Continued from Part 4



Chun’s policy toward labor was also taken from the pages of King Rehoboam. He intended to increase the already heavy weight of dictatorship on the backs of workers. A week before he was designated President (August 21, 1980), he, as general in charge of martial law, had promulgated “Guidelines for Purification of Labor Unions.” Eleven of the seventeen national industrial union presidents were forced to resign. One hundred and six regional leaders and almost two hundred local officers were forcefully evicted from their unions. Others more friendly to the Chun Doo Hwan regime were put in their stead. Even after a full decade of Yushin interference with union leadership, Chun still could not trust the unions to do his bidding.

Despite all the precautions of the KCIA, legitimate unionists kept infiltrating the union structures. Some came from UIM or JOC, others were members of student groups, many were connected with organizations of former union leaders who had spent time in prison, and still others were rank and file workers seeking a solution to workers’ problems. Indeed in 1980, there were still  a half dozen local unions that maintained a modicum of independence from the KCIA. Chun’s purification guidelines were aimed at eliminating all of these groups.

Chun was also quite aware of the connection between the Y. H. incident and the death of his mentor, Pak Chung Hee. He intended to take  a little revenge and at the same time prevent the same thing happening to him. Not only were union leaders purged, any who talked back or failed to show adequate repentance for past sins were picked up and sent to the “purification camps” run by the military.

The second stage in the offensive against organized labor came shortly after Chun became President. A new set of labor laws was decreed.  Local unions were still required to belong to an industrial federation and the FKTU. In this way, the downward method of controlling unions would  be continued. The other part of the strategy was to isolate the local from the Industrials or FKTU in regards to bargaining. Each local, at each company, would be on its own. Bargaining would be carried on only between the company and the plant union. There would be no help given from the outside. So called “third party interventions” were strictly prohibited. Church groups like UIM or JOC were the original  objects of  this law, but it was extended to include both industrial federations and the FKTU.  They were forbidden to take any role in local union action.

The result was to make collective bargaining even more of a sham than it had been under Pak. Control over the union by company and  police was enhanced. At the other end of the  union spectrum, the FKTU captivity was made even more complete. It was chartered to conduct education programs and to act as liaison with various international labor organizations. Otherwise, there was little left for it to do.

To make sure the dismemberment and captivity of the unions did not go awry, Chun beefed up the KCIA. First he changed its name to National Security Planning (NSP), and then he established a special agency to deal with labor: “The Committee to Counteract Labor  Insurgency.” By using that imaginative title, all labor conflict became matters of “insurgency,” a euphemism for communist activity. Any actions against labor, therefore, became justified. The NSP quickly gained a reputation for tortures that exceeded even that of its infamous  predecessor, the KCIA.

Peace Market Union Disbanded

The NSP’s first assignment against labor was to get rid of the few remaining unions that had not capitulated to the KCIA. The first attack, appropriately enough, came against the Chonggye Garment Workers’ Union, the union formed in the wake of Chun Tae Il’s death in 1970 at the Peace Market. Despite many efforts to close it down, the union had always survived. The mystique created by Chun’s death was still strong and his mother’s presence among the young people seemed to constantly renew their resolve. The 1980 revision of the labor law had made regional and district unions illegal. Since Chonggye Garment was a union of workers employed in the Peace Market area and across many different employers, it was declared to be a district organization and therefore illegal. A squad of police enforced the decision.

In desperation, twenty-one of the young leaders went to the Asian­ American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), an arm of the AFL-CIO that had been in Korea since 1971, and from which the workers at Peace Market had received financial support for their labor school. Apparently they expected the Americans to see the justice of their position and render protection. When these expectations were not met, the workers took over the AAFLI office and staged a sit-in demonstration. The AAFLI director was temporarily held hostage. Barricades were set up to prevent police entrance. A demand for the reinstatement of the union was issued, and the workers waited for the inevitable. About midnight, the police broke through. Chun Tae Il’s brother and another younger man jumped from the 4th floor window. Chun Tae Sam was caught by a net and uninjured. The other man was not so lucky. Shin Kwan Young, vice president of the union, broke his back.   The others were taken to prison.

