[Documents menu] Documents menu

Workers’ Anger on the Rise in South Korea

PICIS Newsletter, no. 74, 4 July 2000

Recent brutal attacks by the Kim Dae-Jung government on striking workers and the labor movement have rekindled the working class’s anger at the government and has laid bare the essence of the Kim government in the process.

In the early hours of June 29th, riot police, numbering more than 3000, entered Lotte Hotel, located in Seoul, to forcefully disperse the 1000 striking workers. They were heavily armed with shields, clubs, and hammers. They also shot tear gas into the closed-off space inside the hotel where the workers were located. The workers resisted but all were taken into detention after 3 hours. Many were injured in the process as riot police, suspected of being drunk, cruelly beat down the workers. The health of the many women, some of them pregnant, and their unborn babies is also a major concern. Just 3 days later, even before the shock from the Lotte had subsided, police again raided workers on strike, this time at the National Health Insurance Corporation building where about 1600 union workers were staging a sit-in strike. They used the same tactics as they did in the Lotte strike, again attacking the workers fully armed and wielding brutal force. The workers strike was part of the union’s collective bargaining struggle.

Demonstrations protesting the violent response of the government were immediate and numerous; demonstrations were held immediately after the police raid and over the weekend in downtown Seoul to denounce the actions by the government, but countless riot police were ever-present at these demonstrations also, either to beat down protestors, or to control the rally.

The demands of the striking workers at Lotte were the following: a 17% wage increase, change in employment status of temporary workers to permanent employees, the 40 hour working week, and extension of the retirement age.

The working class in Korea has suffered greatly from the IMF’s neo-liberal re-structuring process, agreed to andput in place by the Kim Dae-Jung government, despite many uncompromising struggles during the past 2 and a half years by company unions and the KCTU as a whole. Workers in Korea have been subject to layoffs, wage cuts, oppression from the government/police, and increasingly insecure jobs. Korean society as a whole has seen the increasing polarization of wealth, increased unemployment, and a sharp decrease in standards of living.

The people have Korea have seen just what the true meaning is behind the ’small but powerful/strong’ government, which the Kim Dae-Jung government, in accordance with its neo-liberal policy, is pursuing. Small when up against the capital and the social elite, powerful against the socially weak/unprotected and their struggles. This was never as clear as it has been in the past few days in Korea, as doctors across the nation closed down their hospitals in retaliation of the reform law that would set clearer boundaries for prescription drugs betweenthe hospital and the pharmacy(several people died while seeking medical treatment). The government responded with mere urges for the doctors to return to the negotiation table and then, embarrassed by their inability to lead to situation to a peaceful ending, lashed out on the workers and their justified demands a week later in what it felt was a necessary show of force.

The two major umbrella unions in Korea, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, realize that the very basic rights of the Korean working class, gained through over a decade of struggles against oppressive dictatorships and at the cost of enormous sacrifices by countless workers(many of whom died in the struggle), are being threatened. In a rare show of unity, they have heavily criticized the government and have laid out concrete plans for a struggle against the government. The KCTU has announced that they will hold a series of demonstrations, and the FKTU has responded by announcing that the affiliated Korean Bank Industry Worker’s Union will go ahead with its plans for a strike.

It seems the Korean labor movement is, once again, at a crossroads. Despite several general strikes led by the KCTU and many heroic struggles by individual unions(Mando Machineries, Hyundai Motors, Hanlla Heavy Industries, Seoul Subway Workers, etc), the Korean labor movement have no concrete results to show for their efforts, and the recent attacks were another sign of the crumbling power of the trade unions. With the second round of the government’s restructuring plan for the public and financial sectors expected to be put into effect soon, the labor movement is in dire need of a plan of action that can unite the working class in the struggle against the attack of the government and capital.

Your continued solidarity is needed not just to denounce the Kim Dae-Jung government for his attack on the workers at Lotte and the National Health Insurance Building, but for the struggle that lays ahead for the working class of Korea against insecure employment, wage cuts, and layoffs in defence of basic labor rights.