Interview: Korea’s summer of discontent

Issue: 120

South Korean socialist Kim Kwang-il spoke to Owen Miller about the country’s recent protest movement

This summer the biggest mass movement since the 1980s erupted in South Korea as hundreds of thousands came onto the streets to protest against the recently elected right wing government of Lee Myung-bak. Ostensibly the crowds were protesting against the government’s decision to resume imports of US beef which had been banned due to fears of “mad cow disease”, but their anger and slogans were directed at everything from education privatisation to Lee’s plans to construct an environmentally disastrous “grand canal” down the length of the country. The movement began online and then in May escalated into daily candlelight vigils in central Seoul. From late May people began to march, attempting to take their protests directly to the presidential residence, still carrying candles as a symbol of their defiance against the government. Since the middle of August the government has gone on the counter-attack, arresting and intimidating scores of activists.

Kim Kwang-il is a member of the steering committee of All Together, the South Korean sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party. He has also been a leading figure in this summer’s protest movement and, along with a number of other leaders, he has been barricaded in a protest camp at Seoul’s central Buddhist temple—Chogyesa—since the police issued arrest warrants for the protest organisers in June. He and six others are unable to leave the grounds of the temple, which is surrounded by riot police who search everyone leaving or entering. This interview was conducted via email on 8 September.

OM: The right wing Grand National Party has recently come back to power in South Korea with the victory of Lee Myung-bak. The Korean right characterises the past ten years as the “lost decade”. How would you describe the decade of “centre-left “ or “social-liberal” governments under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun?

KK: When the right wingers talk about the “lost decade” they are only half right. For them the handing over of power to liberal forces 50 years after the establishment of South Korea’s authoritarian government in 1948 was an unbearable insult. So in 2004 the Grand National Party, as the political party representing the Korean right, attempted to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun. This attempt was defeated by massive street protests.

But having said this, it is certainly not the case that the Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun governments fundamentally challenged the values of the right. In fact, as members of the South Korean ruling class they remained faithful followers of neoliberal and pro-imperialist policies.

When Kim Dae-jung came to power in 1998 it was the period of Korea’s so-called “IMF crisis”, and he pushed ahead with restructuring and intensified worker layoffs. Kim Dae-jung may have received the Nobel Peace Prize but the repressive National Security Law (NSL) remained in place. During the Kim Dae-jung government South Korea’s International Socialists, such as myself, were punished and imprisoned under the NSL simply for selling a socialist newspaper! And Kim Dae-jung sent Korean troops to Afghanistan immediately after George Bush’s invasion.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration was exactly the same. When he came to power the first thing he did was to send troops to Iraq. Last year he sent Korean special forces troops to Lebanon as well. Because I organised demonstrations against the dispatch of troops I was convicted by his government. The Roh Moo-hyun government also pursued neoliberal policies. In order to conclude the recent free trade agreement (FTA) with the US the Roh Moo-hyun administration used repressive measures against the anti-FTA protest movement that were second only to those of the current Lee Myung-bak government.

The resumption of US beef imports that was the spark for the candlelight protest movement was actually a concession that was promised by the Roh Moo-hyun government in order to reach agreement on the trade treaty with the US. The Roh Moo-hyun government also imprisoned more workers than any other Korean government, including the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, while the proportion of casual workers in the economy rose sharply.

It is not really appropriate to call these people “centre-left” or “social-liberals”. Both their social base and their political platform are different to the traditional reformist parties. Although they have been supported by social movement leaders, including some of the mainstream NGOs and a section of the nationalist left, their principal base is among the populist liberals who form a part of the capitalist class.

It was the betrayals of the liberals and the sense of disgust and disappointment these gave rise to that opened the door for the election of a right wing government.

Lee Myung-bak—the former CEO of the construction subsidiary of conglomerate Hyundai and nicknamed the “Bulldozer”—won a convincing victory last December. How did this come about? Did it represent a significant shift to the right?

The recent huge protests show that the election of a right wing government in Korea does not mean Korean society as a whole has moved to the right, despite the pessimistic analysis offered by a considerable number of activists on the left.

First, the turnout in the presidential election was extremely low, which means that mistrust and disillusionment with mainstream politics are very high. Lee Myung-bak actually polled the lowest number of votes of any elected Korean president. Second, due to the sense of betrayal and disillusion with ten years of liberal populist governments, particularly the five years of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, voters could not bring themselves to vote for Roh Moo-hyun’s successor.

If you look at various opinion polls you can see that public support for progressive values has not diminished at all. The movement in Korea has also not suffered a decisive defeat.

However, a considerable number of social movement leaders have been gripped by a sense of defeat, fear and lack of morale. As a result, the majority of social movement forces were bewildered when the candlelight protest movement first erupted on 2 May, and just stood back and watched. So they ended up joining the movement late.

