Editorial: Korea Workers Take the Lead

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

The Editors

A NATION-WIDE STRIKE wave by tens of thousands of South Korean workers has brought workers’ struggle to the forefront of the mass movement in that country. The struggle first for democracy in the country and then for dignity in the factories shows some of the early signs of a revolutionary situation as the people face fearlessly today the hated government from which yesterday they cringed in terror.

In a movement strikingly parallel to the early battles of the U.S. CIO, workers across South Korea have organized independent unions, engaged in sit-down strikes and factory occupations, and in militant confrontations with the police. Among the August events:

• Strikes at port cities like Ulsan and Pusan leading to the shut-down of the port and the piling up of shipping containers on the docks.

• Sit-down strikes at South Korea’s two largest automakers, Hyundai and Daewoo.

• A strike at the state-owned Korea Heavy Industry and Construction Co. where workers barricaded the main gate with truck trailers and construction cranes.

• A strike at the Kukje-ICC Corp., the country’s biggest shoe manufacturer, where workers engaged in a confrontation with police that left dozens injured.

• A strike by some 4,000 miners who also blocked two key rail lines in South Korea.

While the organizers of the unions have been religious groups like the Urban Industrial Mission (UIM) and the Catholic Youth Labor Society, as well as secular labor organizers and various socialist labor activists, the workers’ demands for independent unions, higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions have sprung from the highly exploitative character of Korean capitalism.

Since the adoption of the Yushin constitution of 1972 hundreds of Korean labor organizers have been jailed. Korean workers work the longest industrial work week in the world, fifty-three hours, while factory workers earn $176 per month. The average wage is $377 per month. Korea has the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world, and last year 1,718 workers were killed on the job while 141,809 were disabled. Since 1980 there have been 8,635 workplace <laths and over one million injured. It is these conditions which led to the militant nationwide strike wave.

The events in Korea bear a remarkable similarity to the growth and spread of Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980. The beginning of a new labor movement in the industrial complexes of the port cities, spreading across the country to include virtually every industry, every mine and mill, every factory and office, workers both men and women, skilled and unskilled-that is the direction in which this movement is heading.

While so far, the workers’ demands have been largely economic, history tells us that such massive strike movements soon take on a political character and challenge the power of the state. It is obviously premature to think that an immediate workers’ revolution will result directly from this initial strike wave. Nonetheless, the possibility of working-class socialist revolution is now on the agenda and will haunt the South Korean ruling class and its U.S. sponsors from now on. The workers have demonstrated the social weight and mobilizing power to confront the system head-on.

The New Democratic Party of Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung represents a democratic capitalist opposition to the dictatorship of the ruling Democratic Justice Party of President Chun Doo Hwan. It cannot however end the exploitation of the Korean workers. To end their exploitation the Korean workers will have to create their own party, a new working-class party that can at the same time organize the struggle to end the capitalist system in South Korea.

Such a prospect challenges the political theories of both the Right and the Left. For years the right-wing has argued that capitalism leads to democracy; economic freedom, they claimed, would bring political freedom in its wake. The reality was otherwise, however. Capitalism required the military coups by Park and Chun and the authoritarian South Korean state which ended political democracy, suppressed social movements and did away with labor unions.

At the same time the Left argued that monopoly capitalism underdeveloped the Third World. So, argued the theorists of underdevelopment, workers’ revolution was ruled out and the alternative was guerrilla warfare or peasant revolution. The revolutionary program was not to be workers’ power, but economic development through the nationalization of heavy industry and agrarian reform.

South Korea’s workers’ movement today shows that workers’ revolution is now on the agenda in what had been called the Third World. In fact capitalism and imperialism have been developing many Third World countries. In Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Mexico and Brazil industry expanded, cities dramatically mushroomed, and a class of wage earners — especially manufacturing workers — emerged. The workers in private Korean corporations, those working in state industries, as well as those employed by Japanese, American, German and British companies or companies engaged in joint ventures, have become part of the new international working class. From South Africa to Korea-and in the Eastern bloc, Poland-the working class is posing the possibility of socialist revolution.

The Left in the United States has a responsibility to support the genuinely democratic movement in Korea, but more specifically the Korean workers’ movement. We should support the demand of the democratic movement for an end to the U.S. command over the Korean armed forces, for the withdrawal of the 40,000 U.S. troops, and for the end of the participation of U.S. troops in the annual “Team Spirit” military exercise that is among the largest in the world. The people of South Korea have the right to live under a social and political system of their own choosing, free from the interference of other powers, be they the U.S., Japan, China or the Soviet Union.

We should also support the right of the peoples of both South and North Korea to make a decision about their own lives. We believe the Korean people have the right to live in peace as two separate states, or to reunite in one state as they see fit. At the same time we believe that the bureaucratic dictatorship of North Korea offers no alternative to the authoritarian capitalist dictatorship of South Korea. Rather, the spread of the militant South Korean labor movement to North Korea would open new horizons for a truly international labor movement.

We support the Korean workers in their struggle to build democratic unions, to wring more money, shorter hours and better conditions from the bosses, and to create a better life for themselves and their families. At the same time, in fighting for themselves, the Korean workers are also providing a new political alternative for workers in the United States who may now see that we do not need the protectionism of tariffs and quotas, but the real protection provided by international labor solidarity. Our real allies are not the American employers but rather the Korean labor unions. Every victory of the Korean workers is also a victory for American workers.

September-October 1987, ATC 10

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