South Korea: the view from the left

Issue: 112

Choi Il-bung and Kim Ha-young of the International Socialists of South Korea spoke to International Socialism about the political situation in South Korea and the possibility for the left to build today.

People in Britain are almost completely ignorant of the situation in South Korea. Could you give a brief account of development over the last 20 years?

Il-bung: In the summer of 1987 we had a huge mass strike and since then the transition to bourgeois democracy has been in progress. It was not until 1993 that a real civilian government, that of Kim Young-sam, took office. One year before the end of his term, on Boxing Day of 1996, he railroaded through a neo-liberal labour law which was faced by another big wave of mass strikes by the workers. There was a key struggle to defeat this new labour law in the early part of 1997.

And at the end of 1997 South Korea, like the other East Asian countries, fell into what Koreans call ‘the IMF economic crisis’. Because of this Kim Dae-jung was able to get elected president. He had been arrested and tortured by the former Park Chung-hee military government, and when he was elected the South Korean masses had great expectations of him because he had fought against the dictatorship. But he came to office in the middle of the economic crisis and began to implement neo-liberal policies in an attempt to restructure the South Korean economy. So workers and students got disillusioned and began to fight back against this new government. This was met by an offensive from the ruling class, with the right wing going on the attack. It was a fierce battle and the tension persisted until 2002, the end of Kim Dae-jung’s term, when there was a movement against the death of two female teenagers who were killed by US armoured cars. A new generation of youth came into the movement—hundreds of thousands of people came into the streets of Seoul for a candlelight vigil. It was a very energetic movement.

The effect of this movement was that a new government came in, that of Roh Moo-hyun, who was a liberal populist. The oppressed people had very high expectations of him when he became president. But he has failed to carry out the reforms people expected. An example is the issue of the Iraq war. In its first year in office the government announced it was going to deploy troops to Iraq, and there was huge opposition, with a series of big demonstrations. But in August 2004 the law was passed sending troops to Iraq and people became disappointed and demoralised. Then Roh Moo-hyun said he would get rid of the notorious National Security Act, and the disappointed people thought, ‘Let’s expect from him again.’ But in the end he failed to get rid of the act. This blow made people even more demoralised.

When people build a big movement to achieve something but don’t get the concrete results they wanted, they begin to look for a political alternative—and often it is reformist politics. So they looked to the parliament (the National Assembly). In fact, president Roh Moo-hyun’s Uri Party had become a parliamentary majority since the April 2004 general election. On top of this the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), a left reformist party formed in 1999, had held ten seats. The landslide of the Uri Party and the DLP in the general elections was made possible by the fact that a large majority of people didn’t want Roh Moo-hyun to be impeached by the right despite repeated disappointments with him.
Today, however, Roh Moo-Hyun supports the massive enlargement and modernisation of the US military base in Pyoung-taek, a town one and a half hours drive to the south of Seoul, on the basis of the Bush administration’s concept of ‘strategic flexibility’. He is also going to sign the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. People have reacted strongly to this. Five thousand people demonstrated in front of the military base despite a serious threat from the government, and were met with violent repression from the South Korean army.

These kinds of betrayals were the reason why in the recent local elections in May Roh Moo-hyun’s ruling Uri Party was defeated. This was interpreted as a landslide victory for the right wing Grand National Party, which then gained a lot of confidence. But if you look at the voting figures, their vote only went up by 1 percent compared to the last elections. What happened was the support for Roh Moo-hyun’s party slumped (because of a large rate of abstention). The DLP also did not do as well as they expected. We saw it as a very small defeat, but most of the left saw it as a major defeat and got very demoralised.

Because the right have gained confidence the government, under pressure from them, is going on the offensive against the left, with a return to using the National Security Act. Recently a Stalinist scholar was subject to a very heated attack by the right wing press simply for saying the Korean War was an attempt by North Korea to bring about Korean unity. He was put on trial and sentenced to four years in prison albeit with a suspension of sentence. My organisation (All Together) and the Stalinists defended this scholar together. When we went to the courts to demonstrate there was a right wing group having a counter-demonstration and there were scuffles. I think we will see more heated confrontations.

Next year we have the presidential election, and the confrontation between right and left will become more intense.

A question about the working class movement. Until 1987 most unions were illegal or controlled by the state. Since then you have seen the development of a very powerful trade union movement with some of the biggest strikes in the world.

