Continued from Part 5

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.

A New Mentality

Along with the growing pressures and changed  attitudes came a new style and philosophy of worker leadership. UIM and JOC education  throughout the 1970’s was based upon a theology of liberation.  That theology begins from the economic-political situation in which the  poor of society find themselves. The key for understanding scripture and society is the oppressive condition under which the weak must  live. As in the experience of Reverend Cho Sung Hyuk in the plywood  factory (part 3), religion begins from the perspective of the one being dumped upon. From there, social analysis is done and actions for reform are  taken.  This philosophy and its methodology was  embraced by women workers who became aware of their own miseries and organized to change their future at Dongil, Y.H., Control  Data, and  Wonpoong.  The mystique of these women  who suffered so greatly became the roots from which much of the democratic  action sprang. The prophecy of the women at Wonpoong was fulfilled.

University students had also been “educating” factory workers for about a decade.  First there was the Hakwon (night school) movement.  Small group schools were set up in industrial areas where the basics of “reading, writing, and arithmetic” were intermixed with analysis of  capitalism and political thought. After a short life, this movement, as one might expect, was closed down by the authorities. That,  however, did  not close down the students. They became factory workers. Inside the factories they continued teaching about the need to organize and make society democratic.

New leadership was also being streamed into the union movement through “prison graduates.”  The periodic purges of labor union  leadership over a period of fifteen years had created a substantial number of men and women dedicated to the improvement of the labor movement. Being of fertile imagination and considerable physical courage, these “graduates” of previous labor wars began to organize  together in various configurations, some locally, others regionally. A few even ventured to set up national associations. None of these  could be called labor unions as such because labor law specified there could only be one union in a shop or industry and that union had to be registered with the Office of Labor Affairs. There were no laws, however, forbidding the organization of citizens for ill-defined personal purposes. So a variety of quasi-labor organizations began to weave themselves around and through the official structures of unionism.

These various streams, filtered through the shock of Kwangju, brought forth a social philosophy that has captured everyone’s attention — though not everyone’s approval. The Kwangju massacre forced people to recognize the unjust, repressive system that had committed the deed. In analyzing the causes behind the oppression, the answers came out in layers: the soldiers did the dirty work; behind them was the Korean military; behind the Korean military was the American; the military of both nations are but lackeys of corporate capitalism; and Korean chaebol are but puppets at the end of American capitalistic strings.

Such a system, the argument goes, can not be reformed. It must be overthrown. Chun Doo Hwan (and subsequently Roh Tae Woo) must also overthrown. American troops and American capital must be withdrawn and South Korea must start down a new path  of independence.

Obviously this type of thought resembles communism and has, along with other events, initiated a whole new debate about communism in South Korea. After Kwangju, this new “Marxian-like” interpretation of history began to gather an increasing number of adherents among students and industrial workers. Coupled with the “liberation theology” advocated by the church groups it engendered a new philosophy among workers: while oppressions are caused by the capitalists and militarists, workers themselves have the power to overthrow the oppressors. To succeed the workers need only a broad-based working class solidarity.

This revolutionary message spread quickly from worksite to worksite. Industrial structures created by the EPB and the chaebol facilitated  the process.  In their thirst for efficiency they had devised schemes of concentrating the largest number of workers in the smallest amount of space. The city of Ulsan is a good example. Twenty years ago it was a small fishing village. Today it has a highly concentrated population of 500,000 most of whom are directly or indirectly dependent upon the Hyundai chaebol. The crowded conditions and proximity of a large number of workers creates a natural conduit for the exchange of grievances and the sharing of new ideas. The new industrial cities like Ulsan provided a new potential for solidarity and large-scale organizing among the workers.

A comparable situation was created in the industrial estates and free export zones like Kurodong near Seoul and Masan on the southern coast. Tens of thousands of young women are employed within the walls of these large estates. Employers are most often small scale operators employing a hundred to three hundred workers. Often, the employer is a foreign concern producing for export. Not infrequently, the working conditions, the pay, and the employers’ attitude toward the “girls” are embarrassingly mean. The crowded conditions of work, and the concentration of worker housing facilities inside or outside the estate’s walls are all conducive to the spreading of ideas like the new ones coming out of Kwangju.  In 1987, both the new cities and the industrial estates experienced sharp, extended worker revolts.

By the mid-1980’s, the pressures created by the political dictator and the economic expansions were accelerating. At the same time, workers with new attitudes and new understandings of their own predicament were beginning to find one another.  All that was needed  was a drama around which the ideas and emotions could coalesce. That drama was provided in a timely fashion by twocompanies  belonging to one of Korea’s largest chaebol.

