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South Korea: Railway Labor Struggle goes Nation-Wide amidst Growing Tensions over Park Geun-hye’s Presidency

eli_esYesterday evening, South Korea’s 2nd largest national trade union center, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), announced a general strike, which is due to commence on December 28, 2013. This most drastic move by KCTU, a leftist organization that unites roughly 700.000 South Korean workers under its umbrella, came at the end of long day full of dramatic escalations. Thousands of riot police stormed the headquarters of KCTU in Seoul on December 22 – an unprecedented event in South Korea’s post-dictatorship history, through which the country’s current president Park Guen-hye proved to the public how far she is willing to go in her attempt to crush labor and its democratic organizations.

Park Geun-hye, 61, is the country’s first female president – and she is also the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military strongman who couped himself into power in 1961. He ruled the country with an iron fist until 1979, when he was assassinated by the Head of his own Secret Service (the KCIA). In the South Korea of today, the presidency of his daughter, Park Geun-hye, has been shrouded in controversy since she has been elected into the highest office in late 2012. The Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), a follow-up organization of the KCIA, was caught red-handed in an attempt to interfere in the election in favor of Mrs. Park. Millions of supportive twitter messages, it came to light, had been posted by members of the NIS during the days before the votes were cast – a massive illegal online-campaign that seems particularly unsavory given that it was undertaken by the same secretive organization that had guaranteed her father’s rule through the kidnapping and torturing of political opponents of his regime.

His daughter Park Geun-hye, from all we can tell, would like to place herself on South Korea’s map as a stern conservative leader of the neoliberal kind – not only following in the footsteps of her father, it seems, but also in those of her immediate neoliberal predecessor and Saenuri-Party colleague, former president Lee Myung Bak (2008-2012). Lee, who has called himself “the CEO of Korea, Inc”, inaugurated the stripping of the state of its most valuable assets; and Park is now preparing the grounds for another round of pilfering that will harm the previously strong public sectors of South Korea. Massive health sector privatizations are currently under way, with app. 20.000 doctors protesting against the planned de-regularization and privatization of their domain last week in Seoul. The public transportation sector, too, is under heavy assault these days: amidst the continuous restructuration of the state-run Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL), the recently announced introduction of a new subsidiary has been viewed by many as a first step towards the eventual privatization of KORAIL (Lee Myung-bak had announced this much during his presidency already).

To counter this move, the Korean Railway Workers´ Union (KRWU) – an organization that consists of app. 20.000 railway workers and that is also part of the aforementioned KCTU – started a strike on December 9. This labor struggle, which has been going strong for almost two weeks now, has already become the longest-ever strike in the 65-year-history of South Korea’s railway union, with the number of workers involved in it rising quickly. Roughly 40% of all unionized KORAIL workers haven taken part in the actions so far, which brought substantial parts of Korea’s transportation system to a standstill. In an attempt to end this vital labor struggle, the strike has been countered with unparalleled measures by the state-run corporation and the government standing behind it. With the struggle swiftly declared illegal, nearly 7.000 workers – that is, practically all of the union members who have been taking part in the strike – have been dismissed from their jobs at KORAIL. Furthermore, an arrest warrant has been made for the leadership of KRWU, who were suspected of having gone into hiding at the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) that they are part of.

Consequently, yesterday morning some 4.000 riot police were deployed in front of KCTU’s offices in the Seodaemun district of Seoul, where a standoff between labor activists, their supporters and the police began that would last for ten hours. After the glass front door of the building had been smashed into pieces, police teams slowly and violently pushed their way through 17 floors to the roof of the building, pepper-spraying and arresting those standing in their way. Some 130 people were taken in by the police, even though no search warrant for KCTU’s headquarters had been issued in the first place, adding a layer of illegality to this police raid of the union center. Furthermore, during these police procedures that put numerous labor activists at risk, the actual leaders of the strike at KORAIL could not be located in the building. With the leadership of the strike still at large, the labor struggle at the Korea Railroad Corporation will continue, and president Park will now also have to deal with a general strike that has just been called out by KCTU in response to the raiding of their headquarters. With these new developments, and through Park’s iron-fisted response to the first public sector strike under her leadership, South Korea’s 11th president has clearly proven to those watching whose child she really is. With the railway strike now going nation-wide, the stakes will certainly be raised on all sides of the table – and one can only hope that the Korean democratic labor movement will be able to muster enough (wo)manpower, strength and resilience to stand their ground in the coming days and weeks.

Seoul, South Korea: Trade Unions protester

By Elisabeth Schober

Elisabeth Schober is a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Oslo’s Department of Social Anthropology. During her PhD studies at Central European University (Hungary), she spent 21 months in South Korea, exploring the impact of the long-term presence of the U.S. military on entertainment areas in and near the capital Seoul. Currently, she is looking into labor relations at a large Korean shipyard in Subic Bay (the Philippines), a community that was previously dominated by a large U.S. Navy facility in its midst.

2 replies on “South Korea: Railway Labor Struggle goes Nation-Wide amidst Growing Tensions over Park Geun-hye’s Presidency”

I am surprised to find an accurate portrait of what is going on in South Korea right now. I look forward to reading your articles in the future!

Good writing and good background. A few quotes here would make it great. Please keep updating this story and others.

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