South Korea's Struggle for Life, Part 2
The Gwangju Uprising, The Great Labor Offensive and the Upcoming 2022 Election
The People of Gwangju Awaken
Throughout the changes the 1970’s brought to Korea; it is often thought that Gwangju experienced some of the worst of it. The province has some of the best farmland in Korea and its temperate climate made it ideal for factory construction. After Park was assassinated, student activists began to organize in Gwangju more actively and pursue larger and larger actions. Massive actions had been held in this presidential interlude in Busan and Daegu, but they were beaten down and disbursed. On May 14th, 1980, at Cholla University in Gwangju a group of students organized a demonstration. This seemingly inconsequential protest was quickly broken up and its student leaders sent to torture facilities. The next day workers held a demonstration in support of the arrested students which was also soon broken up by Korean state security forces.
The night that followed this failed protest was different than any night possibly in Korean history. The workers of Gwangju along with housewives and seniors decided to come back to the site of the protest armed with whatever they could find. The workers shocked the security forces as they descended on the site of the previous protests beating the soldiers and sending them into a retreat. Pipes, sticks and whatever else could be used as weapon was held in the hands of these brave Korean people. What followed this event is a complicated process that has still not been fully studied or translated into English. What we do know is the people of Gwangju saw this sudden victory as a prime time to rebel. The workers were sick of watching people being beaten to death in their streets. They hated watching their neighbors die because of a workplace accident and the impunity of the Korean police. The alarm clock would not stop ringing.
The Gwangju uprising as it is now called was a series of armed rebellions throughout the province of Gwangju but mainly in the capital city of its namesake. In this city, the establishment of an independent commune was underway following the original retreat of security forces. The next morning two new brigades of the Korean army were sent into Gwangju. They faced a massive wall of protestors armed and ready to battle. Their calvary of choice being the bus drivers and taxi drivers who had witnessed one too many friends die and charged car after car full speed into the brigades. Women were also key to the protests as they made up most factory workers and organized their crews. There are legends of prostitutes using their knowledge of the back streets of the city to help armed workers ambush security forces.
After the military brigades failed to take back the city center, the army began to use their cache of American attack helicopters and flamethrowers gained from their war in Vietnam to fight back the protestors. The interlude between presidents made the United States nervous and a series of diplomatic cables declassified in 2019 show the United States support of the Korean army’s actions to maintain the security of the state. A US aircraft carrier was permanently stationed right off the coast of Gwangju, and they monitored the situation closely. Korean security forces were ready to use the utmost violence to stop these normal people, but the normal people had transcended any regard for what was known as normality in South Korea.
The night of May 20th more military units was beaten back into the suburbs of the city and workers had full control of the industrial zones and the major business centers. Workers quickly established a variety of committees for healthcare, education, transportation, and security. This was much more than a normal protest it was the armed establishment of a commune in Gwangju. People attempting to build another society inside the society of old not out of any ambition to conquer the country but out of survival and solidarity with fellow workers.
Throughout history, one can see communes pop up when people face hellish conditions and seemingly have no way out. The Paris Commune of workers facing down both the Prussian army and the French government, the Petrograd Commune facing down Tsarist forces and now the Gwangju Commune. These movements all have in common shared impossible odds and the merging together of intense tragedy and sublime dreams of a better future.
“Many people went to the hospitals to donate blood. Suddenly all the blood banks had more than enough in reserve. The electricity, water and telephone networks were all functioning normally. There was no looting or robbery of banks. There was no violence between the militia and the people.”
- Gwangju Diary, Lee Jae Eui, 1999
The official order to live fire on the protesters came the next day. The protestors responded by establishing stronger barricades and raiding government arms depots across the province. The perks of Korean conscription made protestors a good shot against the army. One tactic the rebels used was to light a fuel truck on fire, put a cement brick on the gas pedal and send it straight into the army. Workers quickly drove around the province spreading by word of mouth the events in the capital city. This began a series of smaller uprisings that are less documented but no less important.
The Gwangju Uprising was not understood by people in the rest of the country. The media at first ignored the protests but as the commune was established, they began to say it was organized by North Korea and could be the start of a possible invasion. This was of course a lie, as the events of the uprising were brought to the world later in the month by the German journalist who story is told in the film A Taxi Driver.
On May 27th, the Korean army launched a full-scale assault at 4am from all directions into the heart of Gwangju. This assault resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Koreans and the full events are still being revealed through numerous truth and recognition committees over the following decades. The army was able to take back the city and defeat the commune. They reopened the various factories and agricultural centers for production. More then 1300 people were arrested after the events of the uprising and thousands of people died during the protests themselves. When images were brought to the world to see there was international outcry at the Korean government. Most importantly, people across Korea could see openly that their government was lying to them and actively working against their interests.
