With its 52 million inhabitants crowded into a territory about 40% the size of Britain, on the eastern coast of China facing Japan, South Korea is portrayed as a capitalist "success story" in every respect, both economically and politically.
Economically, the western media point to the fact that although South Korea was a late-comer to the industrial scene - since it only joined the OECD industrialised countries' club in 1996 - its industrial production per head is now among the world's highest. Its two main car manufacturers, Hyundai and Kia, are household names across the world. Its largest electronics conglomerate, Samsung, is Apple's main rival on the world market of mobile phones and the world's largest producer of semi-conductors. The world's most gigantic ships are built in its shipyards - owned by companies like Hyundai, Samsung or Daewoo. Of course, those who hail the South Korean "model" fail to mention how this economic development was achieved, especially the exorbitant price the South Korean working class had to pay - and is still paying - for it!
Politically, South Korea is celebrated by the same media as a "democracy", which is supposed to stand in stark contrast to North Korea's opaque dictatorship. But what does not get mentioned is that if it had not been for the working class uprising of the late 1980s, South Korea would still be living under the yoke of the long lineage of military dictators brought into power by the western imperialist armies, back in 1946. Likewise, little is ever said about the very narrow limits of South Korea's so-called "democracy" nor about how its repressive state machinery imposes the iron rule of a handful of very large conglomerates on the working class.
So what does this capitalist "success story" really mean for the South Korean working class in general and for its activists? These are the questions that this article will try to answer.
The long shadow of the Cold War...
Although the Cold War came to an end 24 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still casting such a long shadow over the South Korean institutions and political scene that it is necessary to recall how this country came into being, through the partition of Korea, in the aftermath of World War II.
In fact, this partition was the first in a series of developments which paved the way for the Cold War, before becoming a permanent cause of conflict once it had broken out.
A Japanese colony since 1905, Korea was part of the spoils of the Japanese empire which were to be shared out between the victors of WWII. Initially, it was meant to remain under the "joint trusteeship" of the US, Britain, the USSR and China for 20 to 30 years, before being granted independence. But events took a different course. In August 1945, as the Red Army was making rapid progress from the north of Korea towards the south, while the US army still did not have one soldier there, US leaders unilaterally declared that Korea would be artificially partitioned along the 38th parallel, as a "temporary" measure, thereby creating a Soviet zone of influence in the northern part already occupied by the Red Army and a US zone of influence in the south where US troops soon landed to organise the orderly surrender of the Japanese occupation forces.
About a third of the Korean population thus remained in the northern part, under a communist-dominated alliance of the former anti-Japanese underground. As to the southern part, it was soon brought firmly under a viciously repressive, anti-communist regime put together by the US, using the Korean personnel of the defunct Japanese colonial state machinery. In February 1946, an interim southern government took office in Seoul, under the chairmanship of Syngman Rhee, a seasoned anti-communist politician, who had long-standing connections among US political circles.
Soon afterwards, in September 1946, social discontent came to a head when 250,000 workers staged a general strike across the south. It took over three months for the US and Korean troops to defeat the strikers. It was a bloodbath. Over a thousand workers were killed and 30,000 arrested. Some of the activists who escaped crossed over to the north, but many resumed the guerilla warfare of the colonial days, which they carried on for the next 4 years.
Then the Cold War broke out. In China, Chiang Kai-shek's US-backed regime was on the verge of collapsing in front of Mao Zedong's peasant army. And, in August 1948, the US decided to make Korea's "temporary" partition permanent. Syngman Rhee's government became the only regime officially recognised by the western powers - a regime which was as much a dictatorship as previous colonial rule by the Japanese was, except that it was now US-sponsored. And its aim was clearly to reclaim control over the North by force.
Eventually, however, the North Korean leaders pre-empted this threat by invading the South in June 1950. Apparently, they hoped that, with the US army having to protect Chiang Kai-shek's retreat in Taiwan, following Mao's victory, it would not risk another military intervention, especially as the northern troops were likely to meet massive popular support in the South - which they did.
However, this proved to be a miscalculation. There was no question of the US conceding even one more inch to Soviet influence or to nationalist forces. The US mobilised an imperialist coalition - in which Britain had the 2nd largest contingent - and intervened under the convenient cover of the United Nations. The North Korean troops were driven back to the other side of the 38th parallel, but not without great difficulty.
