South Korea: The State of Political Struggle

The post-crisis trajectory of the South Korean economy has been a disaster for working people there, and South Korean labor and left movements are engaged in a very difficult struggle to roll back the ongoing neoliberal restructuring.  In this essay I discuss some of the challenges these movements face.  I do so because workers and activists throughout the world are increasingly facing similar challenges.  Thus, learning about, and trying to draw lessons from, struggles in different countries can help us sharpen our collective wisdom.  This is especially true for South Korea, since movements there are justifiably well known for their courage and militancy. 


South Korea’s post-crisis (1997-98) economic restructuring has greatly increased the country’s dependence on foreign investment and exports.  While the South Korean chaebol (large, family owned conglomerates) were weakened by the crisis, small and medium-sized firms have suffered the most.  Many chaebol, for example, have forged alliances with their foreign counterparts, allowing them to rebuild their influence.  One of the top priorities of both foreign and domestic business leaders is the weakening of the country’s labor movement.  They warn that without “labor market reforms,” they have no choice but to move their investment and production to China.  President Roh Moo-Hyun, although considered to be pro-labor, has been responsive.

For example, the government passed new laws that increase the freedom of companies to employ irregular workers.  The percentage of workers with irregular labor status has soared from 42 percent before the crisis to 54 percent currently.  These workers receive only 53 percent of the wages paid to regular workers.  Such measures, along with the very real threat of capital flight, have enabled large South Korean manufacturers to lower labor costs and boost profits.  However, corporate gains have not translated into new investment.  As a result, growth remains low, encouraging the government to offer further concessions to business.  Working people, already suffering from low wages, increased inequality and poverty, and greater insecurity, face a gloomy future.  


The KCTU, the country’s leading trade union center (there is another, more conservative labor federation) has tried to defend worker interests.  It has called strikes for higher wages and better working conditions; organized massive demonstrations against new laws promoting greater use of irregular workers; supported protections for growing numbers of migrant workers, as well as their right to unionize; and fought for full trade union rights for public sector workers.  Recently, it withdrew from participation in all consultative committees affiliated with the Labor Ministry.  Unfortunately, its efforts have had limited success.  And, with union density down to 11 percent currently, its political weight is shrinking.  As labor activists debate next steps, they confront two major issues: the KCTU’s internal organization and its political orientation.

Structural Issues:

Union members are becoming increasingly isolated from the broader concerns of working people.  The main reason is that unions in South Korea are enterprise unions.  And, the degree of unionization is highly correlated with the size of the enterprise.  While the largest workplaces, those employing over 1000 workers, make up only 2.7 percent of all unionized enterprises, workers employed at these enterprises make up 61.2 percent of all union members.  Thus, most KCTU members are regular employees in the country’s largest manufacturing corporations.  They therefore enjoy higher wages and better working conditions than most workers. 

Despite their relatively privileged position, KCTU members face an increasingly hostile work environment.  The large companies are aggressively reducing their workforces, in part through subcontracting.  They are also demanding wage and benefit concessions.  KCTU unions have not only tried to resist these actions, they also seek increased workplace power.  For example, the Hyundai Motors union is demanding a role in investment decisions.  Recently, it called a warning strike to press its demand for a say in the distribution of bonuses.  The Kia Motors union is demanding seats on the board of directors and an equal say in personnel decisions.  Although these are important struggles, they involve issues far removed from the survival concerns of most irregular workers and those employed in small and medium sized workplaces. 

The enterprise system also works against the efforts of the KCTU to promote unionization at small and medium-sized workplaces. Workers at these enterprises do not have the resources, human or financial, to sustain active organizing campaigns or unions.  The KCTU itself is unable to help.  The federation has limited resources and the large member unions have been reluctant to share funds for activities that do not directly benefit their members.  

This situation has sparked a heated debate within the federation over the need for structural change.  Many activists believe that the KCTU needs to be strengthened so that the federation can sponsor and support organizing campaigns as well as federation-wide labor education programs.  They also call for the creation of industrial unions as the appropriate framework for this step.  Other activists disagree, arguing that the current structure is the most democratic and responsive to worker needs and interests.  This debate raises critical questions about forms and goals of unions, including how best to ensure effective working-class representation and action.