Fortunately, because All Together correctly understood that the election of a right wing government did not mean the Korean people had become more conservative, we joined the demonstrations right from day one.

In Europe too the right has been able to make gains as a result of the sense of disillusion that has accompanied the betrayals by “social-liberal” governments. But this is very unstable. We need to understand that popular consciousness is very contradictory. You can see this to a great extent with the participation in the candlelight protest movement by people who voted for Lee Myung-bak at the last election.

_What was the immediate background to the massive wave of protests against the
Lee Myung-bak government that began in May_?

The start of the demonstrations back in May was the combined result of a whole series of issues that had been thrown up since Lee Myung-bak was elected. From the moment he was elected Lee began announcing a whole host of blatantly right wing neoliberal, anti-democratic and pro-imperialist policies. It was like a policy tsunami—so much so that you became irritated every time you looked at a newspaper or news bulletin. Every day you got up in the morning to find that another right wing policy initiative had been announced in the media.

The gradually worsening economic situation was also behind the sudden explosion of demonstrations. Lee Myung-bak’s core promise in the presidential election was that he would “revive the economy”. This was his so-called “747 pledge” in which he promised to achieve economic growth of 7 percent, average per capita income of 40,000 US dollars, and raise South Korea to the world’s seventh largest economy. Of course this was nothing more than rhetoric that completely ignored the world economic crisis. After Lee took power the economic indicators became gradually worse while the suffering of the exploited grew.

Popular anger gradually built and then on 19 April, when Lee travelled to the US and made an agreement with Bush to allow imports of American beef, this anger exploded. This agreement drastically eased the regulations dealing with the risk of beef infected with BSE. At first the protests against this agreement centred around internet communities. An online petition set up by a high school student attracted more than a million signatures in no time.

In the early stages of the candlelight protests the active participation of young people was particularly noticeable and this reflected their anger against Lee Myung-bak’s education privatisation plans. Middle and high school education in Korea is extremely oppressive and there is intense competition to do well in university entrance exams. However, the Lee government’s plans to destroy public eduction would clearly drive young people into even more oppressive conditions. One of the slogans that the young people brought to the demonstrations was “Let’s eat a little, let’s sleep a little”. It’s a slogan that shows clearly the sort of position they are in where they have to go to school before dawn and then study at cram schools until late in the evening.

This anger and sense of crisis exploded into the open in the candlelight demonstrations. On the first day the sight of 20,000 people filling the streets was a real shock. On that day everyone was surprised at the scale and the confidence of the demonstration: the internet-based group that had called the demo, the participants themselves and the police.

The demonstrations were not simply limited to opposition to the resumption of US beef imports. From the very first day opposition was directed towards the government’s plans to destroy public education, its proposed “Grand Canal” plan aimed at providing profits for the construction sector, as well as plans for the privatisation of health insurance. As time went on the dynamic between these various demands became clearer.

To put it another way, the candlelight demonstrations shared the values of the international anti-neoliberal movement, as embodied in the slogan “People before profit”. So this struggle stands shoulder to shoulder with the struggles against neoliberalism all over the world, from Latin America to Europe.

When I joined the protests in May there was already an amazing feeling of power among the protesters but also a sense that no one knew exactly what was happening or where it was going—neither the organised left nor the police nor the government, nor even the crowds themselves. Why do you think these protests surprised and disorientated everyone in this way?

The new movement was overtaken by a sense of euphoria when the protests exploded without any warning and then demonstrated their staying power. People felt confident that the movement could be victorious without any major ordeals or complications. During this phase it was natural that a sort of “spontaneism” would gain strength. It was also the case that the protests had not started with calls from the organised social movement forces. The social movement forces entered the new protest movement late and in a rather timid fashion, and they also compromised with the spontaneism of the movement.

The candlelight rallies that started at Chonggye Square in central Seoul on 2 May gradually grew in size and from 24 May began to take to the streets. This was the turning point that really broadened the movement. The protesters no longer stayed in the square but wanted to charge out into the streets.

At this time the reformist majority in the People’s Countermeasure Committee on Mad Cow Disease hesitated either to take the responsibility for organising street protests or to bring up the question of the direction of the movement. They felt a heavy burden of responsibility. In this situation it was All Together, alongside a number of other groups, that began to lead the demonstrations and this gave rise to some criticism within the candlelight protest movement. People claimed that the left should not intervene in the demonstrations because this would damage their spontaneity. Some of the spontaneists attempted to seize megaphones from those leading the marches and even tried to crowd around the speaker cars that were at the front of the demonstrations to prevent them from moving. They habitually obstructed discussions about the form that the marches should take, so there were repeated situations in which it was difficult to make any decision about where the march would go and where we would hold a closing rally.

