South Korea - a summer of discontent

Sept/Oct 2008

From the middle of last May onwards, a wave of militant protest swept South Korea. For over two months, tens - sometimes hundreds - of thousands of demonstrators took part in daily mass rallies in downtown Seoul and other South Korean cities.

This wave of protest involved significant sections of the youth, both school and university students, as well as large numbers of workers. Although triggered by what may appear in Britain as a rather minor issue - the government's decision to resume US beef imports - it soon turned into a general protest against the political agenda of the ruling Grand National Party.

Even more importantly, this wave of street protest doubled as a wave of strikes affecting several industries, in which workers, who felt reinforced by the street protest, raised their own demands using to their own class weapons - those of the class struggle.

Significantly, the South Korean regime, whose "democratic" credentials are so often hailed in the West, especially in contrast to North Korea, used its repressive machinery in an attempt to quash the rallies and strikes. To some extent, however, the very brutality of its repression backfired, by boosting the resolve of protesters and strikers. In any case, this brutality did not prevent the government from being shaken by these developments.

The regime's dubious credentials

Today's ruling Grand National Party is none other than the latest reincarnation of the so-called "Democratic Republican Party" formed in 1963 by the then military ruler, general Park Chung Hee, to serve as a political vehicle for his dictatorship. Rather than a "centre-right" party, as it is portrayed, it is a reactionary machinery, with strong links with South Korea's business tycoons and generals as well as with the army's US mentors.

If its candidate, Lee Myun Bak, won the December 2007 presidential election, it was largely by default. In some respects, he was an unlikely winner. As a former CEO of Hyundai's construction wing, he was the first ever presidential candidate to take the risk of presenting himself as a representative of the much hated chaebols - the giant family-owned conglomerates, which were built from public funds during the four decades of military dictatorship after World War II, and which still dominate the economy. Moreover, he was the first ever presidential candidate to stand while being under investigation for corruption in his previous position as Seoul's mayor.

However, Lee Myun Bak's only real rival was the candidate of the former ruling party - by then re-launched as the United Democratic Party (UDP) - which had become discredited as a result of its 8-year record in office. The former administration had peddled a lot of anti-American rhetoric as a means of forcing austerity measures down the throat of the population - which had not gone down too well. As a result, many potential UDP voters shifted their votes to "small" candidates or abstained, allowing Lee Myun Bak to win the race with 48.7% of the votes - a 22% lead on his UDP rival - but on a record low turnout of 63% of registered voters.

A significant factor in the GNP's success, however, was probably also the alliance between the GNP and the country's largest trade union grouping, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) - the direct descendant of dictatorship's state-sponsored unions. This provided some credibility to some of Lee's electoral promises - in particular to his pledge to create 600,000 new jobs every year, end discrimination against casual workers, introduce positive discrimination measures for the poorest in education, cut taxes for low-income households, etc... Such a language, explicitly endorsed by the FKTU, may have fuelled illusions and won Lee some working class voters, especially as his main rival was careful to avoid making any commitment over social issues.

However, no sooner was Lee elected, than the unsavoury practices of his party came to the fore. A long series of corruption scandals broke out involving the leading circles of the GNP, including the president's own entourage, although Lee himself was finally cleared in the investigation launched against him.

The GNP's pro-business agenda was soon highlighted by its announcement of wholesale privatisation in the large state-controlled sector and public utilities. For good measure, the new president announced his intention to relax the regulations which prevent industrial chaebols from taking a controlling stake in finance institutions - thereby reversing emergency measures taken after the 1997 financial crisis, despite the huge scandals of the past years in which chaebols' heads (Samsung's and Hyundai's among others) were convicted for embezzlement and other financial misdeeds.

Meanwhile, a new labour minister, Lee Young hee, was appointed. After a career in the top spheres of the FTKU and a spell in academia, Lee Young hee had been the new president personal advisor on labour issues. But trade-union background or not, the new minister soon became notorious for his reactionary stances - such as taunting workers with threats of "massive redundancies" if they resisted the regime's "reform plans", declaring to the media that wage increases did not need to be granted every year, claiming that labour laws were "over-protecting workers" and reiterating at nauseam his determination to clamp down on "illegal strikes". The promises made during Lee's election campaign went out of the window, while the GNP's overtly pro-business attitude encouraged employers to speed up and undertake more "restructuring plans", so that unemployment increased at a faster rate than ever, while rising prices were cutting workers' standard of living.