Skirmish at Daewoo Motors

Daewoo is one of Korea’s top four chaebol. It, along with Hyundai, Smsung and Goldstar, is considered a super star. Daewoo had sales in 1983 of $4.3 billion, and was listed as 39t h in Fortune’s   listing of the 500 largest non­ American firms. By 1988, it had climbed to number 30, with sales of $17.3  billion.  Like the other super chaebol, Daewoo produces most everything.  In I 981, at government direction, it took over the Saehan Company’s half of a joint venture with General Motors. At first, the plant was an assembly line for American made vehicles. Since 1986, however, it has produced the “Le Mansand a variety of other popular automobiles, trucks and buses.

Daewoo Motors, as the new joint venture was called, inherited a labor union in the deal. The union, however, was not troublesome.  Saehan had subdued it to a mild company-dominated union. Its leadership stayed in the hands of one man from 1976 to 1985, an unusually long time by Korean standards.  Collective bargaining and the signing of contracts were perfunctorily performed each year. Wage  increases followed the EPB guidelines of 3-5 percent per year, even as inflation doubled and tripled.  A bonus increase had been agreed upon, but never paid. In the 1983 negotiations, the floor delegates had instructed the union officers to demand a 15.7 percent increase, but the union president agreed to 4.9 percent and quietly dropped the demand about the unpaid bonuses.  Membership did not have the right to ratify the agreement, so it stood.

This self-evident manipulation of the union by the company flew against the changing ideas and attitudes of the workers. It also aggravated a situation where many of the workers felt their working conditions had become worse under Daewoo. The Daewoo line of command was much more demanding. Reprimands came easier, and disciplines were more arbitrary. When the time for negotiations came around in 1985, the tide of worker emotions had changed, though neither the company nor the union realized it right then.

Twenty-four new union floor delegates were elected in 1984. When they met to give the bargaining team instructions, they demanded that there be at least an 18.7 percent wage increase. The union president, however, repeated his performance of earlier years by reporting out that the company was only capable of paying a 5 percent increase and that the union could expect no more.  This time worker expectations were not to be denied. Anger reached the point where union leadership was repudiated. A group of about 300 workers effectively took over the union. They selected three men to act as negotiators.  On April 16, 1985, the new team began negotiations, 300 of their colleagues went on strike. They occupied the factory and threatened to destroy a computer bank if the police attacked. The next day, more than two thousand workers expressed support by demonstrating in the factory yards and in the cafeteria.  Eight thousand police surrounded the plant. Food and water were cut off from the three hundred inside.

Then a most unorthodox thing occurred. Kim Woo Choong, the president of the whole Daewoo group, showed up at the plant and became part of the company team that negotiated with the three worker representatives. After a few days, he and the chief spokesman for the workers, Hong Yong Pyo, entered into private discussions and an agreement was reached: Basic wages were to be increased 10 percent and when the several other benefit increases were added, the total came close to the 18.7 percent demanded by the workers in the first place.

For the workers at Daewoo, a new consciousness was born. They had achieved by their own action the goal they had started out to achieve. They had done it despite the old company-dominated union. Strong, determined leadership supported in solidarity by the workers  had done the trick.  This lesson was not to beforgotten.

The 1985 negotiations and the strike were both illegal.  Technically,  both Kim Woo Choong and Hong Yong Pyo had broken the law.  In one company, there can only be one union.  Hong’s group of 300 and his team of three did not represent the official union and therefore the agreement signed with Kim Woo Choong was null and void. To get around that, the company held meetings with the union president and signed an even better agreement with him to make it legal and to save his face. The other illegal item was the strike.  According to law, a union had to notify the Office of Labor Affairs ahead of time and wait twenty days before entering a strike. Neither of these requirements had been followed. As Kim Woo Choong and Hong Yong Pyo signed their agreement, the police entered and arrested all three of the  worker representatives.  They were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.  Kim Woo Choong, of course, was not detained even though his actions could be seen as equally illegal. Whether Kim Woo Choong had connived with police in the affair is not clear. The company says no, but the suspicion lingers. In any case, the events of 1985 became the emotional roots for a bigger show-down in 1987.