At that point, the US leaders thought that they could finish off North Korea. Had it not been for a massive counter-offensive by the Chinese army to stop the imperialist forces, Korea would certainly have been re-united - but under Syngman Rhee's dictatorship which, at the very same time, was busy "cleansing" Seoul of any opposition, in a bloodbath which claimed 100,000 victims according to US military documents.
In the end, however, the US leaders did not dare risk an open confrontation with China and they withdrew their troops south of the 38th parallel. By the time the armistice was signed, in July 1953, 900,000 soldiers and 1.5m civilians had been killed, with the majority of the victims on the Northern side, due to the imperialist coalition's total control of the air.
... which remains as hot as ever
In a sense, the Korean war never really ended. South Korea did not sign the 1953 armistice and still claims sovereignty over the North. According to its authorities and institutions, the country is still living under the threat of an attack from North Korea - and this is what children are taught from the youngest age at school.
However, this obsessional scaremongering is first and foremost an instrument of social and political control over the population in general and the working class in particular, as well as providing a justification for the state's huge repressive machinery.
In any case, the South-Korean capitalist class itself is obviously not too worried about the "threat of the North". This is illustrated, in particular, by the Kaesong Industrial Region which was opened for business in 2004. It is a South-Korean enclave in North Korea, just 6 miles north of the demilitarised zone between the two countries, which was conceded to the South under a 50-year lease, in order to allow South Korean companies to take advantage of the North's low-paid workforce. In 2014, over 50,000 North-Korean workers were employed in 123 South-Korean factories under the control of a few hundred South-Korean managers and supervisors who cross the border every day. In other words, for the South-Korean capitalist class, business is business - including when they do it with the "threatening" North.
Nevertheless, the North-Korean bogeyman is used to justify the continuing existence of an over-inflated military - something which has not changed since the days of the dictatorship. Today, although South Korea is only the world's 26th largest country in terms of population, it has the 6th largest active military force and the 2nd largest military reserves. Together, they gobble up 15% of the country's public expenditure - far more than the entire GDP of the alleged North Korean "enemy".
However, there is method in this madness. The compulsory 2-year military service imposed on young workers is highly valued by South-Korean companies. Indeed, some of these workers are conscripted to work in designated factories, thereby providing them with a regular flow of recruits who are bound by the same discipline they would face in an army base. The army is also praised for "training a skilled workforce with a high sense of its duties", to use the words of a bosses' paper - meaning, obviously, a pliable workforce. But although, like any army in this capitalist world, the South-Korean army prides itself in its ability to "break hot-heads", it does not seem to be all that successful, judging from the relentless militancy of the South-Korean working class!
There are other reasons for the disproportionate size of the army. A whole layer of the state bureaucracy owes its social status to its army connections. In that also, little has changed since the days of the dictatorship. And, obviously, its supply contracts represent a huge bounty for both local and imperialist arms manufacturers - mostly American.
In addition to this over-inflated army, 29,000 US troops are still stationed in eight different facilities across the country - 62 years after the formal end of the Korean war! Not only that, but South Korea has to bear part of the burden of maintaining these troops on its territory, much like an occupied country - at an annual cost amounting to an additional 3% of its own massive military budget.
As another remnant of the Korean war, the US army operates a permanent Korea-based regional central command, ready to automatically take over direct control of the entire South Korean army in the event of a war. According to a long-standing agreement, this arrangement is meant to end in December 2015, by which time the South Korean army is supposed to become fully "independent". But successive governments have tried to convince the US to postpone this deadline, probably out of a not unreasonable suspicion that South Korea is not an important enough pawn on the imperialist regional chessboard for the US to always remain as protective of South Korean interests as it has been in the past - especially when it comes to Korea's on-going territorial conflicts with neighbouring Japan.
Anti-communism as an institution
Politically, this anti-North scaremongering serves all sorts of useful purposes for the ruling class and its state, in particular to eliminate, or at least tame, any "unwelcome" opposition to the regime. This was true under the past dictatorships, of course, but it remains just as true under today's so-called "democracy".
Use of the word "communism" is still illegal in South Korea - as evidence of "treason" - and no political organisation can legally use it in its name or propaganda. It is only relatively recently that the publication of Korean translations of classic communist writings has become possible - but only in so far as they do not refer to anything recent, nor to any kind of communist tradition in Korea or in the region. Any contemporary writing must still be carefully edited in order to avoid prosecution.
