New struggles in South Korea

by Kevin Ovenden

WORKERS IN South Korea were set to call a wave of strikes against mass sackings this week. This follows vicious attacks by riot police on striking underground transport workers in South Korea's capital, Seoul, at the weekend. About 2,000 riot police stormed the Seoul National University on Sunday of last week where striking underground workers had sought refuge alongside radical students. The police opened up with water cannon and smashed through barricades with a forklift truck. The 4,500 workers and students fought back with firebombs and steel pipes. Police injured several workers and beat one unconscious.

Simultaneous clashes took place in eastern Seoul where riot police tried to stop 2,000 trade unionists from the state owned Korea Telecom entering the Korea University campus. Workers in 19 state owned corporations had joined the strike wave by Monday of this week, despite the brutal repression. Workers in the shipbuilding division of Daewoo—one of the giant conglomerates, the chaebols, which dominate South Korean industry—were also on strike. Some 1,500 underground workers were still occupying Seoul National University. Others who were forced out had rallied in the grounds of Myongdong Cathedral alongside leaders of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), who have been threatened with arrest.

The KCTU is the unofficial and more militant of the two trade union federations in South Korea. KCTU chairman Lee Kap-young said he would call further public sector strikes. He also said that if the police continued attacking strikers the strike wave would be aimed at bringing down the government. The KCTU has called a string of protests at threatened mass redundancies. It is arguing for a cut in working hours and for job sharing and greater welfare spending as an alternative to mass unemployment. The 170,000 members of the Korean Metal Workers Federation were set to down tools on Tuesday.

South Korea is at a turning point, and workers have shown they have the power to turn the tide of the bosses' attacks provided the trade unions mobilise it fully. The country was the mightiest of the Asian Tiger economies until 18 months ago. But the East Asian economic crisis his bitten extremely hard. Unemployment was at negligible levels in the early 1990s. It now stands officially at about 9 percent—many people do not show up on the figures. The stock market has recovered slightly since the beginning of this year. But foreign speculators' money is responsible for that, and it can just as easily fall if bankers pull their money out of the country.

In any case, life for ordinary Koreans is getting worse. The government and big business avoided mass sackings in major industries during the depths of the crisis. They feared shutting down whole subsidiaries of the chaebols would lead the crisis to spiral out of control. Now, however, the government of Kim Dae-jung is forcing through wholesale factory closures. Workers face a greater threat of the sack than they did last year.

Kim Dae-jung has promised investors and the International Monetary Fund that he will take a hard line with the unions. But he faces weaknesses on his own side. Chaebol bosses want to preserve their empires and argue for the government to force the cuts in production onto their rivals. The workers' protests have shaken the government. It called off a meeting with chaebol bosses on Monday to discuss restructuring industry.

The economic crisis unleashed two years ago in Thailand is still ricocheting around the world. There is growing instability in Europe and the US beneath the soaring stock markets. The frantic drive for competition is producing suffering and the drive to war. The inspiring workers' resistance in South Korea points to an alternative to greater suffering not only there but across the globe.

The South Korean government is also stepping up repression against socialists. Its main target is the International Socialists of South Korea. Two ISSK supporters, Chun Ji-yoon and Kim Nak-joon, were arrested recently merely for possessing socialist books and selling papers. International protests helped win freedom for seven members of the ISSK earlier this year.