As a result, whatever illusions may have existed among workers about Lee Myun Bak and his pledges promptly melted away. By the time the South Korean parliament was up for re-election, in April this year, Lee's approval rate in opinion polls had dropped well below 30% and the GNP barely managed to win a majority of 2 seats on a 46% turnout, the lowest ever recorded in an election, and an expression of the electorate's growing disaffection for the regime.

From the US beef issue to a wholesale protest

The trigger of the wave of protest - the GNP's decision to resume US beef imports - should be seen in the context of a saga going back to 2003, when the previous administration suspended the import of US beef following cases of "mad cow disease" in the US. For the US meat industry and cattle farmers, this was a significant blow as South Korea is one of the world's largest importers of bovine meat and a big US customer.

Since 2003, the issue of South Korea's US beef imports has been a major bone of contention in the economic horse-trading between Washington and Seoul. Eventually, when the so-called "Free Trade Agreement" between the US and South Korea was reached last year, Washington laid down the law, by setting as a prerequisite for its implementation, the resumption of US beef imports. A long series of talks followed over sanitary standards for the imported meat. These talks eventually resulted in a deal signed on 18 April this year and Seoul's decision to resume US beef imports on the basis of the agreed standards.

By that time, however, the issue had turned into a political hot potato, including among the rival factions of the GNP itself. Building on the understandable suspicion felt by the population, the fears of Korean cattle farmers who stood to lose out to US competition and the anti-US feelings which are widespread in the country, politicians turned the issue into one of national sovereignty as well as public health. To that extent, the first anti-US beef rallies, starting from May 2nd, before the ban on beef imports was actually lifted, had a very perceptible nationalist slant - so much so that a right-wing rival of the GNP such as the Liberty Forward Party, felt comfortable enough with this protest to try to put itself at the head of the protesters, although, it should be said, without much success.

In the capital, initially, while farmers were staging their own separate protests, most of the participants in the largest rallies were school and university students, many of them carrying a placard in one hand and a lit candle in the other - a symbolism inherited from the days of the dictatorship, when sections of the pro-democracy movement inspired by lay priests promoted this as a sign of non-violence. But, by the end of May, after the protesters' numbers were swollen by the government's official decision to lift the ban on US beef, the nature of the rallies changed significantly.

This decision suddenly pushed many more tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of life into the streets. By that time as many as 1,700 organisations and local committees had expressed their support for the protest, joining ranks under the umbrella of a so-called "People's Conference Against Mad Cow Disease". Besides the usual placards stating "Eat the mad cow yourself, Lee Myung Bak!" or "Cancel the beef deal", others began to appear demanding Lee's impeachment or condemning his privatisation plans. Over the following days and weeks, as the rallies became daily occurrences in the largest towns and new contingents of protesters joined them, more diverse demands were to make their way onto these placards - for instance for the right to a living wage, for decent pensions and welfare provisions for all.

A significant factor in expanding the scope of the protest far beyond the beef issue was the decision of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU - the country's second largest union body, which emerged out of the working class explosion which brought down the military dictatorship in the late 1980s) - to throw its militant resources behind the protest. Not that the KCTU leadership tried to intervene in the protest to provide it with a different direction, something it could have done by putting forward demands and objectives offering a fighting perspective to the working class and the youth against the wholesale offensive of the bosses and GNP regime. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the KCTU chose to align itself entirely alongside those organisations which wanted to confine the protest to the US beef issue only. Thus, the first initiatives taken specifically by the KCTU was to send hundreds of activists to blockade cold storage depots where imported US beef was kept, while instructing its members in the transport and port unions to boycott cargos of such meat. The KCTU leaders were thereby choosing to put workers in the tow of a mixed-bag of nationalist and green petty-bourgeois groupings

Nevertheless, regardless of the KCTU leaders' agenda, the mere fact that they called on workers to join the protests, even if it was only in the name of defending their health against the risk of potentially infected US beef, had a social impact on the nature of the protest wave. The workers who joined the protest were not too concerned with the tactical niceties of the KCTU leaders' strategy, and rightly so. They saw this mobilisation as an opportunity to express their anger against the bosses' offensive and against the GNP pro-business policies, and they used this opportunity to vent their frustration and raise their demands in the middle of the general clamour against the US beef.