In the capital, Seoul, discreet posters are still posted up in Underground carriages and in buses, inviting "concerned" citizens to call a phone number should they notice any "subversive" behaviour - anonymity is guaranteed, of course. In fact, the law still says explicitly that a conviction for "treason" may attract not just long terms in jail, but also the death penalty. And although the death penalty hasn't been used since the days of the dictatorship, this threat still hangs over the head of any communist organisation.
The instrument used for this anti-communist repression is the National Security Law (NSL), which was enacted by Syngman Rhee's dictatorship, in December 1948, and hardly amended since. Under the past dictatorships, it was used to arrest, jail, torture and even execute thousands of opposition activists - in order to crush any form of political or trade-union opposition. Anyone who was suspected of sympathy for the North - or simply not showing enough enthusiasm in condemning its regime - could be accused of "espionage", which automatically fell under the provisions of the NLS. The "suspect" was then dealt with by the appropriately named Korean CIA (KCIA), a secretive body which was in charge of enforcing this Cold War legislation.
After the end of the dictatorship, this brutal repressive machinery remained in place almost without change. Although the KCIA went through a series of name changes, to become today's National Intelligence Service (NIS), its nature did not change and nor did that of the NSL. Since then, the mad anti-communism of the Cold War has remained as much part of the repressive arsenal of the state as ever - especially after president Lee Myung-bak, came into office, just as the banking crisis was breaking out in 2008.
Thus, in a report published in 2012, Amnesty International noted that the number of new cases brought under the NSL had been rising every year, from 46 in 2008, to 90 in 2011. And while the courts were no longer always prepared to go along with the dubious evidence offered by prosecutors, the legal procedure often took years to unravel and defendants could face repeated periods of detention before going on trial.
This report mentions, for instance, the case of bookseller Kim Myeong-soo, who was charged under the NSL in 2007, for having retailed 300 books "with the intention of endangering the existence and security of the State". Among these books were a biography of Marx and Edgar Snow's "Red star over China". When his first trial took place four years later, the defendant proved that all the incriminated books were freely available at the National Assembly Library and he was declared not guilty. Despite this, following a prosecutors' appeal, he was given a 6-month jail sentence suspended for 2 years, in February 2012.
Another significant case mentioned by Amnesty International is that of the Socialist Workers' League (SWL), a small socialist group which was formed in 2008. Six months later, 8 leading members of the SWL were charged under the NLS for "propagating or instigating a rebellion against the State". The only evidence ever produced was the SWL's participation in large anti-government protests during that summer and leaflets it had subsequently produced during strikes in the car and construction industries. Nevertheless, in 2012, the defendants were given sentences of 1 to 2 years in jail, suspended for 2 to 3 years. The permanent threat of more activists being prosecuted, effectively prevented the group from operating publicly and it had to disband - just for voicing its opposition to the government and, probably more importantly, advocating the need for the working class to fight back against the bosses' attacks.
Today, this repressive arsenal may well be tightened up. Thus, under the headline "Another step back to dictatorship", the liberal Korean daily Hankyoreh reported on January 21st: "During a joint briefing by eight agencies at the Blue House [the South Korean equivalent of the US White House], the [interior] ministry reported plans to establish a legal basis for blocking the activities and establishment of groups recognized by courts as enemy-aiding or anti-state. The measures would mean a pre-emptive response to such activities in addition to current after-the-fact punishments. As a next step, the ministry plans to order the disbandment of enemy-aiding groups or amend the National Security Law to assess compliance charges when groups defy a disbandment order."
The case of the United Progressive Party
The key phrase here is "pre-emptive response". In fact, even before any amendment to the NSL has been made, such a "pre-emptive response" had already taken place. This was the case, for instance, with the banning of the United Progressive Party (UPP).
Formed in 2011, the UPP was the merger of a number of small left reformist parties. The largest of them, in terms of electoral support and the only one which had a real activist presence on the ground, especially among the working class, was the Korean Democratic Labour Party, the political wing of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) - the confederation formed by the "democratic" unions which emerged during the working class uprising of the late 1980s.
