South Korea's Struggle for Life, Part 1
The Gwangju Uprising, The Great Labor Offensive and the Upcoming 2022 Election
Freedom stays alive behind the history of sacrifice.
Though it disappears from this age, the flower of democracy will bloom.
As the wind of reunification blows on the road I left,
tears well up at the spring news of national liberation.
- Excerpt from March of the Beloved, A poem that came out of the original protests in Gwangju and sung again during the protest against President Park
“After you died I could not hold a funeral, and so my life became a funeral.”
- Korean writer Han Kang describing her feelings as an activist throughout the 1980’s”
Korean art and the Upcoming Election
South Korean cinema has been experiencing a golden age this past decade. Some of the movies that have become blockbusters reflect deeply upon Korea’s history. This current generation of film directors are the equivalent of American Gen Xers, born in the late 60’s early 70’s, and came of age in the 1980’s. These films reflect this turbulent age in Korean history through the eyes of the auteurs who grew up watching these events covered on the news and participated in them. Squid Game the most popular television in the world and its creator attended Seoul National University in the late 1980’s, a hotbed of radicalism which matches the shows anti-capitalist tones.
Woo Min Ho’s The Drug King, dramatizes the organized crime syndicates that arose through the years of the dictatorship. His newest film, The Man Standing Next studies the inner battles between the Korean Central intelligence Agency (KCIA) and the military dictatorship, resulting in the assassination of President Park in 1979. Bong Joon Ho has gained international fame for his films that drip with social commentary like Parasite and Snowpiercer. Bong attended a major university for student radicalism throughout the late 1980’s and experienced firsthand South Korea’s massive democracy movement.
One film stands out during this age of Korean historical dramas filled with social commentary; a movie called A Taxi Driver, which currently stands as the 12th highest grossing Korean film of all time. It came out in 2017 amid the protest against President Park (the longtime dictator’s daughter) and is set in 1980. It stars highly skilled actor Song Kang Ho who plays a taxi driver from Seoul who is hired by a West German journalist to drive across the country to the southeastern Gwangju Province.
The journalist who was based on a real historical figure, has heard rumors of a covered-up protest in Gwangju and hides in the back seat as his driver escorts him to the city. The film shows him and the taxi driver sneaking past barricades and arriving at the protest or more accurately the rebellion. They witness an armed and militant struggle against the military dictatorship that had been completely covered up by the government and the Korean press. The journalist films in secret displays of Korean police, military and special forces indiscriminately firing on civilians. This footage made domestic and international headlines and both the taxi driver and journalist are remembered as heroes in Korea’s democracy movement mythos. The Gwangju uprising as it is now called was the start of Korea’s democracy movement and a major proponent of Korea’s radical tradition.
South Korea is set to hold a presidential election in April. Currently sitting at the top of the polls is the previously marginal human rights lawyer and governor Lee Jae Myung. He is often called a social democratic or a socialist and is a strong proponent of labor rights, antimilitarism and strongly critical of Korea’s family run conglomerates (chaebols) like Samsung, Hyundai, and Lotte. He was also involved in the protest movement throughout the 1980’s and grew up the sixth of seven children in a working-class household. He is not afraid to take influence from the democracy movement in his speeches where he decries political corruption and the far reaches of the undemocratic chaebols.
However, he is running within South Korea’s Liberal Democrat party which has strong connections to the liberal side of the labor movement and is currently the ruling party under President Moon. Jae Myung could represent a farther left turn for the party. Korean political parties like those in Latin America, are constantly merging and dissolving between election cycles. Politicians typically come to political parties with their own base of support. Especially leftist ones like Jae Myung, usually do not have expansive party support and rely on individual activism and the support of labor unions. There have been past Korean presidents that were representative of the events in Gwangju like Kim Dae Jung, but Jae Myung is meaner, louder, and not afraid to fight dirty. He is under no illusions about the nature of politics in South Korea and is not willing to give an inch of rhetoric or policy to conservative’s politicians he views as taking inspiration from the dictatorship.