The protest develops

On the weekend starting on 31st May, which was a bank holiday weekend, the rallies took a new form in Seoul, which was to carry on over the following month, in addition to the daily evening rallies. This time the protesters occupied the square outside the City Hall for a full 72 hours. During that long weekend the estimated number of participants in Seoul alone reached 100,000 according to the organisers and 40,000 according to the police.

This time, however, the regime had decided to make a show of strength. Thousands of riot police were mobilised in full battle gear, equipped with water cannon. When, late on the Saturday night, thousands of demonstrators marched on the "Blue House" (the presidential residence), there were brutal clashes. Videos and photos of police thugs beating up isolated protesters were later posted on the internet. During that weekend the police reported 228 arrests among protesters, while 70 were injured - although this last figure is certainly an underestimate as many injured protesters were treated there and then by medical volunteers to avoid being taken to hospital, for fear of arrest. In any case, news of the police's brutality spread like wild fire, prompting more protesters to join the rallies, this time to protest against police violence as well.Rallies went on daily over the next days, until Tuesday June 10th. This day is somewhat special in South Korea, as it is the anniversary of a huge protest held in 1987, against the murder of a demonstrator by the police. This 1987 demonstration is largely considered as the turning point in the process which led to the downfall of the dictatorship - even though it took all the might of the subsequent working class explosion to actually relegate the army to its barracks. So, given the GNP's repression over the previous days, this anniversary appeared to many as an opportunity to protest against methods reminiscent of the dictatorship.

On that evening, in the words of the pro-business Korea Times, which cannot be suspected of being over-sympathetic, "hundreds of thousands of protestors packed the 16-lane Sejong street in downtown Seoul. (..) The coalition of civic groups claimed one million citizens participated nationwide, including 500,000 in Seoul alone, while police estimated the total number at around 200,000. Tens of thousands of citizens also held separate gatherings in Busan, Kwangju and dozens of other cities around the country.(..) Some 40,000 riot police were mobilised at major rally sites." Such estimates are worth what they are. But if 40,000 police were mobilised, the odds are that the number of demonstrators was significantly higher than the police claimed.

This huge demonstration of strength threw the regime off balance. Having bragged so often about its resolve never to give in to "illegal" protests, it felt it necessary to make a token gesture of appeasement. The trade minister was rushed to Washington to try and reach a new agreement with the US Trade Department, in order to give Seoul some breathing space. As it happened, however, the Bush administration did not give a damn about its South Korean ally's predicament and refused to make any concession. Seoul was in no position to impose anything on Washington, for fear of compromising the fat profits that the chaebols hoped to make on the US market as a result of the Free Trade Agreement. So, the GNP government was left with no option but to try to weather the storm, hoping that it would die out sooner or later, while resorting to a mixture of harassment and arrests to discourage the protesters and weaken the rallies' organisers.

In terms of numbers, June 10th marked the peak of the protest rallies, although, until the end of June, tens of thousands of protesters kept pouring into the streets day in and day out. Thereafter, the protest went on more or less daily basis till the end of July, but the number of protesters shrank slowly and the rallies became less regular, while the police stepped up the arrests and prosecution of rally organisers.

But long before the street protest ended, the government was confronted with a potentially much more serious source of trouble, when the focus of the protest shifted to the working class.

The weight of casualisation

Before going into this, it seems necessary to outline some aspects of the problems facing the South Korean working class, particularly in terms of casualisation.

The use and abuse of casual workers - i.e. the over-exploitation of workers - has been one of the key factors, together with state aid, in the massive growth of Korean industries, ever since the days when the past military dictatorship embarked on the development of an export-oriented manufacturing industry, in the 1960s.

Today, casual workers of all descriptions represent roughly 54% (8.7 m) of all waged workers. To this total must be added around 2 m comprising those of the "self-employed" who are really casuals in disguise. Altogether, leaving aside unpaid family workers, this brings the proportion of casual workers in the employed working class to 60% - a proportion which has been increasing constantly over the past years.

