The Crisis of the United Progressive Party and the Path ahead for Working-class Political Power

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What is the United Progressive Party?

The United Progressive Party (UPP) is the most recent incarnation of a party formed original to represent the interests of the Korean working class.

From the time it was founded in 1995, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has seen ‘building workers’ political power’ as an important strategy. In line with this strategy, KCTU made an organizational decision to build a workers’ progressive party. In 2001 the Democratic Labor Party (KDLP) was founded with KCTU’s president as the party’s leader. KCTU adopted ‘building political power through the KDLP’ as its official policy.

In the 2007 presidential elections, however, the KDLP candidate received many less votes than had been expected. This led to tensions within the party as the minority left wing of the party criticizing the dominant nationalist tendency (known as National Liberation or ‘NL’) for being undemocratic and too close to North Korea. This conflict led to a split in the party with the left-wing faction leaving to form the New Progressive Party.

The split within the KDLP also led to increased sectarian conflict within KCTU. Ahead of general elections scheduled for April 2012, KCTU tried to over come these problems and bring the two parties back together throughout last year. Members of the two parties along with several progressive and people’s organizations formed the ”Committee for Grand Unity of the Left” through which they discussed the formation of a new party. The dominant part of the NL tendency (known in Korean as danggwonpa) within the KDLP, however, moved in a different direction, trying to join forces with the Participation Party, a party that had been widely criticized as supporting the interests of neoliberal capitalism. As a result of this drive by the danggwonpa, the attempts to bring the KDLP and the New Progressive Party back together failed. Instead the KDLP, the Participation Party and a small group of the New Progressive Party led by a few well-known individuals came together to form the United Progressive Party (UPP).

Evaluation of the UPP

Several forces within the Korean progressive movement opposed joining forces with the Participation Party. They have maintained that given the involvement of neoliberal Participation Party, the UPP cannot be seen as a truly progressive party. In particular, they pointed to the fact that the Participation Party was formed by members of the previous Noh Mu hyun government, which was responsible for severe labor repression, the retrogressive revision of the law on precarious workers and pursuit of the U.S.-Korea FTA.

Nonetheless, the dominant NL group within KCTU attempted to apply its previous policy of full electoral support for the KDLP to the UUP. In response, left-wing forces created the “KCTU Union Members’ Front to Oppose the Policy of Exclusive Support for the UPP and realize true Working-class Politics.” This group called on the KCTU leadership to hold an emergency delegates assembly to discussion the issue. In the end, the KCTU leadership was unable to adopt a policy of exclusive support for the UPP. It did however, force through a policy by which union members were required to vote for the UPP in the election of proportional national assembly representatives in the general election held on April 11.

Meanwhile, the UPP forced an electoral alliance with the Democratic United Party (the centrist opposition party, hereafter ‘DUP’). Through this strategy it won 7 seats in electoral districts and 6 proportional representative seats in the general elections.

Proportional Representative Election Corruption and the Deteriorating Image of the Left

Directly after the general elections, questions about the legitimacy of the UPP elections to select proportional representative candidates surfaced. An internal investigation was carried out, the report of which was released on May 2. The investigation found that grave irregularities and corruption had occurred during the internal elections leading the construction of the list of proportional representative candidates that favored the dangwonpa.

The results of the investigation were immediately picked up and played over and over again in the mainstream leading to widespread criticisms of the UPP and progressives in general among the Korean public. The criticisms of the UPP danggwonpa were particularly strong. Nonetheless, the danggwonpa rejected the findings of the report and expressed its opposition by disrupting a party Central Committee meeting on May 12, chanting and eventually resorting to physical violence.

These incidents were reported by the mainstream media leading to growing criticism of the UPP and the left in general as undemocratic. In other words, the conflict within the UPP has led to severe deterioration of the image of the entire labor and progressive movement. Even worse, the Prosecutors’ Office used the election corruption issue an excuse to raid the UPP’s office and confiscate the party server, an incident which has no precedent in the history of the Korean movement. The UPP crisis has given the government yet another tool through which to repress the left.