To understand Jae Myung’s current popularity and his support from some of Korea’s incredibly militant labor unions, one must understand how South Korea’s military Junta was overthrown. This tale cannot be told without understanding left radicalism in the country. Korea’s radical history stretches back into the darkest ages of the dictatorships and echoes into the present day. Struggle for a better life is more relevant then ever in the country. Jae Myung recently chose Gwangju as the starting point for his electoral campaign and on the same day made a trip to step on the grave of the last Korean dictator.
“I learned the truth of Gwangju and changed my whole life to create a fair world where democracy is alive. Gwangju is the social mother who made my social life start anew. Of course, it is a place where you have to come and say hello and think about what path you will take in the future.”
- Jae Myung Lee in his opening campaign speech
Korea’s future is as uncertain as any country. Surrounded by Russia, China and Japan while having possibly the greatest economic and political influence from America, it sometimes seems there is little time for the problems of the average Korean. Real estate prices are skyrocketing, working hours are incredibly long and the desire for peace on the peninsula is always kept in check by the United States and China.
Korea’s radical history provides hope in a time where it has become popular for some young Koreans to refer to their country as “hell Joseon”, a reference to the Korean kingdom before Japanese annexation. Some Labor Unions in Korea are still radical and recently held a half a million-person general strike in downtown Seoul. The radical tradition is quite alive and is born out of the brutality of one’s life, working long hours and scraping to get by. The desire for democracy and the demand for a higher quality of life seems to have reached their culmination in Jae Myung.
Decimated by War
To understand how Korean activists can face down death in Gwangju and arrest in the 2017 protest while crying for justice the whole time, it is fundamental to understand the massive transformations Korea experienced after the Korean War. When the war finally ended, the Korean peninsula had been absolutely destroyed. America dropped more bombs on Korea then they did in the entire Pacific theater of WW2. The war destroyed almost the entire nature landscape, leaving the previously green mountains scarred and forests erased. South Korea became basically unable to function and American aid and the geopolitical importance of the country kept it afloat. A whole generation had grown up knowing nothing but war and destruction and now their children were being born into a new world that was yet to be created.
Korea began to rebuild itself. The country was run by a centralized military government empowered by the United States with economic responsibilities designated to the family run Chaebols. The South Korean political system was a sort of puppet show were the Americans helped create fixed elections amid massive protest from Korean people. In 1961, during a period of intense social unrest and economic mismanagement, Major General Park Chung He seized power and installed a proper, open, and incredibly oppressive military dictatorship.
Park grew up in a poor family and idolized Napoleon as a boy. He found social mobility through the Japanese military that ruled Korea through his youth and was stationed as an officer in Japanese Manchuria throughout WW2. He learned how to repress a population and hold power in this position, where he helped suppress Chinese rebellions. He admired how fast Japan was able to industrialize and at the beginning of his dictatorship he began to implement a similar project.
“We have been born into this land, charged with the historic mission of regenerating the nation”
- Military Dictator Park, 1968
The 1960’s brought about a massive international appetite for industrial materials like weapons, cars and electronics. America’s wars in southeast Asia were especially demanding of expensive military necessities. Park took influence from the Japanese model of rapid development and implanted a series of five-year plans that incentivized Chaebols. The country took on an export-oriented model of industrialization that provided tariff-based protections for key industries and focused on an export profile that took advantage of Korea’s large and minimally paid labor force.
The United States was still in their economic golden age and became a key importer of Korean goods throughout the 1960’s, propelling growth. This growth came in the form of massive factories with almost zero worker representation and some of the worst labor regulations on earth. The few remaining idyllic hills in the rural agricultural sectors of Korea, like in Gwangju, were paved over and given over to the massive chaebols. Gwangju was the home to what was then called Asia Motors but what is now called Kia. The people of Gwangju were previously farmers in the breadbasket of the peninsula but their homes were absolutely ravaged by the war. After Park took power, they became some of the most exploited Korean laborers as they had no were else to turn. They had gone directly from feudal farmers to a massive war to 16-hour factory shifts.
Korea at this time was called by some scholars the most militarized state on earth. The Korean War had not formally ended, and the Cold War kept the region incredibly important. North Korea was still in an industrial race with the south. Factory hierarchy and organization was based upon the Korean military’s culture of strong obedience and discipline. It helped that all men were required to serve in the army and then returned home to an army like factory setting.