Casualisation comes in a bewildering variety of flavours. There are "regular" casuals and "irregular" ones. Many companies have "irregular permanent" workers that they call upon when there is work to do and send home without pay when there is none - but they have to be permanently on-call, for fear of losing their potential job for good. There are "regular" and "irregular" temporary contracts, the only difference being that in the first case the contract is deemed to be renewable by right unless business circumstances deteriorate, whereas in the second case renewal is deemed exceptional. But there are also over 2m workers who are employed on a day-to-day basis with no work guarantee at all. Casuals are sometimes employed directly by the companies, but they are often employed indirectly through agencies, on-site contracting firms or gang leaders acting themselves as self-employed foremen for the companies.

Beyond this wide variety of situations, casual workers have two things in common: only a small proportion of them enjoy any form of welfare protection (between 20 and 25% depending on the kind of protection, as opposed to between 65 and 80% for non-casual workers) and their wages are lower than those of comparable non-casual fellow workers (15% less on average, but over 30% less in large companies). In particular, casual workers make up the bulk of the 2.2m workers who earn the miserly minimum wage currently in force in the country (3,770 won or just over £2/hr, with a cost of living only about 20% lower than in Britain).

Casual workers also have fewer rights than their non-casual counterparts. Many companies do not tolerate unions at all. But even in those which do, the mere fact of casuals joining a union means risking their jobs, unless they keep it secret.

This huge proportion of casual workers among the electorate has led every political party to boast about opposing discrimination against casuals, leading to various revisions of the legislation. However, as the governments' main concern is to boost the profits of the chaebols, every reform introduced to allegedly stop this discrimination soon turns out to be a weapon in the hands of the bosses against workers in general and casual workers in particular.

Bitter, protracted struggles

Up to last year, casual workers' employment rights were covered by legislation passes in 2004, which provided that during the first 3 years of casual employment, a worker's contract could be terminated at any point without any justification. Beyond these 3 years, the employer did not have to upgrade the status of the worker. His only duty was to provide a "just cause" to justify a subsequent decision to sack him. In such a case the worker's only redress was a judicial procedure taking anything up to 5 years!

In 2007 new legislation was enacted and phased in from July 1st, at first in companies employing over 300 workers. This cut the previous 3-year free-for-all period for the bosses to 2 years and added the obligation for them to promote any casual worker still employed after 2 years to a non-casual position - although it did not require (and this was not an oversight!) that the casual worker's wage and conditions should be upgraded as well. Compared to the previous position, this new legislation could appear as a small amount of progress. But it had obvious loopholes that employers immediately sought to exploit - including the government itself, against the 200,000 casuals employed in state organisations! In particular many employers simply took to sacking casuals before they reached the end of their 2nd year of employment, while others simply cut the number of directly employed casuals - it was then easy for them to orchestrate a merry-go-round of phantom onsite contractors between whom casuals were shifted periodically.

The conditions imposed on casual workers and the bosses' attempts to by-pass their minimum employment rights, have led to many protracted disputes in the past. The 2007 legislation sparked off another round of such disputes. Among these, for instance, were disputes at the New Core department stores and the Homever supermarkets (formerly owned by French giant Carrefour). Both are subsidiaries of the E-land retail group, the country's 26th largest business and both have large proportions of casuals: out of Homever's 11,000 workforce, 72% are casuals, with half being employed directly by Homever and the other half by on-site contractors; likewise, out of New Core's 8,000 workforce, 84% are casuals, most of whom are employed by on-site contractors.

In the run-up to the 2007 legislation coming into force, on 1st July last year, both companies moved to avoid having to upgrade casuals to non-casual positions. In June, Homever, which had already sacked 400 outsourced casuals in April, announced the sacking of 350 directly employed casuals in order to subcontract their jobs. At the same time, New Core announced plans to transfer 300 directly employed casuals to in-house contractors. New Core even went so far as to resort to gangs of thugs in an attempt to terrorise the targeted casuals into resigning "voluntarily". However this backfired when the gangsters were met with strikes and hundreds of angry union members. Starting on 10 June last year, when an E-land-wide one-day strike was called by the KCTU affiliated union, the fight against these sackings developed into a long series of store blockades and occupations, in which the strikers often had to confront large contingents of riot police and their union leaders had to face the courts and, in some cases, jail terms.

