Earlier this year rs21 members interviewed a South Korean revolutionary socialist about workers’ struggles and feminist campaigns, as well as the international situation in east Asia and the growing tensions between China and the USA. A second part of the interview will cover the international situation.

Seoul, South Korea

rs21 Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you begin by telling us something about your political background?

Winnie Lee I became involved in the anti-war movement around Iraq, and was a member of All Together, which became Workers Solidarity [1], between 2004 and 2013. I left after an internal split and decided that I wanted to go back to the roots of the International Socialist tradition, so I decided to translate Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff [2], which I finished two years ago. And now I’m a PhD student in Korean history at Yonsei University in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and I also work for the crane drivers’ section of the construction workers’ union as an organiser.

rs21 South Korea has seen a wave of major strikes recently, at the end of last year and into this year. What is driving these strikes and what are have the outcomes been?

WL There have been several strikes involving metal-workers [shipyards, engineering and car factories], public transport unions and truckers, over both wages and union recognition in the case of the truckers. Unfortunately, the government won and workers lost, most clearly in the case of the truckers, whereas for the metal workers, especially shipyard workers, it was more of a draw. For the truckers, the main issue was union recognition. Their union is not seen as a workers’ union because they own their lorries. They are self-employed and in theory can choose what materials they transport and at what price. But in reality, they have very little choice – the companies who own the materials dictate the prices. Pensions are also a major issue, and they wanted a minimum wage for transporting materials. Four years ago, the then Democratic Party government imposed a ‘safe wage’ which meant a minimum wage in reality, but this was only for three years. So the truckers wanted a new law, or at least to extend the old one, but they were defeated, and now the law has lapsed.

rs21 It sounds like there’s some similarity with struggles of platform workers in other parts of the world, such as Uber drivers, because they are treated as self-employed rather than workers.

WL That’s true, but the truckers have had their own union for 20 years. And it was a big shock when they first struck and held a mass demonstration – this was 2003 at the start of the Roh Moo-Hyun government, the first big strike he had to face. And it was a kind of litmus test, because in the 1980s he had called himself a socialist, and made his reputation as a human rights lawyer defending people who were imprisoned by the military regime [3].

rs21 The American business website Bloomberg said that South Korea had more strikes between 2015 and 2019 than the USA and Britain combined, and they talked about a ‘walkout culture’ among Korean workers. To what extent is this true?

WL That culture comes from the employers rather than workers – employers tend not to bargain unless they face a strike. There are exceptions to this – when profits are high, in the car industry for example, employers will come to collective agreements. But in many other cases, employers don’t even want to think about it.

rs21 So would you say then that Korean workers are not as militant as it might appear from the outside, it’s more that they’re forced into a situation of striking?

WL Yes, especially since the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) [4] became a legal organisation in 1998, because they want to rely on legal processes rather than direct action. But there are still many workplaces without collective agreements, and they want to reach agreements on pay and conditions. When the KCTU was an illegal organisation, they tended to rely on direct actions, because they had no other choice. But now trade unions have other options, so strikes tend to start from when those fail.

rs21 That prompts a further question, which is to what extent is there shopfloor organisation in Korean unions, with elected workers’ representatives, or are the unions very top down?

WL It’s a complicated situation – the Korean Federation of Trade Unions, which was and is a pro-government organisation, goes back to the 1940s. After the restoration of democracy in the 1980s labour movement activists started to organise independently – it took ten years to bring together the KCTU, but it’s still based on independent branches and especially enterprise unions [unions organising everyone working for a particular company]. The Hyundai [5] conglomerate has the largest of these unions – in metal-working they are part of the metal-workers confederation, but they have their own contract negotiations with Hyundai and the other metal unions are to some extent reliant on the Hyundai carworkers’ union for funding. So, it is a very complicated situation, and very much one that springs from the 1987 uprising. And there are also new trade unions, for example, the construction workers’ unions which were founded in 2008, and have very strong organisation, effectively a closed shop.

rs21 Are there particular sectors or unions where there is still meaningful rank and file organisation rather than domination by the bureaucracy?