Underground union organizers were ganged up on by the KCIA, the bosses and the local police. This often resulted in the torture and death of the labor organizer or accused leftist. The “economic miracle” this style of industrial development brought was praised by intellectuals across the world who proclaimed it an example of successful anti-communist development. Koreans (according to official statistics at the time) worked the longest hours in Asia (55h/week) and had the highest work accident fatality rate in the world.
Death and Hope
The plight of Korean workers is exemplified at its most tragic through the life of the forever young Jeon Tae Il. Tae il was born in 1948 and grew up in a semi-homeless family In Seoul. His father worked in a sweatshop and his mother begged on the street. His grandfather had been killed during anti-Japanese protests during the occupation. Tae Il was forced to drop out of school in grade 9 and began working at a sweatshop with mostly young girls and women, some as young as 14. He witnessed the utter disregard for human life present at these sweatshops in the heart of Seoul’s industrial west end.
In 1968, he discovered that officially the dictatorship did have Korean labor laws on the books, but they were simply ignored by the Korean Labor Department. When Tae Il tried to draw attention to this he was laughed out of the Labor Ministry offices. Tae Il took inspiration from this and at the young age of 20 he began organizing workers. He called his union “the Fool’s Association”, making the point that workers were ignoring their old rights and foolishly accepting their fate. In 1970, Tae Il organized a strike of 22 garment shop workers.
Police and company security descended on the protests and beat the striking workers. After these events, Tae Il returned to the site of the protests and lit himself on fire in front of the police. He then proceeded to run through the streets of Seoul proclaiming his final words. He was 22 years old. His life story is currently being made into a major Korean film.
“We are not machines! Let us rest on Sunday! Don’t exploit workers! Abide by the Labor Standards Law. Don’t let my death be in vain!"
– Jeon Tae Il, 1970
This act while barely publicly acknowledged by the government and press quickly spread the flame of unionism throughout Seoul’s manufacturing districts and the other industrial cities. Unions were formed in secret and semi-legally throughout the 1970’s. Most of these groups consisted of young women who made up most of the Korean manufacturing labor force. These groups often spoke in secret within radical churches and student organizations that accepted them. Tae Il became an inspiration for political opposition groups as well as the leftist activist class.
In the lore of the Korean democratization movement, Tae Il is commonly cited as “waking up” the Korean workers from their long slumber after the events of the war. Young workers who had only known the world of post-war industrial Korea realized that they were in fact, not machines. That they had the power to organize and fight for a better life.
Most importantly, they realized that no one was going to help workers but workers. In the 1970’s strikes and protests were beat down, and organizers killed. But Tae Il would have the last laugh, his life would not be in vain. He became a legend among workers across Korea and the tragedy of his life kept people reflecting on the condition of their own lives. In an ironic fashion, dictator Park’s mass industrialization of Korea caused workers not to become one with the machines of production but to fight separate oneself from the factory line and become something else, human.
The later 1970’s brought about a slew of challenges for the long-standing dictator Park. The combination of the end of the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil crisis stunted previously lucrative production and trade. South Korea’s biggest economic partner the United States was no longer able to support the country to the previous high level. The relationship had also been rocked by the Korea Gate scandal, which brought major KCIA officials to testify before congress with regards to the bribery of federal officials.
The economic conditions of the country continued to drive down wages and create a further oppressed labor force. Underground and barely legal unions organized massive demonstrations and strikes which were typically beaten down by police relatively quickly. The brutality of the police was also increasing as the hundreds of thousands of Korean soldiers that served with America in Vietnam were returning home and joining local police forces.
The internal tension within the dictatorship resulted in the shocking assassination of Dictator Park in 1979 by KCIA agents. The military quickly declared martial law and made a working agreement with the KCIA, but the assassination had already imbued Korean workers and activists with a new confidence. They realized that what was previously the most militarized state on earth was nothing but people, people that could die like anyone else and nonetheless to petty elite conflict.
The threat of torture and death at the hands of security forces for activists was still incredibly real but work in one of Korea’s hellish factories represented its own kind of a torture. A torture deeper than getting one’s fingernails ripped out, one that infects the soul and changes the mind, this torture is one that turns one and everyone one knows into a machine. A rusty, beaten, screeching contraption with no voice, Korean workers were determined not to let this be their eternal fate.