The dispute at New Core finally ended in August this year, after over 14 months - 434 days exactly. By then, all but 36 of the 350 casual workers originally under threat had been forced to find alternative employment and only these 36 were reinstated. In return for this derisory concession, the union had to drop most of its previous demands and pledge to refrain from any strike action until 2010! As to the Homever strike, it is entering its 16th month as we go to press, while E-land is involved in talks to sell the chain to a joint venture between the ubiquitous chaebol Samsung and Britain's Tesco supermarket chains - which may be ominous news for the strikers given the anti-union practices of both prospective buyers.

Another strike, which caught the attention of the Korean media due to the determination of the women strikers concerned, provides an even more shocking illustration of the desperate situation of casual workers. It concerns Kiryung Electronics, a factory located in the Guro area of Seoul - the very same area out of which grew the tide of working class militancy of the 1980s. This company was known for employing an unusually large number of female workers through more or less bogus contractors. In 2005, the union went on strike for the direct employment of all casuals - a very modest demand since the strikers were not demanding non-casual status. However the company did not budge. It used every trick in the book to try to break the strike, to the point that it was even fined by the courts, which are not known for their leniency towards strikers, for using illegal hiring practices. On 11th June this year, with no perspective in sight as the strike was about to reach its 1000th day, the union decided to resort to the most desperate method: 10 union activists embarked on a hunger strike in a tent set up at the factory's gate. On 20th August, after 70 days of hunger strike, they had to be taken to hospital, without the company having made the smallest concession.

A common feature of the New Core, Homever and Kiryung Electronics strikes - and, in fact, all strikes involving casual workers - was their isolation. Even if the KCTU did organise some support, it did not go beyond the odd demonstration of activists and fund collections, whereas the strikers were confronted with employers who were all the more determined to hold out as they had the backing of the government and other bosses.

Strikes in transport and beyond

Going back to this year's wave of protest, it should be born in mind that there are bitter, protracted strikes by casual workers, similar to those at New Core, Homever and Kiryung Electronics, taking place up and down the country - especially as a result of the 2007 reform and especially this year, due to the bosses' on-going job slashing in response to the economic slowdown.

The case of the transport strike, which started spontaneously, but became a national strike due to the KCTU's efforts, is somewhat different in many respects, in particular because its trigger was the rise of the cost of diesel. But what it has in common with the casual workers' strikes mentioned above is that the drivers involved in this strike are, themselves, casuals of a particular kind, and that their discontent was a direct consequence of their status.

Several categories of unionised drivers were involved in this strike, starting from June 13th. Among them were so-called "cargo" drivers who move freight across the country, dump truck drivers and construction drivers who operate various kinds of heavy-duty construction equipment such as cement-mixers, bulldozers, excavators, etc.. These drivers are self-employed, having therefore none of the welfare protection enjoyed by non-casual workers and no regular income either, and their conditions, income and social status are very close to that of many casual workers.

With the exception of a very small minority, the drivers who were involved in this strike do not own their vehicle and have to rent it from specialist outfits. Most of them do not work for a particular employer, but depend on agencies acting as intermediaries between them and businesses which need their services. The drivers get paid a fee for the job by these business customers, out of which they pay their agency, the cost of maintaining and running their vehicle (insurance, diesel, motorway tolls, etc..) and, usually, the cost of renting their vehicle. So that, in particular, the sharp increase of the cost of diesel triggered demands for fee increases.

The first group to come out on strike, on June 13th, were the 13,000 cargo drivers organised in the KCTU-affiliated Korea Cargo Transport Workers' Union. Although they operate less than 4% of the country's trucks (most of which are operated by small businessmen), KCTU members handle around a quarter of all container traffic. As a result, within 2 days, Busan and Incheon, the country's largest container terminals, were clogged up by waiting containers and brought to a standstill, thereby blocking a large part of both imports and exports. After another 2 days, factories started to be hit, either by parts shortages or by the accumulation of stocks: Samsung Electronics closed its big home appliances factory in Gwangju, Daewoo Electronics reduced production in several plants and so did steel makers POSCO, Hyundai Steel and Dongguk Steel.