However, the situation changed again. On 31 May the established social movement forces found their confidence again, readied their ranks and participated in the demonstration in large numbers. As they led that demonstration the atmosphere was reversed. You could see how the realisation of the need for the organisation and experience of the social movement forces spread among the protesters when they came within spitting distance of the Blue House [the presidential residence] and were faced with repression in the form of massive police violence and widespread arrests.

What is the mood among Korean workers at the moment and how has it been affected by this summer’s protests?

The biggest weakness of the candlelight protests has been precisely the inadequate participation of the organised working class, though it is true that the transportation union actively resisted the transportation and distribution of US beef and the Korea Confederation of Democratic Unions [KCTU, the left union federation] organised a strike for a few hours.

The reasons for the labour movement’s lacklustre response to this new movement were similar to the causes of the South Korean social movements’ unenthusiastic participation in the early stages of the protests. The victory of the Lee Myung-bak government lowered morale in the union movement and created a sense of insecurity. In fact the leadership of the KCTU thought that it would require a year of preparation to take on the Lee government head to head.

As a result, the sudden eruption of the candlelight protests was a shock to both the leadership of the unions and the rank and file union members. As the demonstrations expanded a section of the more advanced activists made efforts to organise the movement, but they were unable to counter the majority tendency in the unions.

Another cause lies in the “workerism” of the Korean unions. The unions have never been enthusiastic about political protests that go beyond economic disputes.

As one leading All Together member, Choi Il-bung, has recently noted, “When their expectations in Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and the other populist politicians came to nothing, KCTU members reacted with a tendency towards workerism that was expressed in their lack of positive participation in the candlelight rallies.”

For example, at the height of the candlelight protest movement the trade unionists organised rallies and marches at which they pushed their own economic demands and on occasion these demonstrations ended without getting to the place where the candlelight rally was being held so only some of the participants actually joined the candlelight protesters.

The Lee Myung-bak government also tried to force a separation of politics and economics by announcing that it would take a hard line against political strikes by workers.

The majority reformist leadership of the candlelight protest movement also failed to positively call for the mobilisation and participation of the organised working class.

However, the candlelight protests that have shaken Korea this summer have left the organised working class with the confidence that it is possible to confront and fight the Lee Myung-bak government. And they have also highlighted the importance of political protest movements that go beyond labour disputes. The candlelight protests have provided some important lessons for organised workers about the battles that are likely to lie ahead in the developing economic crisis. But it is only when those lessons have been learnt and absorbed that they can actually become weapons in the struggle.

There seems to be a lull in the movement at the moment. Has the government been successful in suppressing the movement? Do you think this is the end of the current phase of resistance to the right wing government?

The movement began on 2 May and continued for more than three months until 15 August. That date saw the hundredth demonstration. The protests continued every single day and there were a number of occasions on which the numbers of demonstrators ran into hundreds of thousands. On 10 June at least one million people came onto the streets nationwide and on 5 July too there were 400,000 to 500,000 people on the streets in Seoul alone. These were the first demonstrations on such a scale in 20 years.

It is true that there is a lull in the movement at the moment, though small protests are continuing. The biggest reason for this is the repression. Because even legal rallies have become impossible these days, people are unable to gather. So far a total of 1,530 people have been arrested by the police and 49 people are being detained. There are a further 29 of us currently on the police’s wanted list, including myself and the others at the Chogyesa Temple protest camp. The police are now investigating internet community sites and are serving summonses to people simply for having written anti-government comments online.

The movement also has strategic problems. It reached its climax on 10 June. This day was chosen with the intention of reviving the memory of the great struggle of 10 June 1987 and, although it was a weekday, the demonstration brought some 700,000 people onto the streets in Seoul alone. This was the moment when the leadership of the movement needed to give some clear direction. But the majority of the reformists in the leadership evaded the question of an anti-government struggle—ie a political struggle—and gradually tried to limit the movement to opposition to the import of US beef.

Although there is currently something of a lull in the movement this does not mean to say that the Lee Myung-bak government has been successful. His approval rating barely scrapes 20 percent—and this after only 200 days in office!

Two recent episodes have illustrated the continued instability of the government. In an attempt to further curtail the movement the government recently detained seven activists from a radical left group called the Socialist Workers League of Korea under the repressive National Security Law, but the warrants for their arrests were thrown out of court because the outcry was so great.

[In another case] Lee Myung-bak came up against opposition to his plans to privatise water services from the Grand National Party, his own party, because they were afraid that this plan might give rise to another round of candlelight protests.

When it seemed that the candlelight protests were burning themselves out the Lee Myung-bak government had to hold back its urge to push forward with its neoliberal policies. But in reality it is just refuelling for the struggle ahead. The Korean people have behind them the experience of a massive struggle and will not simply stand aside and watch. As the economic crisis gets worse the stakes of the struggle are also getting higher.