WL Well, initially the unions were built by rank and file organisation, but as they developed they became more dominated by full time officials or activists based in the union office, and those full timers typically come from the higher levels of the unions. So, for example, I work for the crane operators’ union, but I was hired by the construction union federation to which the crane operators’ union belongs. Once unions get to a certain size the tendency is for them to be dominated by the bureaucracy.

rs21 That leads on to the next question about the bureaucracy, which is the security police raid in January on the headquarters of the KCTU. How serious this is, and what do you think will be the consequences?

WL I think it is serious, though I cannot predict what the long-term consequences might be, so this is really how it looks at the moment. But to properly understand it you have to start with the role of ‘left nationalists’ [6] in Korean unions, because they are a major target for the security police. They weren’t particularly interested in trade unions until the 2007 campaign against the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement agreements, when they realised that this was a nationalist issue, and since then they have focused on gaining positions in trade unions, though they weren’t the primary force that built the KCTU. That approach became more important after the government banned the United Progressive Party [a broad left party accused of being pro-North Korean] in 2013, and now the KCTU leadership is predominantly left nationalist, and that’s what has drawn the security police attack.

rs21 The government asserts that anyone who is pro-unification on the North’s terms must necessarily be in the pay of the North, so presumably it’s important to stress the difference between the two?

WL Yes, the distinction is very important, and it is very rare that the police find any concrete evidence of actual contact. Part of the ‘evidence’ security police are citing is that one of the union leaders being investigated is the son of a former union leader, who was arrested and tortured under the military regime in the 1980s. The police have confiscated phones and tablets, so they may well try to concoct evidence, but as yet they haven’t claimed to find anything.

Rs21 Moving on to wider politics – how does workers’ combativity affect official politics? And is there anything like a Labour party or a party that claims to speak for workers?

WL Yes, there was an attempt to build a Labour party, but it failed. It started with the founding of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 2000, as a political wing for the KCTU. And it had some successes in elections and in building a movement, but when left nationalists were elected in the leadership in 2004, they came into conflict with the founder. Matters came to a head after the presidential election of 2007, in which the DLP got just 3%, and the party split, with the founder and his allies leaving. In the national assembly elections of 2008 what was left of the DLP lost half of their seats.

In 2011 the remaining assembly members and others joined together to form the United Progressive Party, on the basis of ‘popular front’ politics, looking to an alliance with the liberal opposition (which the liberals refused). This helped them to gain 13 seats (out of 299) in the 2012 national assembly elections, but in 2013 they were banned for being allegedly pro-North Korean, and five of the assembly members lost their seats. There is now a small social-democratic party called the Justice Party which has just six seats in the National Assembly, but they have moved steadily to the right in recent years, and don’t have any formal connections with the union movement. The left nationalists are now organised in the Progressive Party, which has no national assembly members and just a handful of local councillors.

rs21 Last question in the first section of this interview – there was a very large #metoo movement in South Korea in 2019. What particularly sparked that off and what feminist organisations or movements now exist?

WL It began with a female prosecutor doing a TV interview in which she spoke about sexual harassment, and after that a number of celebrities began to talk out about their experiences. One of the main issues was intrusive and abusive photography, which was very widespread in South Korea, with tiny video cameras hidden in bathrooms and changing rooms. There was a demonstration of some 50,000 women demanding action on hidden cameras and intrusive photography, which did get some results. But the movement remained largely centered on issues of sexual assault and harassment, rather than widening out to take on further feminist issues, and became focused on supporting individual cases through the courts. The other thing they have done, though, is to highlight issues around secondary trauma, where the ways that the police and courts investigate sexual assault and harassment make the initial trauma worse. So, of course I fully support everything they have done, but I have a sense that they could have gone further.

[1] The South Korean sister organisation of the British Socialist Workers Party.

[2] Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff – a Marxist for his Time (London: Bookmarks, 2011) Cliff was the founder of the Socialist Review Group, which became the International Socialists and then the British SWP.

[3] South Korea was under a military-led dictatorship from 1961 until a mass uprising in June 1987, which forced the return of democracy.

[4] The KCTU is the main ‘independent’ trade union federation in South Korea, with a membership of just over one million workers.

[5] The South Korean economy is dominated by very large family-controlled companies which span different areas of manufacturing and business. Hyundai is the second-largest of these after Samsung.

[6] Left nationalists here means the section of the left that tends to be broadly pro-North Korea and favours North Korea’s approach to the reunification of the two Korean states.

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