The Chonggye Garment Union was outlawed. The labor school was shut. But moral outrage was building up.  Once more the image of the burning body of Chun Tae Il was being recalled by workers throughout the land.  The union of workers at the Peace Market would not go away. Three years later (1984) six hundred Peace Market workers held a vigil at Myongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul calling for the reinstatement of their union. A few days after the vigil, 3,000 students and workers demonstrated in front of the Peace Market demanding the right of workers to organize. The Chonggye Garment Union would not go away.

Union Defeat at Control Data

Following the defeat of the union at Peace Market, attention was centered on an American Company. Control Data had been in Korea for over fifteen years. Early on, a union had been formed and each year a contract that covered wages and working conditions was signed. Looking through high powered microscopes, the women produced tiny microchips for export. Matters of eye care and factory ventilation, in addition to wages, were always of concern in negotiations.

When contract renewal came up in 1982, almost from the beginning there was a stalemate.  Ostensibly, the bind was over a pay raise and health issues, but there was more than that involved. Chun Doo Hwan had demanded that each company establish a “Purification Committee” that would root out “troublemakers” among the workers. In the midst of the stalled negotiations, Control Data’s Purification Committee decided that six of the women workers had to be dismissed because they were agitating other workers against the company. Management teams were dispersed to the homes of the six. Their parents, were told of their daughters’ dismissal, informed that their names had gone to the NSP, and were offered termination pay. It was hoped that the six would leave quietly and that there would be no disturbance. This, of course, did not happen. When the other workers heard what had been done, they immediately sat down inside the factory and pledged to stay there until the six comrades were re-instated.

The company at first resisted offers by the police to break up the demonstration. It continued to supply food to the workers in the plant. Negotiations were re-opened. The wage dispute was quickly brought to solution, with both parties agreeing to a 19.5 percent raise. Originally the union had demanded 20% and the company had offered 12.9 percent. The remaining issue was the six dismissed workers. The Purification Committee, as directed by the government’s Office of Labor Affairs, would not hear to their re-instatement.

Into this dilemma walked two “trouble shooters” from the corporate headquarters in Minnesota.  In retrospect, one can judge that it was a mistake to send those uninitiated to hot Korean conflict into such a caldron as Control Data had become.  Nevertheless, the two men met  with  the workers  to seek solution. One of them suggested that Control Data might pull out of Korea in any case.

This was seen as a  threat.  The new anti-American emotions flared up. According to an account in E magazine, eighty “screaming,  shouting, fainting,  and crying” women poured into the conference room demanding to know company intentions and declaring that the  two Americans would  not get out of there until the six were re-instated.  After  several hours of confusion,  one of the captive Americans had an urgent call of nature. He was allowed to both relieve himself and make a phone call. He  called his home office in Minneapolis,  informing them of his quandary. Forbes reported that Control Data then called Senator Durenburg; the Senator called the State Department; and the State Department  managed to get the Korean government to get the police into action. In fact, the police were  already outside the gate waiting their time. Finally they moved in, beat up several people, sending five girls to the hospital with serious injury.

Subsequently, Control Data closed down its plant in Korea saying that progress in technologies no longer made the operation there feasible.  This action added another log to the fire of anti-Americanism that was igniting both in the political and the labor arenas, and eliminated one more of the democratic unions of Korea.

Union Broken at Wonpoong

The next independent union to go was the one at Wonpoong Textile Company.  The union at Wonpoong had a proud and honorable  history.  Back in 1973 when the owners of the company absconded with company money and workers’ wages, it was the union which had  taken the initiative to cooperate with a bank appointed management team to get the company back on its feet.  To help workers make  ends meet, the union set up a credit union, a scholarship fund, a barber shop and a beauty parlor. Rank and file took active part, and officers were always elected by the members, not appointed by the company nor KCIA.

Chun Doo Hwan decided to bring the Wonpoong Union to bay. He arrested the union president, Bang Yong Suk, on charges of helping Kim Dae Jung instigate the Kwangju rebellion. The charge was a fabrication based on the fact that Bang and his union members had taken  up a collection of money to send for relief to the people of Kwangju after the massacre had occurred. The National Textile Federation, at government direction, expelled Bang from the union.  On the same day, the company consummated the three-way attack by firing both Bang and the union vice president. Within a few days, forty-nineunion people were in prison. Others in places of leadership were made to resign. Four men were sent to purification camps. For a time, women paratroopers were lodged inside the women’s dormitory to keep order and ferret out suspicious actors.