In the meantime, on June 16th, construction drivers and dump truck drivers belonging to both the KCTU and FKTU had joined the cargo drivers' strike. While the FKTU called its members back to work after less than 48h, the larger 18,000-strong contingent of KCTU drivers remained on strike, paralysing 90% of the country's large building sites.

The government had expected the drivers' strike to be widely unpopular. As it happened, public opinion proved supportive of a strike which was challenging the GNP over a problem that everyone was confronted with - the huge hike in petrol price (not to mention transport fares). The government was caught between the anti-GNP protest in the streets, the economic impact of the drivers' strike and the sympathy enjoyed by the strikers among the public. Having boasted initially that it would never concede to the drivers' "blackmail", ministers rushed to broker some sort of a deal.

Eventually, a deal was struck by the cargo drivers' union, resulting mainly in a 16% increase of freight fees - short of its 30% demand, but still significant. In addition, the government introduced a package of measures ranging from lower motorway tolls for night freight to tighter regulations on cargo agencies and truck hiring companies. By 23rd June, most cargo drivers returned to work, if not with an outright victory, at least with significant gains. As to the dump truck and construction drivers' strike, it went on a bit longer, with similar results on fees, the setting up of an insurance scheme covering accidents on the job and a package of government measures including the payment of diesel costs to drivers working for state-controlled projects.

But even before the transport strike ended, other sections of the working class were taking action or threatening to take action, in a whole number of sectors, ranging from the health service to the insurance industry and the media, and, more importantly, in the car industry, the country's biggest export earner.

National annual wage negotiations had been under way in the metal industry. However the big car manufacturers - such as Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, Ssanyong, Renault-Samsung - had refused to take part in these talks. As a result the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), the KCTU's largest affiliate, with 140,000 members, embarked on a campaign in the car industry, starting with a national stoppage involving nearly 80,000 workers in 13 factories.

Thereafter, from the beginning of July to the end of August, eight partial 24h to 48h stoppages took place in the car plants. Among the issues at stake were the fate of the large numbers of casual workers employed by these companies; a change in working patterns which, while involving an end to the exhausting 10 to 12-hour night shift, implied speedups and lower wages; and the low wage increase offered by the bosses at a time when even official figures was putting price inflation above the 6% mark.

However, there was little or no coordination between the KMWU's company-based automobile unions. Rather than organising a joint offensive on the basis of a common programme of demands, each union sought to reach a deal with its own management, thereby dividing the potential collective strength of car workers. So that, as this journal goes to press, while separate deals have been reached at Renault-Samsung and GM Daewoo, Hyundai and Kia Motors workers have rejected deals recommended to them by union officials and disputes are still going on in these companies.

The consequences of the KCTU's policy

The KCTU-affiliated unions and their activists were unquestionably the driving force behind this summer's strikes, even though some of these strikes - such as the drivers strike and the Hyundai Motors dispute - began originally without the KCTU's sanction. As such the leadership of the KCTU and its affiliate, the KMWU, came very soon in the firing line of the government's repression, together with the organisers of the protest rallies.

It should be said that in so-called "democratic" South Korea, for the state to arrest, fine and jail activists, for participation in an "illegal gathering" - the "legality" of which is arbitrarily decided by the prosecutors - is nothing unusual. Just as it is not uncommon for union activists to be subjected to the same treatment for "obstruction of business", which is a criminal offence in Korean law. On top of losing their jobs and doing time in jail, it is not uncommon either, for union activists to be bankrupted by have to pay huge amounts in damages to employers, as a result of civil suits filed against them for loss of business revenue due to a strike. This is what happens in most significant disputes. The state was, therefore, always likely to retaliate against the leaders of the protest wave and those of the KCTU, as soon as it felt it could get away with it.

Significantly, however, as long as the protest wave was gathering pace, up to mid-June, and then during the transport strike, the government refrained from making spectacular repressive gestures. Many protesters were arrested, but few were charged and, by and large, the police kept their hands off the rally organisers, no doubt for fear of inflaming the protesters' anger even more. Likewise, during the transport strike, the authorities kept a low profile, avoiding arrests which might have led to a confrontation with the drivers and steeled their determination.