Political Issues:

Another topic of debate is the KCTU stance towards anti-capitalist movement building.  The KCTU is outspoken in its criticism of neoliberalism, but it is unprepared to mount a campaign for a radical restructuring of the South Korean economy.  In many ways, this is the result of decisions made by labor activists in the early 1990s to disengage from left politics and focus on securing trade union rights.  This decision was taken in response to brutal government attacks on the left, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and growing North Korean-U.S. nuclear tensions.  The KCTU was finally launched in 1995, though it was not recognized by the government until 1998.  As long as the economy was growing, the KCTU could press for improvements in living and working conditions for its members, and with some success.  But after the crisis, the union found it difficult to sustain its gains, with the government and corporations claiming that they were a threat to the country’s economic survival. 

Many labor and political activists argued that the KCTU had to reconnect to a broader left politics if it was to effectively defend worker interests; they wanted the KCTU to support the creation of a left political party.  Others disagreed, arguing that such an effort was premature, and that by drawing resources and activists away from the labor movement, it could threaten the very survival of the KCTU.  Regardless, some activists did press ahead, organizing the Peoples’ Victory 21, which ran a presidential candidate in 1997 and multiple candidates in local elections the following year.  The effort had limited support from the KCTU leadership and earned few votes.  In 2000, a larger group of activists, with greater KCTU support, launched the Democratic Labor Party (DLP); in April 2004, the DLP scored a major electoral victory, winning ten seats in the National Assembly.  This victory has raised new questions: what should be the appropriate relationship between the KCTU and the DLP; how much influence should the KCTU seek over DLP policies in general, and labor policies in particular?


The DLP describes its aims as establishing and extending “progressive political power in order to realize full democracy with the full participation of the people.” Its program declares that it seeks to “overcome the faults of State Socialism and the limits of Social Democracy,” while “maintaining and developing the principles and ideals of socialism.”

The party’s electoral success owes much to a recent electoral reform that established a voting process that allows citizens to vote for a candidate and a party.  In the case of the National Assembly, 243 out of 299 seats are now filled by direct vote and 46 are filled according to the results of the party list vote.  The DLP won over 13 percent of the party list voting, which gave it 8 seats.  It won 2 other seats outright.  Its total made it the third largest party in the National Assembly.  Because few votes separate the two dominant parties, the DLP has influence beyond its numbers.  Polls show that the party has increased its popularity since the 2004 election, with support levels running from 15-20 percent of the population.

DLP legislators are now able to directly intervene in National Assembly debates.  While the newly-won parliamentary representation is important, activists are still struggling to determine how best to use the DLP’s new influence.  For example, some believe that the DLP should avoid getting involved in legislative initiatives and reform compromises and concentrate on being the voice of popular movements.  Others believe that the DLP should work with President Roh’s liberal ruling party when doing so can advance its progressive agenda.  For example, the DLP has made securing free education and universal health care a top priority.  And, while DLP leaders are uniformly critical of the government’s economic policies, many support President Roh’s relatively progressive initiatives towards North Korea

Related issues concern the DLP’s future.  Should it take elections seriously and try to increase its electoral strength or use them as vehicles for sharpening political debate and hope to maintain its foothold in the National Assembly?  At present, the party has 60,000 dues-paying members.  By composition, 45 percent are industrial workers, 35 percent are white-collar workers, and 20 percent are students and others (including a small farmer representation).  The party has a goal of boosting its membership to 100,000 over the next year.  Should it rely on the KCTU for recruiting workers or should it establish its own direct recruitment channels; should it place priority on increasing its membership in specific social categories? 

By virtue of its position in the National Assembly, the DLP also receives funds to support a policy institute.  The Progressive Policy Institute currently employs six full-time researchers.  It is charged with helping the party “come up with alternative social, political, and economic models for Korean society.”  This raises interesting questions concerning how one understands the transition to a new social order.  At present, the Institute is investigating alternative social experiments such as participatory budgeting (as practiced in Brazil) and living wage ordinances (such as those found in the United States).  While these investigations can help shape a constructive political program, especially for provincial and local campaigns, they also run the risk of strengthening a reformist vision of change. 

There are no simple answers to the challenges/questions highlighted above.  In fact, their interrelated nature reminds us that our attempts to answer them must be guided by an overall strategic vision that is shaped and revised through ongoing critical engagement with popular struggles.  Hopefully, the Korean experience will provide useful guideposts for us all.   

Martin Hart-Landsberg is professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, and author of The Rush to Development: Economic Change and Political Struggle in South Korea and Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Hart-Landsberg co-authored (with Paul Burkett) China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle (Monthly Review Press, 2005).