Never-ending Turmoil

The UPP tried to overcome the situation by creating an ‘Emergency Committee for Party Renewal’, which adopted the position that all elected proportional representatives should step down. The danggwonpa, however, refused to accept this decision and instead formed its own ‘Danggwonpa Emergency Committee’ to challenge the Renewal Emergency Committee. The danggwwonpa insists that if a more complete investigation of the proportional representative election finds real corruption they will agree to the resignations. In fact, however, it has come to light that the danggwonpa is planning to regain control of the party leadership in the upcoming party elections at the end of June.

Problems in KCTU’s Position

Despite criticism coming both from within KCTU’s membership and from other progressive forces, the KCTU leadership adopted the policy that all members should vote for the UPP in the proportional representative elections and carried out a campaign to win support for the UPP. The KCTU leadership believed that if that opposition forces (the UPP and the DUP) could gain a parliamentary majority the left could win changes favorable to workers through a legislative strategy focused on “the passage of 10 bills in 100 days.” The opposition, however, failed to win a majority. In shock and without a clear idea of how to respond, the KCTU leadership revised its plan and has instead called for a general strike later in the year to demand abolition of mass dismissals and precarious work and the progressive revision of labor law.

The crisis surrounding the UPP – the party the KCTU leadership has supported – has creating serious confusion within KCTU. After much debate the KCTU’s Central Executive Committee issued a statement on May 17 expressing, “deep concern that the UPP has currently strayed from the path of a true progressive party based in the working class and the principles of democracy.” The statement also announced that KCTU had “conditionally withdrawn support for the UPP until the party regains its working-class basis and puts a plan for renewal into practice,” and that KCTU would “establish an internal mechanism for pursuing a second attempt at ‘building workers’ political power’.”

While these measures are a step in the right direction, they do not address the deeper problems of the UPP. In particular, KCTU has put forth no critique of the inclusion of the neoliberal Participation Party in the UPP, nor has it carried out an internal evaluation of its previous policy of exclusive support for the UPP in the proportional representative election. If KCTU does not deal with these more fundamental problems, the second attempt at ‘building workers’ political power’ will most likely lead to failure.


It will be difficult to solve the problems within the UPP in the near future. More important than a resolution to the conflict between the danggwonpa and the rest of the party, however, is the question of what direction the UPP – or any party that is supposed to represent the interests of the working class – will take. While the original KDLP was committed to ‘socialist principles and goals’ its platform was later revised to define the party’s character instead as ‘progressive democratic’. Without a clear statement of the KDLP’s basis in and commitment to the working class the party increasingly moved in a more conservative direction, eventually leading the merger with the Participation Party. Without clear criticism of these errors, it is likely that the current “Renewal Emergency Committee” will only deal with cosmetic problems while continuing to take the party in a more and more conservative direction.

KCTU as well, has moved towards the right, focusing on a legislative strategy dependant on an alliance with the centrist DUP and the mobilization of members to vote in elections. The ideological and practical limitations of this strategy must also be seriously examined.

Now more than ever, it is important for KCTU to adopt a strategy befitting a truly progressive union – one that is based not on legislative or electoral politics, but on developing rank and file members as real political actors through study and struggle and building real political power through working-class unity. ‘Building political power’ must be understood as the process of the working class ideologically and organizationally developing into an independent agent of social change. This understanding must form the basis of any new efforts by the KCTU at party politics or to develop as a political force.

Updates (June 2012)

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Ssangyong Workers’ Struggle Continues

On April 6, Ssangyong Motor workers set up an alter in front of Seoul City Hall as a site of commemoration for the 22 workers and family members that have died since mass dismissals were carried out in 2009. The alter has also become a site of continued struggle. The Ssangyong workers and their supporters have defended the alter against police attacks, even rebuilding it from scratch after police destroyed it on May 24. On May 19 the Ssangyong Motor workers were joined by thousands of allies in a mass protest and march in timing with the anniversary of the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. In addition, a representative from the Ssangyong Motor branch of the Korean Metal Workers Union participated in the International Autoworkers Council Meeting in Germany in May to share news of their struggle. Another massive march and all-night protest were held in support of the Ssangyong workers’ struggle on June 16-17.