In the 2012 general election, the UPP won 2.2 million votes (10.3% of the popular vote). Due to the way in which the electoral system favours the large parties, the UPP won just 13 seats out of 300, while the right-wing Saenuri Party (New Frontier Party) and the more liberal Democratic Party gained 279 seats between them. Nevertheless, the UPP became the third largest parliamentary party.
The UPP was, however, hardly a threat for the Saenuri Party's authoritarian regime - neither in parliamentary nor in extra-parliamentary terms, given the low ebb in the class struggle at that point. Nevertheless, president Park Geun-hye decided to launch an all-out offensive against it.
In August 2013, the NIS raided the homes and offices of ten UPP leaders. Eight of them, including one of its MPs, Lee Seok-ki, were jailed and charged with sympathising with and praising the enemy in violation of the NSL, as well as with conspiracy to incite an insurrection. The charges were based on an allegation by the NIS that Lee Seok-ki had presided over a secret gathering of an underground subversive organisation plotting the overthrow of the government. A hysterical media-driven trial followed, exposing Lee's alleged links with North Korea - even though this allegation was later dropped in court by the NIS itself.
In court, the NIS case turned out to be based solely on the transcript of a speech by Lee Seok-ki. Nevertheless, at his first trial Lee was sentenced to 12 years in jail. But, in August 2014, the Seoul High Court found that Lee's words had been grossly distorted in the original transcript and dismissed the charge of conspiring to overthrow the government. However, despite the absence of any other evidence, it upheld the charges of inciting an insurrection and violating the NSL. Today, Lee and his co-defendants still remain behind bars, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, however, on the basis of this blatant NIS frame-up, at president Park Geun-hye's request, the Constitutional Court has banned the UPP and disbarred its MPs. What's more, public protests or criticisms against this ban are also illegal!
For the ruling Saenuri party, this spectacular move serves two purposes. The first one, of course, is to reinforce the idea that North Korea is an immediate threat for the South, thereby justifying its aggressive demagogy as opposed to the Democratic Party's support for a policy designed to normalise the relationship between the two countries.
But the second purpose, and probably the most important, is to isolate the KCTU, whose only political vehicle was the UPP, and, more generally, to clamp down on any attempt from the working class movement to intervene on the political scene against the backdrop of today's on-going economic crisis.
The state of the chaebols
During the 3 decades of dictatorship, this combination of Cold War scaremongering, anti-communism and state of siege mentality was an instrument for the capitalist class to impose on the working class the sacrifices which were necessary to build a national industry in what was otherwise a poor country. And if, eventually, the working class explosion of the late 1980s brought the dictatorship down, the country's state machinery remained largely untouched - even if its repressive nature became less visible. Also untouched, were the main characteristics of its capitalist class.
It should be recalled that this capitalist class is one of the world's most highly concentrated, centred as it is around a handful of very large family-controlled conglomerates known as "chaebols" (which is a combination of two Korean words meaning "wealth" and "clan"). The past dictatorships engineered the development of these giant conglomerates by handing over control of whole sections of the previously Japanese-owned industry to a handful of wealthy, well-connected families. The chaebol's assets were allocated so that each had a monopoly over its own segment of the domestic market, which was protected by high tariff barriers. At the same time, they were offered state funding to export, in order to provide the country with foreign currencies, especially to fund its huge military expenditure.
Other factors contributed to the relatively fast development of South-Korean industry: the fact that South-Korea was used by the US army as a major logistical base during the Vietnam war; then, from the 1970s, Japanese companies offshored part of their production to South Korea and later, US companies followed their example.
But above all, of course, if the chaebols were able to accumulate so many assets - and profits - it was primarily because the systematic repression of any form of working class organisation by the dictatorship, in the name of the fight against communism, made it possible for the bosses to raise capitalist exploitation to a level which would have been impossible otherwise.
This was how the highly-concentrated chaebol system developed, in the shadow of the dictatorship - thanks to its subsidies and repression - and as subcontractor for the most powerful imperialist economies.
Today, as a result of the successive economic crises which shook the country's economy - first in 1997 and then in 2008 - this system has become even more concentrated. The original highly-specialised "chaebols" have become vastly diversified to the point where they have formed gigantic empires, spanning many different industries.