Il-bung: Until 1987 South Korea was under military dictatorship and we had the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) which was controlled by the state. The mass strike in July through to August 1987 was basically a rank and file movement.
Immediately there was struggle to build independent unions which went on until 1995, when a more left wing Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was founded. We saw a bureaucratisation of the union leaders in this process, but as I said before, when the Kim Young-sam government wanted to pass the neo-liberal labour law at the end of 1996 there was a huge reaction from the working class, and the mass strike also served to strengthen the KCTU trade union leadership as well as the rank and file because Kim Young-sam backed off, apologising to the public. A year later in November 1997 the huge financial crash, the so-called ‘IMF crisis’, became a litmus test for the bureaucracy. And the economic depression in 1998—the worst South Korea has ever seen—damaged the confidence of the rank and file. Workers said, ‘Previously we said, “If we unite in the unions we will be victorious.” Now we say it’s wrong.’ They were also shocked by what their leaders were doing—the betrayal—in 1998. Subsequently, the need for a political expression of the working class movement led to the creation of the Democratic Labour Party in 1999. The workers’ political consciousness that emerged in this period showed that trade union consciousness does not easily leap automatically to socialist consciousness.

The very courageous rank and file activists who led the mass strikes of 1987 became the leadership of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. But recently the deputy chairman of the KCTU and the leaders of the Hyundai Auto union and the KIA Auto union, both being key components of the KCTU, were all arrested for bribery and corruption. Apart from that, many of the leaders of the KCTU, let alone right wing FKTU leaders, openly display their reformist approach—for instance, refusing to defend the rights of irregular (casual and temporary) workers. So there is a strong distrust of leaders by the rank and file now. But they do not have enough confidence to act independently of the leadership. In a sense we are in a transitory period.

After 1987 Korean workers’ living standards rose until they were nearly at the European level. What was the impact of the crisis of the late 1990s?

Il-bung: During the economic slump of 1998 South Korea’s economic growth hit minus and so did real wages. In 1999 the economy started to recover but real wages were still minus. By 2000 organised workers began to fight back and were able to stop the decline in living standards. In 2004 they and regular workers were able to recover to the level before the 1997 crash. But most of the temporary, irregular workers are not unionised, and their living standards remained some 10 percent below the 1997 level. Sixty percent of the Korean labour force are irregular workers and their wages are slightly over half those of organised workers. So the living standard of ordinary Koreans as a whole is slightly less than it was ten years ago, before the 1997 crisis.

What is the attitude of ordinary Korean people today towards North Korea and the threats of war against North Korea?

Ha-young: There was a public opinion poll asking South Korean young people whether they thought North Korea was a threat to South Korea. The majority said no. They believe the Cold War has ended and even though there is still a Cold War atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula, they think that because it has disappeared at the world scale it should also disappear in the Korean Peninsula. What is more, in the Cold War period they were constantly bombarded with the idea that North Korea is a threat, it wants to be hegemonic and all that. But from 1995 and 1996 they could see the serious crisis in North Korea with their own eyes, through the reports in the press and by North Korean refugees. They now realise that North Korea is a very weak state and in need of help.
They now see the US as the biggest threat to Korean society because its hostility to North Korea will create more instability.

There was a question to the young people about their attitude if the US attacks North Korea. Almost 90 percent said they would oppose a US attack on North Korea. But when asked if they would like to live in North Korea, they said no; only 3 percent said yes.

The attitude of the South Korean government has also changed, in that it is no longer completely with the US?

Ha-young: Partly, yes. On inauguration Roh Moo-hyun said, ‘I will be a president who says no to the US.’ He also said, ‘I do not speak English. I’ve never been to the US. I want to create an equal relationship when we are dealing with the US.’ So in a sense there is a different attitude than that of the previous presidents. His expressions reflect the wishes of the ordinary people, who want the South Korea-US relationship to be ‘normalised’.

The US got angry when he said such things. He was, at that stage, also expressing the feelings of sections of the South Korean ruling class, who could see the potential of Chinese economic growth and military power. They felt it would be a disadvantage to them to depend only on the US. They have one leg in China and the other in the US. The question of the attitude to the US is now a very controversial issue within the ruling class. The majority of the ruling class believes the South Korea-US alliance needs to be maintained in the way it has been.

Right now it seems that Roh Moo-hyun has chosen tradition: for him the South Korea-US alliance is more important than the South Korea-China alliance. On the issue of Iraq he has chosen to support the US and when people oppose him sending the troops he says, ‘I am pro-American and at the same time for self-reliance.’

Economic and military competition builds up around the Korean Peninsula, and South Korea is under pressure. And the ruling class wish to find their own right position and are reaching in different directions while trying to maintain what they had before, the South Korea-US alliance.

Some South Korean firms are operating in North Korea, aren’t they?

Ha-young: Today investment in North Korea is mainly concentrated on tourism and one industrial complex, Kaesong, about an hour and a half drive from Seoul by bus across the military demarcation line. The Kaesong industrial complex is a solution to the problems of small and middle size enterprises in South Korea because the wages are so low—$57 a month, less than is paid in Vietnam or China. And one of the attractive selling points is that there are no trade unions in North Korea.

