Democracy on Trial: South Korean Workers Resist Labor Law Deform
Ou, C. Jay, Multinational Monitor
SEOUL, South Korea - Ushering in the new year with a bang, television screens worldwide delivered familiar images of demonstrators taking to the streets of South Korea's major cities and industrial zones. Workers and students were seen rallying and battling riot police, while government officials scrambled to mitigate damage to the national economy brought about by a series of nationwide strikes.
Fearless resistance went up against heavy-handed government tactics. Chung Jae Sung, a worker for the South Korean automobile manufacturer Hyundai Motors, engaged in the act of self-immolation to express outrage at the government.
At issue in this peninsular nation of some 35 million people are labor laws that threaten to further undermine labor standards and protections for workers, as well as a national security law that would return domestic intelligence capacities to the National Security Planning Agency (NSP), formerly the South Korean CIA. Hanging in the balance is South Korea's reputation as a newly democratic and developed nation - most recently confirmed by its entry to the "rich nations' club," the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In a brazen, stealth maneuver, at 6 a.m. on December 26, President Kim Young Sam's ruling New Korea Party (NKP) passed 11 amendments to controversial laws dealing with labor and the NSP in six minutes - without the participation of opposition legislators. The new laws would severely curtail workers' rights - by enhancing employer power to fire workers, giving employers the right to fire strikers and maintaining a de facto ban on trade union political activity, among other provisions - and return domestic investigation capacities to the NSP. The main opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) and the second largest opposition United Liberal Democrats (ULD) declared the laws null and void and demanded a meeting with President Kim to protest the illegal procedure.
That morning, the leadership of the illegal Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the second largest group of trade unions in South Korea with approximately 500,000 members and 930 member unions, called for immediate nationwide strikes to protest what they criticized as the "railroading of the labor and national security laws."
In the following weeks, KCTU and affiliated unions intensified the pressure on the government to nullify the laws through nationwide protests, strikes, rallies and various campaigns. The first phase of the general strikes from December 26 to January 3 included the participation of hundreds of unions and close to 400,000 unionists, mostly in the heavy industry sectors of automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding, and also including machinery, petrochemicals, hospitals and transportation. Hundreds of factories were forced to close and suspend production.
The KCTU called for immediate nullification of the laws, an apology from the president, and the resignation of President Kim's cabinet and all those involved in the passage of the bills, including Prime Minister Lee Soo Sung and ruling NKP chair Lee Hong Koo.
"President Kim Young Sam should apologize to 12 million workers," KCTU President Kwon Yong Gil thundered to a crowd of 25,000 workers from around the country on the fifth day of the strikes. "Unless the unilaterally railroaded labor laws and National Security Planning Agency Act are repealed, the second stage of the general strike will be launched right after the New Year's holiday."
The second phase commenced on January 3, when the 1.2 million-member Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) joined the KCTU-led strike coordinating organization, the National Council for the Preservation of Democracy and Revocation of Labor Laws (NCPD). The ongoing general strikes were joined by workers from white collar and public sectors, including clerical, insurance, university, communication and transit workers. …