Once the transport strike was over, as the rallies seemed to be losing momentum, the authorities took to the offensive. On 30 June they moved against the protest organisers, raiding the offices of two of the main umbrella groups which had been at the forefront of the rallies and issuing arrest warrants against 8 of their leading figures.

Then came a general strike called by the KCTU on July 2nd, which involved 170,000 workers for the whole day and over 50,000 in a 2-hour stoppage at Hyundai and Kia Motors - against beef imports and the privatisation programme. At this point the government appeared to back off, in order to see what was going to happen in the car industry, as a series of stoppages were planned in the big plants. By the time the 4th partial stoppage had taken place at Hyundai, the authorities seem to have decided that it was now safe to step up the pressure on the KCTU: on 24 July, warrants for the arrest of 9 union activists, including the main national leaders of the KCTU and KMWU, were issued over their role in "instigating" the "illegal July 2nd strike" and the "illegal candlelight rallies". At the same time the central office of the KCTU in Seoul was raided and, to all intents and purposes, closed down by a permanent wall of riot police, while computers and documents were taken away as evidence. By mid-August, 21 members of the leadership of the KCTU and KMWU were either jailed or facing trial.

By the end of August, in a zealous endeavour to re-enact the repressive methods of the past, the Seoul police even went so far as to dust off the old red-baiting "National Security Act" of the dictatorship and used it to jail seven leading members of a left-wing organisation, the Socialist Workers' League. This time, however, the judges found they had gone too far and released these comrades - although they will have to face trial later, on different charges.

The truth, however, is that the policy of the KCTU leadership played a role in facilitating the repression against its own members when it isolated the strikes and the protests by failing to offer common fighting objectives against the capitalists' offensive, thereby leaving each section of workers to their own devices and weakening the movement of discontent as a whole.

As mentioned before, the KCTU leaders went out of their way to endorse the narrow objectives of the protest organisers around the US beef issue, thereby failing to respond to the general frustration against the government's policies expressed by the protesters themselves. This was true during the first ascendant phase of the protest, up to June 10th. But it remained true even afterwards, including when the collective strength of the 30,000 KCTU striking drivers could have become a lever powerful enough to shift the protest in a different direction and provide other sections of workers with the sense that, this time, there was something in it for them as well.

Thus, when the KCTU leaders decided to call a general strike for July 2nd, they chose to focus it on opposing US beef importss and privatisation in general, neither of which provided an answer to the most urgent problems facing the working class. In fact, it was precisely for this reason that KMWU members at Hyundai voted against this call and staged their own separate stoppage on the same day, over wages and working conditions. Had the KCTU chosen to focus this general strike around objectives that offered a perspective to workers against the capitalists' offensive, this general strike might have been able to unite all sections of workers as one block in front of the government and to pave the way, provided the KCTU-KMWU made that choice, for a counter-offensive across the car industry and, possibly, beyond.

Instead of this, the 2nd July was a tokenistic strike, offering the image of a divided working class, even within the ranks of the KCTU itself. Likewise, the car bosses were subsequently confronted one by one, using partial stoppages which were far less effective than an all-out strike and which deprived car workers of any means of measuring their own strength. Meanwhile the many strikes which were taking place in other industries were left high and dry, without being offered an opportunity to join forces with the larger battalions, first of the drivers and then of the car workers.

As we go to press, the strike wave is not over yet, even though the machinery of the KCTU itself is probably significantly weakened by the government's repression. Whether this repression succeeds in cowing workers into submission remains to be seen, however. The government itself does not seem too sure about this, since it seems very careful to avoid causing any outbreak of anger among the working class. So, for instance, it has cut its initial programme of privatisation to almost nothing, obviously fearing that it might otherwise trigger more uncontrollable backlashes. After all, the South Korean working class has a long tradition of militancy and organisation, even in the most repressive circumstances. Only two decades ago, this working class confronted a dictatorship and an army which was trained and instructed to shoot on sight. And many of the activists of that period are still on the shopfloor. One can only hope that they will use their experience and that they will pass it on to the younger generation of workers, and, above all, that they will remember what proved decisive 20 years ago - the capacity of the working class to stand up as one, all sections together, against the exploiters and their armed thugs.