Government in retreat

Taking on the state

South Korea is expected to have lost £2.6 trillion in terms of production since the start of the massive strike wave on December 26. Lost exports have been estimated as £467 million. 

The picture previously painted of South Korea, for the most part, has been akin to a bourgeois idyll: ‘endless’ economic growth, thanks to the happy and very industrious South Korean workers.

The demonstrations and protests have shattered that cosy, complacent viewpoint. The South Korean workers are not the humble, grateful lot that the western press and bourgeoisie thought they were, or wanted them to be. If we strip away the media reportage, we are confronted with an entirely different picture of South Korean society - one of extreme poverty, inequality and ruthless exploitation.

You have to dig deep. For example, this passage recently appeared in The Guardian:

“The expansion of the Korean economy has raised wages dramatically. A study carried out by the US department of labour suggests that Korean wage rates had increased six times in 10 years. Over the same period, wages in Britain had merely doubled. That explains Ronson’s estimate of Korean wages at £10,000-£12,000 against pay in South Wales of £8,000-£10,000” (January 16).

Even though The Guardian lightly skated over this, what it actually tells you is that Korean wages used to be pitifully low - ie, that this “dramatic” increase started from a very low base and is, in real terms, a recent development. The ‘economic miracle’ which is now in so much trouble, has more of the character of a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ phenomenon.

It is absolutely vital to remember that Korea, north and south, was absolutely devastated during the Korean War - hardly a stone was left standing, particularly in the north. Millions of North Koreans and Chinese volunteers were annihilated by US imperialism, fresh-faced as it was from World War II. Thus the old feudal relations were destroyed, but by B-52 bombers and not by the self-activity of the workers and peasants or the gradual encroachment of capitalist social relations - it was a case of ‘war proletarianisation’. Given this degree of devastation, industrialisation was a necessity, and it had to be rapid.

After the Korean War, US imperialism - not Kim Il-Sung or the Russians - forcibly partitioned the country and imposed the vicious anti-communist regime of Syngman Rhee on South Korea, where a pre-revolutionary situation was rapidly developing. Rhee was rightly detested. He directed fascistic terror against South Korean revolutionaries and communists, and the masses in general. This White terror saw massacres, Nazi-style concentration camps, routine torture and arbitrary arrest and detention. Crucially, hatred was aimed at US imperialism for its criminal role in partitioning the country. This ‘sore’ was further inflamed by the fact that up until the 1970s the North Koreans had a higher standard of living than the South Koreans, who led a miserable existence of job insecurity and chronically low wages. As The Guardian has not told us, it was North Korea which first underwent the ‘economic miracle’, not the South.

Therefore, the national questioncolours all politics in South Korea, in a fashion similar to the Six Counties. All protests and demonstrations in South Korea are inevitablyshaped by the desire for national unity, this current round of strikes no less than others. Whatever the oddities, and craziness, of the Kim Il Sung regime, for a large section of South Korean radicals and revolutionaries North Korea represented independence and national pride - freedom from imperialist interference. Socialist Worker may write that “Russian forces occupied the north as far as the 38th parallel and installed Kim Il Sung’s one-party regime” (January 18). But the reality was that Kim Il Sung pursued a fiercely independent path after the Korean War. ‘Foreign’ presence on North Korean soil was restricted to a few Soviet, or Chinese, military advisers. The same certainly could not be said for South Korea, which was a puppet state run for the benefit of US imperialism and its hand-picked elite of ‘native’ robbers and exploiters.

Linked to this was the rise from the early 1960s onwards of the chaebols, massive industrial conglomerates which at their peak employed hundreds of thousands of workers. These chaebols were developed entirely from above, under the strict and careful aegis of US imperialism - most definitely not the ‘free market’ in action. The employees of chaebols were relativelyprivileged vis-á-vis the rest of the workforce, which was utterly disorganised, low paid, insecure and generally ‘ultra-exploited’. South Korea’s supposed economic miracle was built on the backs of theseworkers, not by the ‘heroic’ efforts of chaebol workers alone. Thus, comrade Paul Greenaway was mistaken when he wrote in the Weekly Worker:“Kim’s ‘reforms’ have traumatised Korean workers, who are suddenly faced with the prospects of Filipino-like conditions. As part of the post-Korean War deal, South Korean workers were offered the compensation of ‘generous’ employment rights” (January 16). The majorityof non-chaebol workers have always had to endure “Filipino-like conditions”.