The total revenue of the country's ten largest chaebols last year was estimated to be equivalent to 40% of South Korea's GDP, with the 4 largest earning the lion's share, with 30% of GDP. These super-giants are all groups which were formed in the early years of the dictatorship and are still controlled by their founding families. They are Samsung (450,000 workers), Hyundai (150,000), LG (220,000) and SK (70,000).
These facts are probably enough to give an idea of the chaebols' economic and political power. It is no coincidence that the current president, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who, between 1961 and 1979, developed the chaebol system, nor that her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, had been the CEO of company belonging to the Hyundai empire.
The working class and the rule of the chaebols
Together with the chaebol system, the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee had conceived a quasi-military system of control over the workforce, which was run jointly by the ministry of Labour and a purpose-built Federation of Korean Trade-unions (FKTU) whose local officials acted as auxiliaries of the chaebols' management - with the police always available to put away any "trouble-maker". With such a system, the chaebols were able to impose whatever conditions they wanted on their workforce.
Then came the uprising of 1987, a tidal wave of strikes which, starting from Ulsan - Hyundai's southern company town - spread like wildfire with an estimated 3,400 strikes during the first 4 months. Everywhere "democratic unions" emerged out of the movement and, by the end of 1989, there were over 2,700 of them.
It took a long time for the chaebols and their state to realise that, this time, concessions had become necessary. Hyundai, for instance, stubbornly stuck to its guns for no less than 20 months, despite on-going protests across its plants. It was only following a 104-day long strike by its entire 80,000-strong Ulsan workforce and its failure to break it despite using airlifted troops, that the chaebol finally decided to recognise the strikers' unions.
But even then, this does not mean that working class activists enjoyed a free ride over the next few years. This was a period marked by a high level of militancy, especially in the industrial working class, but also by systematic repression against all those trying to give an organised expression to this militancy - as was shown by the fact that in 1990, over a thousand working class activists were still behind bars.
As to the KCTU itself, its predecessor was formed in 1990 by "democratic unions" based mostly in the factories of the industrial chaebols and by the National Teachers' Union. But it was immediately banned under the official pretext that it was "waging a pernicious struggle based on an ideology which sees the class struggle as a weapon for labour emancipation". It took a long series of general strikes for the confederation to be formally legalised in 1996 under its present name. Obviously, having tried to get their state to repress the KCTU out of existence, the chaebols had come to realise that the KCTU's illegal status was causing more trouble than it was worth.
It should be said, that in the meantime, with a few exceptions - Samsung being the main one - the chaebols had been implementing an age-old tactic of the capitalist classes: "if you can't beat them, buy them". The local KCTU branches were recognised and branch officials were granted various perks, like full-time positions. All this, of course, was meant to drive a wedge between the workforce and the activists who became increasingly integrated into the management machinery of their workplaces.
The legalisation of the KCTU itself was based on a similar strategy. The KCTU was invited to join all sorts of "tripartite" committees involving state officials and representatives of the bosses. Within just a few years of its legalisation, the KCTU had been integrated into the machinery of the chaebol state, at every level - from the very top down to plant level.
But fighting traditions are resilient. No amount of repression or perks could erase the memories of the late 1980s for the generation of activists and rank-and-file workers who had experienced such an exhilarating feeling of collective strength - the power of a class which had brought the dictatorship down and forced the all-powerful chaebols to their knees. And so, despite the integration of the KCTU unions into the machinery of the chaebol state, these traditions keep re-emerging again and again, no matter what.
The casualisation of the working class
In order to undermine these fighting traditions, the chaebols have been increasingly using another way of splitting the ranks of the working class, by developing a multi-tier system of employment.
Before 1987, the norm among the chaebols was generally similar to that of their Japanese counterparts - so-called "life-long" careers with the same employer promising various benefits in return for unwavering loyalty. However, in the late 1980s, it was these "life-long" workers who formed the base of the "democratic unions". So, the chaebols changed tack and developed a second-tier of workers who were doing the same jobs, but paid less for more hours.
In practice, such methods were not new. In the past, the chaebols had often altered the employment contracts of certain groups of workers according to their needs. But then, in those days, workers had no rights and the chaebols did not fear any substantial resistance.
But after 1987, this was no longer an option. So, their strategy was to get their state to legally split the workforce into two groups. "Regular" workers - that is, those in "life-long" jobs - would be covered by the relative protection provided by the labour legislation and very limited welfare provisions, including the right to join a union, provided it was recognised in their workplace. "Irregular" workers" would, on the contrary, have no rights at all - especially not that of joining or forming a union - under the pretext that they were deemed to be employed on a short-term basis.