The Great Labor Offensive
This sent a shockwave through the Korean labor movement and activist organization. They became much more militant for the cause of worker’s rights democratization throughout the 1980’s. A new dictatorship had been established by former military chief of staff Chun Doo Hwan but the damage had been done. Korean radicals had little appetite to buy the myths that they needed a dictatorship to defend them from the boogeyman of North Korea. Throughout the 1980’s strikes were more common and more in the open as the martyrs and experience of Gwangju provided enough inspiration.
Near the end of the 1980’s pressure was mounting against the dictatorship as a new generation of students who had grown up hearing the legends of Gwangju, wanted to abolish the military government. These are the wave of protests that the new generation of Korean directors participated in. These actions had intense connections between workers and students as they targeted Korea’s Chuebols. Hyundai, KIA and other massive conglomerates were stunted by these actions.
Security forces became more and more wary of indiscriminate repression as they feared awakening another Gwangju. This period (1986,1987,1988) has become known as the Great Labor Offensive as unions pressured the government to democratize. The process for democratization eventually did began after several false starts. It would be a mistake to the say the Korean dictatorship folded under international pressure or the goodness of their heart, it was the threat of people that made Chun Doo Hwan begin a transition.
The new democratically elected presidents of the 1990’s brought massive changes to Korea. Unions were able to negotiate never before seen concessions which reoriented the lives of Korean people. Wages rose by more then 150%, working hours were cut dramatically and workers safety standards were established. A new Korean middle class was created from these gains and people were able to buy TVS, refrigerators and other consumer goods for the first time.
Female dominated labor became unprofitable due to the new semi-equal pay regulations. Women began to fill the halls of Korean universities and board rooms instead. Social housing and college subsidies were also brought to the people of Korea. These events continue to provide the basis for contemporary Korean radical and progressive politics. the Memoires of Gwangju and the brave unions are used rhetorically to gain support. Jae Myung became a labor law lawyer around this time.
In one of the defining episodes of this “golden age” in South Korean labor politics, former jailed activist’s leader Kim Dae Jung was elected president in 1998. He had been originally jailed and sentenced to death by Chun Doo Hwan after the events of Gwangju but his sentence was commuted to life in prison after international outcry. Chun Doo Hwan was also sentenced to death after democratization for his role in the various massacres in Gwangju, in a move of angelic proportions Kim Dae Jung pardoned his previous almost executioner’s death sentence.
Korea Changes Once Again
This, however, did not mean that Korea became a worker’s utopia. Korea was still locked into the whims of the global capitalist system. Students from Gwangju were actively discriminated against by the country’s conglomerates for fear of their radicalism. In 1997, economies in East Asia crashed one after the other due to lax currency movement regulations and the vast withdrawal of investment. This became known as the East Asian Financial Crisis and it bankrupted Korea. The Korean chaebols were no longer able to keep Korea profitable. The government officially requested a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to save the country’s economy. The loan provided helped the country stay afloat and was repaid in three years.
This loan was not without its penalties as when the IMF loans a country money, the country must abide by the IMF’s conditionality on the loan. The IMF’s economic restructuring plan for Korea saw an attack on Korean labor unions as their positions were weakened. The main element that kept these unions exceptionally powerful was the vast labor force that worked in closely linked connected factories. This was attacked by the IMF as they reformed the way Korean conglomerates employ people, moving away from a vast labor force and focusing on specialist recruitment and automation. These reforms served to separate the bonds of the Korean labor force as workers were pitted against each other in an economy that was far less centralized and employment structures far less stable then previously.
The period following the implementation of IMF conditionality marked a new crack down on labor unions in South Korea. Between 1998-2008 more then 2000 labor unionist were jailed, arguably more then any other liberal democracy. This period was also marked by the increased movement of industry out of South Korea and into cheaper labor markets like the Philippines and Indonesia. This caused the labor unions to lose their greatest strength, closely connected Korean workers. Dedicated radicals were caught in legal limbo as the previously powerful unions began to disintegrate and leave activist unemployed. These unemployed organizers are not protected by Korean law and are subject to massive government and corporate lawsuits as well as jailing.
The success of the growing Korean middle class, thanks to the previously won labor concessions, brought political plurality to Korean democracy. Some of the public looked back on the strong radical unions of the 1980’s and 1990’s as crude power wielders. These people felt a labor aristocracy had grown in South Korea and this allowed the government to grow their crackdown. Even in modern Korea, the government has used Covid-19 regulations to arrest union organizers at meetings and continue to segregate the Korean workforce into a variety of gig work like food delivery. There are still hundreds of thousands of unionist Korean workers, and they still have some success. Recently the famed Korean taxi union that came out of the events of Gwangju, defeated an attempt by Uber to break into the Korean market.
Is their Room for Radicalism in Korean Democracy?
