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From: <wwnews@wwpublish.com> (WW)
Message-ID: <3FB9820D.1060108@wwpublish.com>
Date: Mon, 17 Nov 2003 21:21:01 -0500
Subject: [WW] Massive street battles in South Korea

Worker suicides lead to massive street battlesxo

By Deirdre Griswold, Workers World, 29 November 2003

South Korean workers are telling the world in the most unmistakable way that their conditions of life and work are intolerable. They flooded the streets of downtown Seoul on Nov. 9 in a demonstration of 40,000 union members against repressive labor legislation. And when they were attacked by police, they responded with hand-to-hand combat and even molotov cocktails.

These workers have been moved to the core by the self-sacrifice of three of their comrades, who immolated themselves in separate incidents in October as a desperate outcry over their desperate situation.

The first to die was Kim Joo-Ik, former president of the Hanjin Heavy Industries Union, who was found dead on top of a 150-foot crane within the factory grounds in Pusan on the morning of Oct. 17. He had hung himself on the 129th day of a sit-in he conducted on top of the crane. Kim had started his protest on June 11 to draw attention to the company’s merciless policies toward the workers.

Found inside his pocket were two notes, one to his fellow workers and the other to his family. An editorial in Minjok-Tongshin, a Korean- language daily based in Los Angeles, describes their contents: In the first note, the deceased lashed out against the company management, citing their dual policy of repressing the workers and the trade union while generously com pensating top management and share-holders. He questioned how workers could be expected to accept wage freezes when the company was earning record profits, with management and major share- holders reaping the gains. The long history of oppression against the workers and the trade union, insincere negotiation practices, layoffs and job changes for trade union activists, and wage levels not enough to cover living costs were all mentioned in his note. But perhaps at the heart of Kim’s and the workers’ grievances were the new tactics which the company had employed to repress workers.

Kim, only 39 years old and the father of three young children, asked his family to leave his body at the top of the crane until the workers’ struggle was victorious. His fellow workers are guarding the site in respect for his wishes.

The suicide of this worker was followed by one in Taegu on Oct. 25 and another in Kwangju on Oct. 26. Their plea was heard by the hundreds of thousands of workers in the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which called the Nov. 9 demonstration.


The unions are trying to roll back laws that allow a company to sue unions and individual members for damages if they sustain losses due to a strike. The big corporations that dominate the South Korean economy are using the laws to bankrupt the unions and their members. In Kim Joo- Ik’s case, the bosses not only had won huge payments from the union he headed, they actually seized his wages and his house.

South Korea is under the fist of the United States, which has almost 40,000 troops stationed permanently on its soil. The rationale given by U.S. administrations, Democrats and Republicans alike, is that the troops are there to protect South Koreans’ freedom from an alleged threat from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North--an argument that is rejected by the majority of South Koreans, who want the U.S. troops out and their divided country reunited.

The DPRK lost several million people when the U.S. invaded the North in 1950-53, but it resisted becoming a neocolony of Washington and Wall Street, forcing the Pentagon to withdraw and remaining independent of U.S. capitalist control. Its industries and land are socially owned, unlike the capitalist South, and it rebuilt from the ashes of war as part of the bloc of socialist countries that stretched at that time from Eastern Europe to the Korean peninsula.

Beginning in the 1970s, U.S. and Japan ese capital invested heavily to build up South Korean industry, but this development was completely export driven and tailored to suit the profit needs of the imperialists. It could not be sustained. After the Asian economic crisis began in 1997, the capitalist governments there followed austerity programs drawn up by the imperialist-controlled International Mon e tary Fund. A 1998 IMF loan to South Korea demanded heavy concessions from the workers. The struggle between bosses and workers in heavy industry and in parts of the service sector became intense.

South Korean workers today face a perilous job situation. More than half the workforce are either temporary, part-time or what are called atypical workers, those who are hired on a three-month contract with minimal benefits, if any. (Asia Times Online, Aug. 22)

On Oct. 16 the South Korean daily Joong Ang reported that 40 percent of the country’s college graduates were unemployed. Another daily, Chosun Ilbo, reported on Oct. 20 that 4,234 people had applied for 11 job openings at Yuhan-Kimberly, leaving a ratio of job seekers to jobs at 385 to one.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was elected a year ago in a decisive victory over the candidate favored by Washing ton. His popularity was based on his pledge to continue the process of dialogue with the North known as the Sunshine Policy. He also had been a labor lawyer, and was seen as more disposed toward the workers.

But the U.S. hostility toward North Korea has grown more acute. And the Roh government has responded to Washing ton’s pressure by agreeing to send troops to Iraq, touching off big anti-war demonstrations. It has also continued to follow IMF dictates to privatize state industries, evoking massive strikes by the union movement. With the economic suffering of the workers growing worse, the stage is set for even bigger battles to come.