South Korea: Behind the Mask

Before the first Olympic spectator had arrived in South Korea, the police had swept over sixteen thousand “criminals” — drug addicts, prostitutes, beggars and petty thieves — from the streets of the capital city. No more than a quarter were formally charged, the rest either spirited away by summary courts or detained pending further “investigations”. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of slum dwellers evicted to make way for the Olympic stadium are now living in tents. They received no compensation, but they have been invited to the rehearsals of the opening and closing ceremonies; “We want them to feel it’s everybody’s Olympics”, said Mr Yi Dong, the city’s senior planner (Guardian, 30 August).

The South Korean state spared little expense to ensure that the world’s media got the “right” impression of their country. In a highly symbolic act, a wall was constructed along the hundred mile Olympic torch route to spare TV viewers the sight of the slums which infest the poorer parts of the Olympic city. This all helps build the myth that the Free Market can deliver social justice and permanently rising living standards for the vast majority. How closely does this tie in with the reality of life in South Korea today?

The South Korean economy was built on the ruthless exploitation of the working class: long hours and low wages were the hallmark of this economic “miracle”. South Koreans still work the longest hours in the world, and 12.3 per cent of the population live below the poverty line; the bottom 40 per cent own little more than 17 per cent of the country’s wealth . . . (M. Smith et al. Asia’s New Industrial World, 1985, p. 52).

The education system is strictly geared towards the needs of the economy. As a recent study concluded, “the rote learning type of education that Korean children receive is conducive to producing an efficient and well qualified labour force” (B. Bridges. Korea and the West. 1986. p.28). In the “company cities”, which were built to service key industries, the schools and colleges are actually financed and run by the local employers. School leavers in the “motor city” of Ulsan, for example, will have those skills, and only those skills, which are deemed useful to the local car industry. Even this “education” does not come cheap: all schooling above primary school level must be paid for, and 40 per cent of the average family’s income is needed to finance a student up to degree level.

In similar fashion. South Korean culture supports the production of a disciplined labour force. Confucianism, the dominant pre-capitalist ideology, contained a strong work ethic based on a strict duty towards the family. Today’s young Koreans are taught that the state and the company are simply extended parts of that family, and are thus owed the same respect, loyalty and self-sacrifice. Just to make the point, all work stops at five pm each day while workers stand for the national anthem.

In spite of these pressures, however, the very speed of South Korea’s economic development is undermining the hold of traditional ideas, particularly among the young. An example of this is to be found in the university system. In her study of Korean society, Jane McLoughlin notes that more autonomy has had to be granted to colleges and universities in order to turn out “the sort of personnel capable of achieving technological equality with competitors” (Asia’s New Industrial World, p.50). This has fuelled the militancy seen in recent anti-government disturbances. as students use their new-found freedom for purposes not intended by their masters.

On the industrial front, a rising tide of dissatisfaction has expressed itself in the fight against company unions which embody the “one happy family” ethos. At present only one union is allowed in each company, and these must belong to one of sixteen government-controlled national union federations. They are banned from political action and must register any intended strikes. If a strike is deemed illegal, factory owners are empowered to call in the riot police, whose notorious brutality is reflected in their nickname — “Kusaden” or “bully boys”. Notwithstanding legal obstacles, however, workers have fought bitterly to establish their own autonomous unions.

In the course of this struggle, the state has openly supported the employers, dashing the hopes of many Koreans for a new deal following the collapse of the military regime of General Chun in June 1987. In fact, the government which emerged from that upsurge of violent mass protest was still run by the same old gang. President Roh Tae Woo. himself a former military man. retained seven ministers from the previous junta and kept on military personnel who had been implicated in the notorious massacre of unarmed protesters at Gwangju in 1980. As one civil rights activist put it, “for all the talk of democracy, nothing has really changed in this country. Every step to improve workers’ rights is a hard struggle” (Guardian, 23 April). Even if the newly-tolerated political opposition came to power, it would not run the state machine much differently. Although its present leader. Kim Dae Jung, has managed single-handedly to wipe 25 points from the Seoul stock exchange by his advocacy of workers “rights”, he and his followers are in general agreement with “the broad continuation of the present economic system” (Korea and the West. p.15).

There can be no doubt that the militancy of South Korean workers has brought substantial material gains over the past few years. Last Autumn alone they staged 3,800 strikes, most of them illegal, which virtually shut down South Korean industry. This action brought wage increases of 22 per cent, and the threat of similar action this year has forced employers to concede rises of up to 15 per cent (Economist, 23 July). In reality, however, the strike weapon has very serious limitations as an instrument for making permanent gains for South Korean workers. Most importantly, it has not even begun to tackle the endemic poverty of the low wage sectors of the economy, such as the textile and electronics industries in Asia. South Korean business has been forced to restructure towards more capital and technology intensive industries. This has increased the bargaining power of some groups of skilled workers, enabling them to squeeze more from their bosses. The supply of cheap labour for the sweated industries has been maintained, however, by recruiting women into the workforce. They now form 38 per cent of the labour market, and suffer highly discriminatory wage levels — usually half the rates paid to male workers.

The relative poverty suffered by all workers in South Korea, no matter how “well” paid, has had a disturbing impact on the way they view the world. Protests are taking a more stridently nationalist tone, denouncing the regime for being under the control of “foreigners”. Increasing numbers of dissidents have taken to seeing the “communist” North as the more truly “patriotic” of the two Koreas because it is supposedly independent of the world market and has no foreign troops on its soil. This was behind the wave of student-led protest which aimed to get the Olympics co-hosted by the North.

The United States has become the main focus for this opposition, particularly since Congress forced through a package of restrictive measures designed to cut South Korea’s $10bn trade surplus. The fact that the US also maintains 40,000 troops on the border with the North has further enraged many “radicals”, who see American imperialism as the cause of the division of the peninsula and the economic injustice in the South.

This upsurge in vitriolic patriotism can be linked directly to the present state of economic development in South Korea. Traditional values of family solidarity are coming under sustained pressure from several sources linked to the evolution of the economy: the growth of the alienated, consumerist culture needed to market commodities; the needs of the system for the free movement of workers; the increasing use of women workers in labour intensive industries. At the same time, the company is losing its mystical attraction as the focus for workers’ loyalty, as the growing strength and militancy of the Free Trade Union movement shows.

For the South Korean capitalist nationalism is the cement which will hold this imploding structure together. The attempts to present the Olympic Games as a triumph of South Korean solidarity and achievement were not aimed only at foreign tourists and investors. They were also intended to pull workers into line behind the economic and social system of South Korean capitalism—to convince them that further sacrifices would be necessary if “their country” was to survive and prosper in a competitive world.

As this article is written, all the indications are that the shabby appeal to Korean patriotism has been successful in relieving the pressure on employers and the state — nobody wants to rock the boat while the country basks under the lights of the world’s TV cameras. Whether this new found solidarity will outlast the end of the Games is a different question altogether. The antagonism between workers and employers cannot be wished away, and a resurgence in union militancy seems inevitable. When the media circus has left town, and there is no longer the need to show a smiling face to the world, the South Korean state is likely to turn against its subjects with the more brutal and trusted methods it has favoured in the past.

Andrew Thomas

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