The proportion of "irregular" workers began to increase, but it really exploded in the aftermath of the 1997 South-East Asian financial crisis, when the government used this crisis as a pretext to remove all existing limitations on the number of "irregular" workers that big companies could employ. At the same time, a bewildering number of different forms of "irregular" employment status appeared, especially through on-site subcontracting, as the law deprived workers in very small companies of their past "regular" status, and the bosses forced them to become "irregular" and/or self-employed individual subcontractors.
Since then the proportion of "irregular workers" has remained more or less the same in the big factories. Today, it is estimated to be somewhere between 50 and 60% of all waged workers, with higher levels in some industries like steel, construction, shipbuilding and car manufacturing.
These "irregular" workers are not covered by the minimum wage legislation and recent statistics published earlier this year show that the hourly wage of an "irregular" worker is about half that of a "regular" worker doing the same job. Meanwhile, "irregulars" work on average 7 hours less per week than "regulars" - because many "irregular" workers are employed on a "zero-hour" basis.
In addition to boosting the chaebols' profits, the meteoric rise of "irregular" employment was meant to drive a wedge between workers. And it did so all the more successfully as to a large extent the KCTU fell into the trap that the chaebols had laid for it. Since the law banned "irregular" workers from joining a union, for a long time the KCTU machinery resisted any attempt by its branches to recruit "irregular" workers, for fear of legal retaliation. Likewise any attempt by local activists to get "regular" and "irregular" workers to join ranks in fighting the bosses' attacks - especially the wage cuts which were imposed on the working class after the 1997 financial meltdown - were resisted by the KCTU machinery. To all intents and purposes, the KCTU leadership chose to represent the interests of "regular" workers, leaving out the rest of the working class.
"Irregular" workers fight for their rights
Predictably, meanwhile, the chaebols were doing their best to stress that the "irregular" workers' demand for a "regular" job, at a time when jobs "had to be cut", was a threat to all "regular" workers. And the KCTU's inaction in front of this scaremongering only helped to widen the gap between these two sections of workers.
Eventually, by the time the present crisis broke out, the KCTU leaders had come to realise that by allowing the bosses to engineer this split among workers without putting up any resistance, they had only managed to saw off the branch on which they were sitting. By playing one section of workers against the other, the chaebols had weakened both - and the KCTU, by the same token.
This, together with the emergence of a number of "irregular" workers' unions outside the control of the KCTU, finally prompted its leaders to change its strategy - especially in those of its industrial federations which were most affected by the rise of the "irregular" workforce, like its metal workers' federation KMWU. And although it did not embark on a systematic recruitment drive among irregular workers, at least it started providing some help to those who had already began to organise.
The 12-year long struggle of Hyundai Motors' "irregular" workers provides a good illustration of what these workers had to go through in their bid to win decent employment status and the right to organise, in "democratic" South Korea.
This struggle began in earnest when the first "irregular" workers' union was publicly launched at the Hyundai Asan factory, in the west of the country, in March 2003. This example was soon followed in other Hyundai Motors factories in Jeonju, in the south-west, and in Ulsan, in the south-east. Over the following 10 years, while Hyundai's profits increased five-fold, these unions soldiered on behind the demand for all "irregular" workers to be made regular. They organised petition upon petition, challenged Hyundai's illegal abuses of the "irregular" worker system in court, organised stoppages, often seeking the support of the "regular" workers' unions, but seldom getting any help from them.
In November 2010, 600 "irregular" workers staged a sit-down strike in the Ulsan factory, paralysing three production lines for several days. Hyundai's only response, apart from sending in its private police, was to sue 22 activists for over £2m in damages. And even if this sum was finally halved by the courts when the trial took place in 2013, it was enough to bankrupt the defendants.
Yet, both in 2010 and in 2012, the highest courts in the country had stated that Hyundai had been acting unlawfully by failing to give "regular" contracts to thousands among its "irregular" workers. But the chaebol just ignored these rulings.