In 2013, the reactionary turn of Korean politics brought Park Geun He to the presidency. Park’s terms were defined by her increased oppression of labor organizing and the deregulation of working hours and worker safety. Radical politics had not faded away but was on the backfoot as Park reinvigorated the powers of the National intelligence Service (NIS), which was under the dictatorship called the KCIA.
Park’s most dramatic attack on Korean radical politics was the banning of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP). During the 2012 election when Park came to power, the newly formed leftist UPP made massive electoral gains. Almost winning all the seats in Gwangju which is still home to some of Korea’s most left-wing politics. Park conducted multiple NIS raids on UPP leaders and jailed them. In 2014, Park accused them of helping North Korea organize a land invasion of South Korea. Most scholars agree that this was a preposterous accusation, but Park had succeeded in outlawing Korea’s most popular leftist party. Some of the leaders of the UPP had served time in jail for protesting during the turbulent 1980’s and now found themselves in jail again.
“Remember the law of history: the more they trample on our desire for democracy and progress, the more extensively this desire will spread. The outdated system of national division, buttressed through red-baiting, is destined to crumble. I am confident that the dream of progressive politics, shared by the UPP and the people, will only grow. Our people will rise up from this bitter moment and march onward.”
- UPP Chair Lee Jung Hee speaking on the supreme court steps after her party’s banning
Some believe Park made this move not only to stunt leftist electoral power in South Korea but also to distract from her own rising scandal. The NIS had illegally campaigned for Park throughout the 2012 election. Using their intelligence expertise to manipulate public opinion. Park would have been seen as threatening Korean democracy but instead she deflected and relied on the old scapegoat of a North Korean invasion.
Her scandals with the NIS would follow her later into her term as it was revealed that there had been an array of corruption within the Park administration. WikiLeaks diplomatic cables and a lost laptop showed a spider web of corruption between leaders of the Chaebols and Park’s government. Park was arrested in 2018 and charged with taking money from the NIS and tampering in elections. Multiple ministers and even the vice president of Samsung was jailed as well.
It is not often corruption accusations result in the jailing of a president and their allies in a liberal democracy. Some may think this was a cunning move by some of Park’s rivals to move into power, but that is unclear. What is clear is that Park’s removal, would not have been possibly without hundreds of thousands of Koreans pouring into the streets. Memoires of Gwangju and the ideal that Korean workers should never fall back into their machine-like slumber came back into the front of Korean politics. The remaining powerful labor unions held mass strikes and average people left work and threatened to stop the whole of the Korean economy.
Coinciding with these massive protests was the release of A Taxi Driver which only drove home further the similarities between this movement and Gwangju. For Korean people their safety at these protest was not guaranteed. The older people at these protests still had memoires of police beating back thousands of Korean protesters throughout the 60’s,70’s and 80’s. The threat of a mass crackdown was very real, but this does not happen, officially only 55 protestors were injured until Park was impeached.
It is hard to imagine the revolutionary fervor one must have when their participating in the mass demonstrations Korea’s radical politics are famous for. One moves beyond oneself and morphs into a whole with their fellow people, fighting for something better. Willing to risk one’s body to make sure young Jeon Tae Il death is not in vain. To remember the legacy of Gwangju and if necessary to tear down Korean society and rebuild it once again.
Lee Jae Myung has drawn similarities to Bernie Sanders for his fiery class rhetoric and comparisons to Donald Trump for “telling it how it is”. The banning of the UPP and its leaders from elections, have left the electoral hopes of Korean leftism in his hands. This support is massive as he is currently set to win the election in April sitting at the top of the polls. He will go up against a Korean right wing that his embraced anti-feminism and xenophobia to garner votes.
Is Lee Jae Myung perfect? Will he successfully bring down real estate prices? Will he manage to implement the vast social programs he promises? Can he end the pressure on students to earn one of the few specialized positions the Korean economy now prioritizes? He has been accused of a variety of scandals by his opposition and has alot of work to do to secure his victory.
It remains to be seen whether he will bring structural change to South Korea. What does not remain to be seen and is quite clear is that the radical tradition in South Korea is still alive. It is represented in Korean film and is still capable of holding massive, economy stunting demonstrations. The events of Gwangju and the rise of the democracy movement through the labor offensive are proud moments in Korean history. The previously feudal country was forced into the 20th century by the colonial Japanese empire and was split up by the feuding between the capitalist and communist worlds.
The legacy of radicalism and protests are some of the few times in which Koreans have been able to make their society how they desire it, not how any superpower wants it. That fight continues to this day and will continue until the brutal working and political conditions that demand its existence are finally struck down.
Seoul wakes from a nightmare
oppressed by the goblin of rules
Night descends and seats itself
like a thieving cat
Brilliant lamps the color of blood are lit
on every dark, medieval column of stone
Tens of thousands of moths gather in screeching hordes
and melt into drops of oil
beneath the flaming signal light
- An Excerpt from a poem by Ko Chong hui, a famed Korean radical activist