Unsurprisingly, it is the chaebol employees who are hardly delighted at the prospect of ‘sinking’ into this mass of atomised and downtrodden workers.

The flagrant, and insulting, machinations of the ruling regime - sneaking through the labour ‘reforms’ in the middle of the night - was the spark that ignited these long-standing resentments. It was made crystal clear that the stateand the chaebol bosses were working hand-in-hand to attack the workers. President Young-sam’s manoeuvres highlighted the anti-democraticnature of the South Korean state, funded and backed up the United States.

This makes it obvious that the demonstrations and protests unfolding before us are not restricted to ‘economic’ issues. We are not witnessing a narrowly trade union struggle, albeit on a larger and more militant scale. This is fundamentally a political struggle, into which the fight for democracy and national unity (ie, anti-imperialism) is an inseparable part. At heart, we have a strategicconfrontation between the working class and the ruling class - and one which is drawing support from the South Korean masses. Even the bourgeois press has to grudgingly accept this as a matter of fact. The Wall Street Journal has had to admit that public support lies with the strikers, and the Financial Times stated: “87% of Koreans believe the new laws should be repealed, while 54% support the strikes” (January 11).

It would seem that the South Korean ruling class is quite aware of this. The state prosecutor thundered last week: “If the unrest drags on it will give North Korea an opportunity for revolutionary struggle.” Similarly, a television report claimed that on a recent demonstration of 100,000, some “40,000 pro-North supporters” were in attendance.

Some might be tempted to instantly dismiss such statements as merely government propaganda - ‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’. This would be a mistake, though. Given the particular history of South Korea, it is virtually inevitable that ‘pro-North’ sentiment will play a part in any protests. All anti-imperialist opinion in the South overlaps with juche, to some extent or another. To deny this is blindness.

Yet it appears that Workers Power wants to precisely do this and retreat into abstractions instead. It writes: “The independent workers’ movement is linked with those left student organisations which are not blinded by the Stalinism of North Korea’s juche (self-reliance) ideology. One result of the cooperation between the independent workers’ and students’ movements is the growing popularity amongst the unions of the call to form a Workers Party” (January). The suspicion is that WP’s “Workers Party” exists mainly in the imagination.

All the evidence points to the fact that in the illegal Korean Confederation of Trade Unions - which is leading and organising the protests - there is an element of juche or pro-North sympathies. Student leaders and radicals, amongst whom juche was very strong, consciously entered the unions during the 1980s. Many of the KCTU leaders and organisers will be drawn from this ‘tradition’, even if it does offend Workers Power’s ideological sensibilities.

The South Korean regime must be alarmed by the growing cooperation, and negotiations, between the KCTU and the ‘official’ union, the Korean Federation of Trade Unions. Early days so far, but a ‘merger’ of these two unions would represent a massive step forward for the working class, split as it is into two ‘competing’ unions.

It should be obvious that the South Korean ‘Asian tiger’ is maturing into a ‘paid-up’ imperialist state, albeit a junior one. It is exporting finance capital around the world, with South Korean companies moving into South Wales and elsewhere. You could argue that South Korea has made a successful transition from a ‘proto-imperialist’ nation to a ‘neo-imperialist’ one. This confounds much of the dogma which exists on the left, which cannot view ‘medium-developed countries’ as anything other than ‘victims’ of the imperialist world system (see Don Preston’s ‘Around the left’ column, below). The question has to be posed: if South Korea is an ‘oppressed’ nation, would revolutionaries and communists defend it in a war against the US, Britain or any of the other metropolitan imperialist states? To ask the question is to see the absurdity.

As we go to press, the strikers have forced the government into a retreat over both the labour laws and the new security laws which accompanied it. The legislation is being referred back to parliament, the arrest of leaders of the opposition National Congress for New Politics has been suspended. It is even mooted that the KCTU might be recognised. Whatever the outcome of this round of struggle, it is clear that Korea - North and South - remains unstable and the workers have vastly strengthened their hand for the battles to come.

Eddie Ford

The following are the latest available statistics on the strikes, as provided by the KCTU


Striking unions





























Hyundai Union@









The Ministry of Labour puts the total number of strikers at 65,813 from 57 companies.

*excludes Hyundai Motor

@Includes Hyundai Motor, Hyundai Heavy and Hyundai Motor Svc. Hyundai Heavy management says work is back to normal