the reformist Democratic Labour Party in September and the KCTU’s legalisation in November last year.


In response to this crisis of leadership, a discussion began in 1998 among many of the most advanced revolutionary activists. In August, 1999, the PWC was formed.

These comrades were returning to the same line of march that had been reached in the late 1980s but which had been thrown into disarray and turmoil by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We managed to hold together after the collapse through activity within the workers’ movement, but we still lacked coherent political leadership, Kwon explained. That’s why we concluded that we should get together and form a strong leadership that can lead the class struggle politically.

The PWC groups together approximately 200 activists from the independent union movement, social movements, intellectuals, and cultural and media activists. It has a support base in the key metal, heavy industry, automobile, and shipbuilding industries. At the moment, the PWC is discussing the tactics, program and organisational form for building a revolutionary leadership of the working class.

The PWC continues to intervene in wider struggles as it defines the kind of organisation it wishes to become. Its immediate perspectives are centred around unifying in struggle the most conscious militants within the workers’ movement and within wider progressive forces.

The exact form is under discussion—there are still many bad memories of the 1980s that we need to overcome, Kwon told Green Left Weekly. But our objectives are very clear: the PWC is revolutionary, and against parliamentarism. We are trying to restore the traditions of revolutionary Marxism.

The PWC is preparing to publish a fortnightly newspaper and hold theoretical education schools for its members. An internal conference is planned.