ZoominKorea asked labor, LGBT, and peace/reunification activists in South Korea about their expectations for the Moon Jae-in administration as well as movement priorities in this new period.


Part 3: “Unity and solidarity among workers is more important than ever”

Ryu Mikyoung, International Director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions

Ryu Mikyoung is the International Director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

1. What is Moon Jae-in and his party’s position on former President Park Geun-hye’s labor market reform initiative?

The first 100 days after the new government’s inauguration are an important moment to steer it in the right direction. During this period, we will press the new government to eradicate the negative labor policies of the past administration and carry out positive labor reforms that can be done immediately through administrative authority without going through legislative procedures.

In the lead-up to the election, KCTU sent a series of questionnaires on labor policy to all the presidential candidates, and Moon’s responses were positive. Most notably, he was in favor of:

  • Abolishing pending bills for regressive labor reform;
  • Abolishing the administrative directives for expanding the category of justifiable dismissals in the private sector and implementing a performance-based salary and dismissal system in the public sector;
  • Restoration of lawful status for the Korean Teachers Union and the Korean Government Employees Union; and
  • Abolishing the practice of filing lawsuits against trade unions to claim damages incurred due to  trade union activities

It is our hope that Moon will live up to his pledges. 

2. What do you anticipate Moon’s presidency will mean for workers and organized labor?

In response to his election, KCTU said in its statement, “While we will support the administration when it moves in the right direction, we will not hesitate to criticize it and make it the target of our struggle should it fail to do so.”

Moon promised that he would build a country where the dignity and rights of workers are respected. It is our assessment that while his labor policy is focused on creating new jobs in the public sector, it is weak in the area of promoting fundamental labor rights.

The key question is how much will Moon be able to control the chaebols, which dominate the country’s economy, and change the existing laws and labor relation practices to ensure the guarantee of fundamental rights for all workers. The Korean economy is deeply enmeshed in the global recession and relies too heavily on the chaebols.

Many of the economic problems the country faces—from low growth to inequality and youth unemployment—can be solved under a system where the working class plays a leading role. In this sense, strengthen unity and solidarity among workers is more important than ever. 

3. KCTU President Han Sang-gyun has been behind bars since December 2015 and is serving a three-year prison sentence for leading mass demonstrations against Park Geun-hye’s undemocratic policies. Do you see any prospects for a pardon for Han in the new administration?

I certainly hope so! The Supreme Court will make a final ruling on Han’s case and his sentence in late May or early June. Once his sentence is confirmed, the President has the authority to launch a deliberation on a special pardon.

When KCTU asked Moon if he were willing to pardon Han Sang-gyun, he reserved his response and said he would make an effort to resolve the problem through due process and consult with all concerned parties and international organizations. In other words, he will wait to assess how public opinion develops on this issue.

For justice for Han Sang-gyun, we will need to continue the domestic and international campaigns to demand his release.

4. What will be the priority of organized labor during Moon’s administration?

During the candlelight movement and the lead-up to the election, KCTU put forward three major demands, which will continue to be the priorities of the labor movement in the new administration:

  • Increasing the minimum wage to 10,000 KRW and abolishing precarious labor;
  • Reform of the cheabol-centered economic system; and
  • Revision of labor laws to guarantee fundamental labor rights for all workers.

To realize the minimum wage increase, KCTU will stage a society-wide strike on June 30. Precarious workers paid less than the minimum wage will be on the frontline of that fight, with support from all other sectors of society. Of course the employers’ organizations oppose the minimum wage increase. The new government’s response to the demand for an immediate increase of the minimum wage to 10,000 KRW will be an early indicator of its stance on labor.

KCTU is also requesting an official dialogue with the new administration to discuss the other demands; this had never happened under the previous conservative governments.

As the KCTU said in its post-election statement, “The first six months following the election will be an important period during which the administration will be evaluated on its sincerity and determination to eradicate the problems of the past administration and carrying out social reforms in line with the spirit of the candlelight uprising. We hope that we will not have to wait long to see the administration’s true face. It is up to the Moon administration to decide.”

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