One might think that this forced removal of leadership might have cowed the workers, but as in Dongil, Y. H. and Control Data, such was not the case. New leadership came forward. The union continued to demand that the Wonpoong Company bargain in good faith and reach  an agreement, especially on wages. For over a year, the company delayed decision while at the same time reducing wages and bonuses, and contracting work out to other companies. The number of employees was decreased. The president of the firm allegedly justified the reduction in forces by saying that he had every right to get rid of “garbage.”

The final battle in the sordid affair took place in September, 1982. On the 13th of the month, the new union president, Ms. Kim Sung Koo,  and a foreman on the floor (also union) were beaten and then fired for dereliction of duty. Two weeks later, a group of men, some of whom were from management, and some others who were hired thugs, took over the union hall and kidnapped the newly elected replacement for Kim Sung Koo. Her name was Chung Son Soon. The thugs kept her for seventeen hours. They beat her, threatened her, humiliated her and then threw her out of a car somewhere in the outskirts of town.  Barefooted and bleeding, she walked back to the factory.

In the factory, Chung Son Soon’s friends were conducting a sit-in. There was much jubilation when she returned, but the final defeat was just about to occur. Police, management men and thugs joined together to literally drag the workers out of the plant and throw them into the street. Union members were arrested. Supporting students were picked up and inducted into the army, and a prayer vigil attended by  2,000 people was broken up by the police.

In their final statement that was circulated throughout the country, the women at Wonpoong accused the government’s labor department of being a “puppet of vicious industries.” They set their own suffering in the context of the sufferings of the nation for democracy:

When the true facts of the unjust treatment we have suffered become known nation-wide, the democratic consciousness of our people will  become raised to greater height, and we believe that this will hasten the day when democracy can find its roots in our land.


Chun Doo Hwan’s  seizure of power and his attack on labor created not a ripple among the innovators who were directing Korea’s economic miracle. There were a few months of uncertainty after Pak’s death, but composure was quickly regained. Business went on as usual. The processes of economic progress continued to make spectacular gains. At the very time that Chun was “purifying” labor, the economic indices were reaching new records. Exports continued their expansion. Automobiles, electronics, chemicals and textiles were being sent over the world in multiplying numbers. Foreign capital continued to flow freely into Korea’s industries. By 1982, the gross  national product had arrived at a figure of $66 billion, and the per capita average was at the impressive level of $1,500.

At the same time, pressures on the workers were increasing. The problems of hours and safety had not been addressed. In fact they had gotten worse. Labor productivity between 1975 and 1983 had shot up 147 points, but wages had been increased by only 98. Consumer cost of living more than tripled the index of wage increases. Inflation, low wages, and long, unsafe hours of work made every day’s existence problematic. At the same time, the goods the workers were producing created a social-economic context of conspicuous wealth and rising expectations.  Slowly, these  pressures were creating the circumstances and attitudes from which a new movement was to be born.

Continued in Part 6


George Ogle spent twelve years with Korean industrial workers in Incheon as a “factory chaplain” of Urban Industrial Mission but was deported in 1974 for speaking out on behalf of eight men, accused of being part of a communist conspiracy then tortured and executed by the Park Chung-hee government. He returned to Korea in 1989 to write South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle about the history of worker struggles that gave birth to South Korea’s modern labor movement.  As we strive to understand the current labor-management standoff in South Korea, Ogle’s historic account sheds light on the origins of South Korea’s labor repression and dissent.

With the author’s kind permission, ZoominKorea reproduces select chapters from South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle as a special series. Part 5 of the series is from Chapter 5 of the book.

Featured News & Articles

Korea News Update (November 1, 2018)

As North and South Korea continue to make efforts to remove military threats aimed at each other, the U.S. and South Korea take measures to maintain their military “alliance.”

read more

Weekly News Roundup

Korea News Update (August 17, 2018)

NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS   Moon and Kim to Meet again in September; U.S. Ambassador says “Too early” to End the Korean War The leaders of North and South Korea will meet for the third time, this time in Pyongyang in September, announced Ri Son Gwon, chairman...

read more
Please follow us:

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)