Finally, in late 2012, in a gesture of despair - but also of defiance - two founding members of the Ulsan plant union, Cheon Ui-bong and Choe Byeong-seung, climbed up an electricity pylon next to the factory entrance and staged a sit-in there for the following 296 days in support of their union's demands, surrounded by a cordon of police and company security. When they finally came down, they were immediately arrested and prosecuted for "obstruction" in connection with their sit-in and their participation in previous strikes.
The activists of the Hyundai "irregular" workers' unions have paid dearly for their struggle: over this period, 320 among them lost their jobs due to their union activities and 32 served time in jail, with more awaiting trial. The Ulsan branch has been sentenced to pay £5m in damages and its secretary is in jail for calling a strike aimed at getting Hyundai to abide by the courts' rulings. Meanwhile, no court or prosecutor office has ever considered suing Hyundai for damages over its defiance of court orders - let alone putting its managers in jail.
But never mind, the Hyundai "irregular" workers are keeping up their fight and they certainly deserve a lot of respect for that!
Class struggle? No, on-going class war!
Despite the comparatively better conditions enjoyed by "regular" workers, what is true for the "irregular" workers is just as true for them. They may have the right to form and join a union, but this right is limited in all sorts of ways, in particular when it comes to taking action in support of their demands. When it comes to strikes, the chaebols and their state know only one response to working-class militancy - brutal repression by company thugs, the police and the courts.
Virtually all strikes in South Korea follow a similar pattern. With some rare exceptions - such as general strikes which the government feels it cannot just suppress with a blanket ban - any strike going beyond a short one-off stoppage is illegal. The decision is up to the Ministry of Labour and it can be challenged in court. But the courts' criteria can usually be summarised as follows: any strike that is detrimental to business is illegal, especially if it is indefinite.
This pattern determines the consequences that strikes usually have for workers - especially for those considered by the bosses as "ring-leaders". The police are issued arrest warrants by the prosecutor's office against "ring-leaders" designated by the employer. In practice, this means that these activists have to go into hiding for the duration of the strike and that the strike leadership meetings have to be held secretly. Unless the striking workplace is occupied by large numbers of strikers, constant harassment by the riot police limits the possibility of holding mass meetings without exposing more strikers and activists to arrest. On the other hand, plant occupations are not tolerated by the police for any length of time and are always brutally attacked using military equipment against which the strikers cannot generally resist. So organising an effective strike is very difficult, requiring extensive preparations and the active involvement of other groups of workers in the same town or area to protect the strikers against the attacks of the police - which was precisely what made the strike wave of 1987-89 so powerful.
Then, once a strike is over, strikers and activists almost always face some kind of victimisation, unless the employer has reason to fear an immediate backlash. In most cases, the "ring-leaders" are sacked, put on trial for "obstruction of business" and sentenced to a term in jail and/or huge damages designed to bankrupt them for years to come. As a result, those activists who want to carry on the fight after a strike are often forced to go underground until an alternative branch leadership is ready to take over, by which time they hand themselves over to the police to face prosecution. This is also why in many union branches, some of the core activists are sacked workers, surviving on casual non-jobs and the financial solidarity of the membership.
From Ssangyong Motors to Korail
Two relatively recent examples will illustrate the brutal class war waged by the chaebols and their state against the working class.
The first example is the 77-day occupation of the Ssangyong Motor factory, at Pyeongtaek - 40 miles south of the capital, Seoul - which took place in May-August 2009. Following the announcement by the plant's Chinese owner, SAIC, that half of the factory's 5000-strong workforce was to be made redundant, around a thousand workers occupied the plant on 22nd May. Just three weeks later, the government made a show of strength. Arrest warrants were issued against 190 strikers and an estimated 20,000 riot police were sent to besiege the plant. In front of such a police force, the strikers staged what their leaders described as a "tactical retreat", by withdrawing into the paint-shop building where they prepared for a long siege. The number of strikers taking part in the occupation began to shrink, going down to 450 by mid-July. Then, from 20th July, the police went on the offensive, cutting off water, gas and electricity supplies, using long distance taser guns and spraying the strikers with tear gas from helicopters. The battle lasted for 7 whole days and nights while the strikers held out against their assailants with Molotov cocktails. But by the end of the week, almost half of the strikers had been injured and they had to surrender. Most strikers were arrested. Within two months, 32 strikers had been given prison sentences, including the KMWU branch president, who was sentenced to 14 months. Another 80 union activists and strikers were facing trial, among whom 63 were already behind bars, including two vice-presidents of the KMWU. In addition, the courts demanded a total £16m in damages from a number of KMWU activists.