Janitorial Workers win Wage Increase, Continue Struggle

On April 19 janitorial and security workers organized by the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union’s Seoul-Gyeonggi Branch won a collective bargaining agreement that covers workers at 6 worksites. Under this agreement workers will receive a 10.87% wage increase of KRW 5100/hr (USD 4.37/hr), a KRW 60,000/mth (USD 51.46/mth) allowance for meals and KRW 150,000 (USD128.66) in holiday bonuses. Workers a Hongik University continue to fight with the support of their colleagues, however, as the Hongik administration and cleaning companies refuse to recognize the KPTU affiliate claiming that a yellow union they helped to form is the real bargaining representative. On June 15, workers from all worksites held a joint “Janitorial Workers March” calling for an end to the repression at Hongik University and decent conditions for all janitorial and security workers. The American SEIU-Service Workers West Local sent a solidarity video played at the Korean workers’ rally. SEIU janitorial workers also march on June 15 ever year to mark the anniversary of a famous struggle in their Justice for Janitors Campaign.

Railway Workers to walk out against Government Plan to Privatize bullet-train Services

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – 1 Comment

The Korean government is pushing ahead with the privatization of the country’s high-speed KTX trains. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs proposed the privatization plan in December 2011. The plan includes allowing a private company to operate two new bullet-train lines, one that connects Suseo in southern Seoul to Busan, and one that connects Suseo to Mokpo, South Jeolla Province. These lines are currently under construction and are scheduled to be complete in 2015.

The government has denied that its policy is real a privatization policy and argues instead that the plan is aimed at bringing competition into the railway sector, which has been monopolized by the state-run railroad operator Korail. It insists that if a private enterprise enters the railroad sector, it will boost the efficiency of railway operation and consequently reduce fares, thus improving the financial soundness of the debt-ridden Korail.

In reality, however, this is just another example of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “business-friendly” policies, which are designed to provide favors to large corporate groups. Under the proposed plan, the selected private company will be guaranteed a permit to operate a part of the KTX operations for 15 years even though the KTX is the only profit-making business of the deficit-ridden Korail. As such, the new policy would undermine the train’s public purpose and raise train fares. The plan will inevitably result in privatization of the entire system, which will cause poor maintenance and jeopardize passenger safety as private operators will make brining in profits their priority.

The Lee administration originally proposed a policy of full privatization of the railway sector through the establishment of a private holding company. It scrapped this plan, however, after facing severe opposition. Since then, the government has continued to outsource various operations and take steps in the direction of privatization. The government’s plan is a roundabout way to privatize an essential public service and is in line with other pro-business plans to privatize airports and allow for-profit hospitals.

The members of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union endorsed an anti-privatization strike with an approval rate of 86 percent in April. The union has said the timing for the actual strike will depend on the progress of the government’s plan. The government said that unionized rail workers’ recent decision to walk out to resist the proposed partial privatization of KTX bullet-train operations is clearly illegal and should be scrapped. This is an issue that requires continued attention in the future.

The South Korean Minimum Wage Struggle

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – 1 Comment

Minimum wage in South Korea was set at KRW 4580/hr (roughly USD 4/hr) for 2012. The cost of a Big Mac set at a McDonalds in South Korea is KRW 5200 (USD 4.46). In other words, in a country where the per capita income is over USD 20,000, a minimum wage worker cannot even buy a fast food meal after an hour of work.

In South Korea, the minimum wage is set by a tripartite Minimum Wage Committee made up of nine labor representatives, nine employer representatives and nine ‘public interest’ representatives. This committee meets at the end of June each year to set the minimum wage for the following year. Around this time each year, therefore, unions and social movement organizations carry out a struggle to demand an increase in the minimum wage.

The current minimum wage is only 32% of the average wage. It is workers who work the hardest in the worst conditions – janitorial workers, security guards, restaurant workers and workers in small-scale manufacturing enterprises – who have to get by on minimum wage. For 2013, KCTU is demanding that minimum wage be raised to KRW 5600 (USD 4.80) – 50% of the average wage.

This year, however, the minimum wage struggle has to do with more than simply winning an increase. The reason for this is that the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoL) suddenly changed the composition of the Minimum Wage Committee without notifying the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) ahead of time. Originally, labor was represented by 4 KCTU representatives and 5 FKTU representatives.

This year, however, the MoL suddenly gave a seat to the recently formed Korean People’s Labor Union Confederation (KLUC). The KLUC is so pro-government it has been called the ‘Lee Myung-bak Confederation’, and progressives fear its representative will not act in the interest of workers. In the past, the labor and employers representatives on the committee have put forth opposing proposals, while the ‘public interest’ representatives put forth a compromise position. Added to this structure, the KLUC representative is likely to wield excessive power. As such both KCTU and FKTU are currently boycotting the committee in protest.

