South Korea: Life and death struggle

Against the background of economic catastrophe in Asia, the workers of South Korea are engaged in a life and death struggle. They have shown that organised and determined action can force even the most powerful governments to back down on their attempts to make workers bear the brunt of the crisis.

It is clear that the threat of general strike action has pushed the Kim Dae Jung administration further than the Chaebol bosses wanted. Many of the movement’s demands have been agreed, at least on paper. These include bringing to court employers who illegally sack workers and guarantees in relation to continued work, retraining and unemployment pay. The government and employers’ representatives at the tripartite talks also appear to have acceded to the idea of establishing who is responsible for the crisis and meting out appropriate punishment. While this is a little like Satan being expected to call to account the devil or Beelzebub, the agreement to set up an investigation has obviously been made in an attempt to placate the trade union movement. It is an indication of the power the organised working class that the tripartite discussions have ended with concessions but the trade union leaders must be wary of the fact that the employers and the government will want to suck them in to taking responsibility for further unpleasant decisions.

It is also clear that companies like Hyundai and Daewoo are going ahead, anyway, with making thousands of workers redundant to keep their operations profitable. They have vastly over-sized productive capacity given the collapse of markets abroad and at home, where wages have actually fallen. They support the most vicious police state methods to intimidate the movement and try and break the unions. The government is also determined to push ahead with a massive programme of bank closures and the privatisation of major public utilities at the cost of tens of thousands more jobs.

The heroic struggle at Hyundai Motors in Ulsan shows that organised workers will not let the bosses get away unchallenged with their wholesale slaughter of jobs and people’s livelihoods. They manifest all the best traditions of self-sacrifice for which the South Korean working class is renowned.

The Committee for a Workers’ International congratulates the whole movement for the example it sets with its stubborn resistance to the dictates of the Chaebol owners, the state and the International Monetary Fund. We welcome the fact that both of the South Korean trade union federations have come together to fight the offensive against the working class. We express our heartfelt solidarity and that of all our sections with those directly involved in struggle at this moment. We condemn the vicious crackdown being pursued by the National Security Planning Agency against activists of the workers’ and students’ movement. Under threat of arrest and imprisonment they have shown a steadfast dedication to the struggle.

As the KCTU leaders themselves indicate, the present suspension of the general strike is not the end of the struggle. The severe economic crisis means that, as long as industry and the banks remain in the hands of a few individuals and as long as the government bows to the dictates of the IMF – in effect, world capitalism, they will come back with more demands for sacrifice on the part of the working population.

General strikes, or even threats of general strikes, can have a big effect in winning concessions from the ruling class but unless power is taken out of their hands, there will be no lasting solution for workers and their families. A policy that would truly benefit them, will only be implemented when workers’ representatives form a government. The middle class, the professionals, the urban poor and students have a big role to play in changing society but the working class will be the decisive factor.

The leadership of the powerful KCTU has been changed and many are looking for all-out action to change society but it is policy that matters as much as the back-ground or fighting credentials of the leaders.

Only a programme of public ownership of the Chaebol under the democratic control of workers’ elected representatives could achieve far-reaching and lasting results in abolishing poverty and unemployment and in building hospitals, schools and homes for all.

Re-structuring, even dismantling the Chaebol and leaving their assets in private hands would mean the continuation of a system based on exploitation of workers’ labour for profit. This in itself is the prime cause of misery as well as economic crises like the present one in which productive capacity is actually destroyed and millions of workers are thrown onto the scrap-heap.

The forging of a party of labour is vital. A broad people’s party involving liberal representatives who still believe in capitalism would blur the issues on how to tackle the crisis it has brought about.

The dramatic events in Indonesia have been brought about by economic catastrophe. A dictator has been removed, as in the Philippines in 1986 and in South Korea in 1987, by a mass movement for democratic reform. However, especially now that the whole of Asia is afflicted by crisis, as long as capitalism remains in tact, even democracy is not guaranteed, let alone an end to unemployment, poverty wages and exploitation for the enrichment of the few.

In saluting the struggle of the Korean labour movement, we urge all activists in the country to consider a real alternative to crony chaebol capitalism. Building a party of workers must involve struggling for ownership and control of industry and the banks to be taken out of private hands and for society to be run on the basis of collective principles and genuine cooperation between all working people in a common cause – that of abolishing classes and exploitation altogether.

As in the labour movement, so in society, all representatives should be elected, subject to recall and paid no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. No privileges for being the voice of working people, but the responsibility to right the wrongs endured for generations.

The eyes of the world of labour turn often to South Korea where the courage of its workers and youth in has become legendary. The power of the working class has been demonstrated time and again in struggles, general strikes and mass demonstrations. The broken promises of recent governments serve only to fuel the anger of the movement. Conditions are accumulating for an all-out challenge to existing society. May South Korea’s long-suffering working class forge a party capable of leading it to victory – over the Chaebol, over the IMF and over exploitation and poverty once and for all.

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July 1998