In November 2014, 153 former Ssangyong workers who had been on "unpaid leave" since the strike, were still fighting in the courts for their reinstatement which the company, now owned by the Indian group Mahindra, had promised "as soon as business conditions allowed". Their request was dismissed by the High Court and, in December, two KMWU activists, Lee Chang-geun and Kim Jeong-wook, started a sit-in on top of 70-meter smokestack outside the plant, which is still on-going at the time of writing.
Another example of the chaebols state's class war is that of the 22-day rail strike which took place in December 2013. Despite all the talk about the right of "regular workers" to join a union, the state always resisted public sector workers' attempts to organise - at least as much as it could. In the railways, it was unable to stop them. But all recent strikes - in 2003, 2006 and 2009 - were met instantly with mass dismissals. And the December 2013 strike was no exception.
This strike was called on December 9th by the Korean Railway Workers' Union (KRWU), an affiliate of the KCTU, over plans to create another subsidiary of the state railway company, Korail, to run one of its KTX (high-speed) lines. This was seen as another step towards privatisation. But, above all, if the plan was allowed to go ahead, workers' conditions were expected to be considerably degraded, as was already the case in existing Korail subsidiaries, with a 50% cut in starting wages and maximum roster lengths almost doubled to 26 hours, with only a 3-hour break in the middle.
Fearing that the strike might be declared illegal otherwise, the KRWU called only its own members out, while asking them to scrupulously comply with the compulsory minimum service required by the law. But this self-limitation of the strike proved useless. The government immediately responded by declaring the strike illegal anyway, and Korail proceeded to sack every striker. By the third day of the strike, 6,748 strikers - most of the KRWU members who were on strike, out of a total of around 20,000 members - had received their sacking notices.
Then, rather than trying to rally support for the strike among the rest of the Korail workforce or among working-class commuters, the KRWU leaders focused all their efforts on organising daily sit-ins outside Korail's offices - apparently in the hope that the government would not dare to resort to more repressive measures. As it turned out, this was a miscalculation. Arrest warrants were issued against the KRWU leaders themselves, who had to go into hiding. Subsequently the police raided the headquarters of the KRWU and those of the KCTU, without success. Finally, it was a mediation organised by politicians of the main opposition Democratic Party which secured the commitment that no KRWU leader would be prosecuted and that a parliamentary committee would be set up to examine the issue of the Korail subsidiary in return for the strike being called off - but nothing was offered to the sacked workers.
As soon as the strike was over Korail proceeded to sack more union members while announcing the compulsory transfer of many others, starting in February 2014. In many cases, this amounted to forcing the transferred workers to resign from their jobs - which led to spontaneous stoppages, despite the KRWU leadership's strenuous efforts to discourage members from taking action.
Needless to say, the government delivered on none of the commitments it had made to end the strike. Nothing has come out of the parliamentary committee. As to the KRWU leaders, they were not rewarded for trying to avoid breaking the law. Korail (i.e. the government) has filed a £17m suit against the KRWU which, if successful, would bankrupt the union. Moreover, a total 176 KRWU members and officials have been charged by prosecutors, including all 35 members of the union's leadership. And although the first four defendants to face trial were acquitted last December, the others are still under threat.
So, yes, the class struggle in "democratic" South Korea has all the features of a class war. In Britain, the union machineries co-operating with the capitalist class and its politicians, may be able to maintain the illusion that workers can defend their class interests by combining the ballot box with collective bargaining. But in South Korea, under the iron grip of the chaebols' state, class relations are far more brutal and the contradictions between class interests far more clearly visible. If similar illusions exist among a section of the working class, they are unlikely to exist for very long. In any case that is the least one can hope for.
If the South Korean working class was able to sweep away the dictatorship of the past, if it is able to carry on fighting with such relentlessness against the chaebols' exploitation and the naked violence of their state, it certainly has the resources to sweep away the chaebol system itself - that is, capitalism. But, like everywhere else, it will only be able to do this by reviving the communist tradition - not that of North Korea, which was never communist, but that of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky - and by building a revolutionary party, based on this tradition, and determined to lead its future struggles on the basis of its class interests.