There are difficulties. Sections of the ruling class are afraid there are a lot of limitations for South Korean companies to go into North Korea. Meanwhile China’s investment in and trade with North Korea have grown much more rapidly than that of South Korea. Sections of the South Korean ruling class are worried about this. They think that the US’s hostile policy to North Korea is creating this mood and that they might lose to China the opportunity to develop North Korea.

This is a contradiction for left nationalists. They say that North Korea, especially the Kaesong industrial complex, is the answer to the problems of the ‘national economy’ of the two Koreas combined—but an article in the Financial Times calls it ‘a haven for the capitalists, not the workers’, not the nation either.

What is the situation of the left? Until 1989 there was a very strong Stalinist, Kim Il-sungist left in South Korea. How has that changed?

Il-bung: Until 1991, when the former USSR collapsed, the great majority of the left was Stalinist. Then we had two varieties of Stalinism. One, called ‘NL’ (National Liberation currents), was pro North Korea, following Kim Il-sung’s ‘Jucheist’ thought (‘Juche’ means ‘self-reliance’). The other strand called itself PD (People’s Democracy currents) and looked towards the USSR and Eastern Europe.

When Eastern Europe and the USSR collapsed, it was a tremendous shock, a total defeat for PD, and they just dissolved, some having an interest in some forms of post-modernism until the late 1990s.

NL, the Jucheists, survived the PD because North Korea survived. But from 1994 to 1998 they went through a deep crisis. First the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and then the famine from 1995 onwards, as well as the economic crisis, meant there was widespread feeling among South Koreans that the North Korean regime would collapse at any moment.

1998 was a turning point for NL because South Korea was also involved in a serious economic crisis. The Jucheists felt able to hold that North Korea was better than South Korea. And in the summer of 1998 they saw the launch of the supposedly continental ballistic missiles as showing the advance of technology in North Korea while the Kim Jong-il regime seemed to be stabilising.

The Inter-Korean Summit in 2000 really boosted the confidence of the Jucheists. But immediately afterwards the Jucheists more or less became reformists. Today Jucheists are acting as reformists—as are the bulk of the PD currents. PD has now differentiated into various widely different currents, and you can see all kinds of mishmashes: from die-hard traditional Stalinism, through modern versions of Maoism, through various kinds of social democracy and autonomism, to ultra-left workerism or council communism, as well as an inner DLP faction identifying itself with the Scottish Socialist Party. What binds together these wide varieties of PD, except for autonomist brands, is their workerist legacy and the sectarian attitude towards NL-led anti-imperialist struggles.

The International Socialists of South Korea (ISSK) is the other element in the Korean left. It began in 1990. On the eve of the collapse of the former USSR in August 1991 we had 29 members. In three months we grew to 170. But three months later there was a police raid and many of our members were arrested and went to prison. All through the 1990s, until December 1999 when we joined the DLP, we were underground as being some 150 strong, and regularly assaulted by the police—especially whenever we showed a sign of growth. During the whole decade more than 200 of our members were arrested, some comrades twice or even three times. We were sentenced to between six months and two years in prison. Being underground really had a negative effect (like passivity, temptations towards sectarianism, and so on) on both the group as a whole and its individual members, at a time when the movement was rising—since 1996.

But in late 2002, as I said before, there was a mass movement of young people against the threat of war and military aggression by the US. This immediately led to the anti-war movement and we started to grow from some 300 in early 2003 to slightly less than 1,200 in 2005. We are part of the DLP and in the recent party election we put up a candidate for policy director, one of the three major national posts, and we received 18 percent of the votes nationally and more than 30 percent in Seoul.

Korea historically had very big students’ movements. Is this still true?

Il-bung: Historically, from the 1960s to the 1980s we had a strong tradition of a militant student movement against dictatorship and authoritarian government. Most of the leadership of the left today are from that student movement. But recently there has been a change in the student movement. There is no longer a dictatorship or an authoritarian government and they need to fight against neo-liberalism. But because the movement is influenced by reformists, it is very disoriented. They do not know how to organise and mobilise resistance. Many of them are demoralised.

Nevertheless we have student councils controlled by the various kinds of left nationalists including Jucheists. When there is an issue they think important they can mobilise several thousand students. A prime case was the struggle against the enlargement of the US base in Pyoung-taek town.

Ha-young: Today the students and young people have so much anger, so we have the possibility of highly explosive activism, as was shown in the reaction to the two deaths of female teenagers in 2002. But that was a spontaneous explosion, not linked to the old student movement leadership. One of the Jucheist student leaders told us that when the hundreds of thousands of young people were protesting then, and the Jucheist students turned up with their banner, no one showed any interest. This is because they continue with their old Stalinist ideas which young people and students are not interested in. We find that when we raise internationalist issues like Bush’s wars in the Middle East, a lot of young people are attracted to those issues. We find they have a great interest in politics—lots of questions about radical left politics. Many young people and students come to the Marxist Forums we organise around basic or applied ideas of Marxism.