Several new features characterized the Daewoo Motor conflict. First, and perhaps most importantly, it signaled the reappearance of male workers on to the scene of union activity. This was the first time since the Chosun Kongsa case back in 1971 that male workers had taken the offensive in a major labor­ management confrontation. Secondly, the action at Daewoo was against a big chaebol. Previously, the chaebol had seemed immune to collective action and were imaged as the “good” places to work. Thirdly, the appearance of Kim Woo Choong as a direct participant in negotiations illustrated that the chaebol were vulnerable. Daewoo must have been very anxious about the situation for the head of the entire group to have bent to meeting with a labor leader. Kim Woo Choong’s role also left him open to suspicions of duplicity.  Whether intended or not, the fact that Hong Yong Pyo was arrested after Kim had reached agreement with him  was widely interpreted as company-police connivance.

A final new characteristic of the 1985 Daewoo Motor strike was the fact that a sizable group of workers broke away from the official union and took its own action. The new organization called itself “minju nojo” (democratic union). The official union, related to FKTU, was  labelled as “o’yong” (company unions). Daewoo Motors was the first round of an internecine battle within labor. Young, more militant workers spurned the old company union and organized “minju nojo” to fit their demands for democracy.

These new characteristics of labor action at Daewoo were already latent in plants around the country. Within two years, they were to  become the majority voice for Korean labor.

Solidarity at Kurodong

The second drama that helped ignite the new directions for Korean labor also took place in a Daewoo factory. Among Daewoo’s many acquisitions was a small firm in the Kurodong Industrial  Estate near Seoul.  Kurodong consisted of three large estate areas that cover several square miles of walled-in small work places. The size of the operations vary from a dozen or so employees to several hundred. All together, there are about 58,000 employees in the three estates. 38,000 of them are young women who live in crowded dormitories within the confines of their own company or in over rented apartments called “chicken houses.”  Daewoo Apparel is one of the small firms. It employs about one hundred people to turn out a variety of women’s garments.

Ten days of work stoppage and turmoil within Daewoo Apparel in mid ­June, 1985 would probably have gone unrecorded except for the fact that the conflict burst out beyond the walls of the company. The dispute began in mid ­May when the union held a one day strike in support of its demand for a wage increase. The company had responded positively, and in a few days an agreement was reached. At the same time, however, the company quietly brought suit charging the union with an illegal strike. Consequently the union president and two others were arrested. The president was sentenced to two years in prison .

Union members took the arrest of their leaders as a breach of good faith on the part of the company. A month earlier negotiations had gone on in a positive atmosphere. There had been no further conflict. Why after that, had the company pushed a legal case against the union? Workers again struck and demanded that the union leaders be released. The company locked some of the strikers in a second floor room and fired some of the others. The police added their usual menu of beatings, insults and arrests. After ten days, the workers were so exhausted and beaten up and so many of their numbers had been fired that they had to give in. That part of the Kurodong drama was unspectacular because it was so common.

Daewoo Apparel workers on strike in 1985. Banner- "Release the union president; Guarantee basic labor rights" (Photo: "사진과 함께 보는 노동운동사 알기")

As in the Daewoo Motor case, however, there were a few unique items that subsequently were seen as harbingers of the future. No sooner had the Daewoo Apparel workers started demonstrating on behalf of their three imprisoned leaders than workers in nine other companies in the Kurodong estates took up their banner and staged sympathy strikes at their own places of work.

A thousand workers stayed in solidarity throughout the whole ordeal and suffered the same arrests, beatings and dismissals, as did the workers at Daewoo Apparel.

In addition, no less than twenty-six support groups from various sectors of society gave both moral and physical encouragement. Student groups offered their support as did a variety of Christian organizations. The most prominent support group was the Minju Tongil Minjung  Undong Yu’nhap  (The United People’s Movement for Democracy and Unification), an umbrella organization for the many political dissidents of Korea.  The Peoples’ Buddhist Association stood with the union, and visible to everyone was the contingent from Chonggye Garment Union of Peace Market origins. At the time, it was legally disbanded. Yet it was one of the first to show solidarity. Its members  took part in the actions until the end. The ghost of Chun Tae II would not let go. He had been twent y-two when he died. Now a decade and a half later, his spirit still inspired the young.

The Kurodong experience portended the democratic labor movement that was to explode on to the scene in just two more years. At the center of that movement was a deep alienation from the FKTU.  During the Kurodong struggles, representatives from FKTU visited  Daewoo Apparel.  Their  words were not ones of solidarity and support, but words that repeated the warnings coming from the company and police. Once more, FKTU demonstrated its subordination to the company.

The importance of Kurodong is that it brought solidarity to workers across lines that previously had divided them. It introduced labor to a whole array of non-labor supportive groups, and it demonstrated the need to act outside legal structures and to assert independence from the official union leadership. The revolts of 1987 inherited these critical legacies from Kurodong.


To be continued in Part 7


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 6 of the series is from Chapter 5 of the book.

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