KCTU is also working together with social movement organizations in a campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of raising the minimum wage. This campaign includes one-person protests, street outreach and street marches throughout the country. Through these actions, KCTU and participating organizations seek to educate the public about the hardships faced by minimum-wage workers.

So far the response has been vary positive, an encouraging sign given that social pressure on the ‘public interest’ representatives to take the side of labor is the only real way to influence the Minimum Wage Committee’s decision.

The minimum wage struggle, however, still has a long way to go before it gains real strength. First, it is important to come up with a means for deciding the minimum wage based on the cost of living. In addition, it is important not only to raise social awareness of the importance of a minimum wage increase, but also to organizing minimum-wage workers into unions so that they may become agents of the struggle. This is the only way that real power to win a fair minimum wage will be developed.

Korean Cargo Truckers, Construction Equipment Operators Prepare for Joint Struggle

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On May 29, 2000 cargo truck drivers and construction equipment operators gathered in protest near the National Assembly building in the Yeouido District of Seoul. These workers, officers of the Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union (KPTU), Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division and the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU) voiced their demands for fundamental changes in their working conditions and declared their determination to fight together until their demands are met. The KPTU cargo truckers and KCWU equipment operators have put forth the following demands: 1) repeal of the tax on gas and decrease of diesel gas prices, 2) increase transport and construction equipment rental rates (i.e. workers’ wages), 3) guarantee of unionization rights, 3) full access to industrial accident insurance and other social benefits.

South Korean cargo truckers and construction equipment operators are brought together by their similar employment form. Both groups of workers are considered ‘self-employed’ or ‘independent operators’ under Korean law. In addition, both groups work at the bottom of multi-layer subcontracting systems. Together, these conditions mean super-exploitation and the denial of basic labor rights.

Technically, cargo truckers and construction equipment operators own the vehicles they drive, which they pay for in installments that come out of their earnings every month. The commercial licenses for these vehicles, however, are held by trucking/construction equipment rental companies, which claim a part of the drivers’ earnings. These small-scale companies, in turn contract with larger transport and construction companies, who in turn contract with still larger companies who make the initial orders for shipment and construction work.

At the top of this system, the manufacturing, logistics and construction subsidiaries of Korea’s massive chaebols (conglomerates) make huge profits, while at the bottom truck drivers and equipment operators receive a pittance. For construction equipment operators, the widespread practice of delayed payments only adds to the burden.

As ‘independent operators’ cargo truckers and construction equipment operators must cover all the costs of gas and repairs. Over the last two years, gas prices have risen 20%, while transport rates for cargo truck drivers have fallen by 2%. Gas prices have soared, not only due to the increase in global oil prices, but also because chaebol oil subsidiaries keep prices high seeking to make a profit, while the South Korean government adds excessive taxes.

In addition, because they are not recognized as workers, cargo truckers and construction equipment operators access to industrial accident insurance and other social benefits is extreme limited. Worse still, they are not afforded the right to unionize under Korean law. This effectively means they are denied the right to collective organizing to fight for improvements in their working conditions.

Clearly, however, these workers have not allowed the denial of their rights in law stop them from proclaiming them in fact and uniting in struggle. Challenging the government’s unjust prohibitions, they have formed their own unions and now determine to demonstrate their collective power. The Korean Construction Workers Union has announced an indefinite general strike to begin on June 27. For their part, the KPTU-Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division has announced they will launch massive protests without forewarning at a similar time. As the two union’s proclaimed at a press conference last month, when this happens, “the flow of goods and construction sites in the Republic of Korea will come to a standstill” and “crises in the logistics and construction sectors will occur.”

The struggle of cargo truck drivers and construction equipment operators is more than a struggle about their own interests. Rather, they are fighting against massive chaebol’s bent on making profits of the backs of workers at every turn, and a government bent on labor repression. As such, their struggle is the struggle of all Korean workers, and of workers everywhere struggling against transnational corporations and the governments’ that support them.

March for the Beloved: A representative song of the democratization movement in South Korea

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RIAWM International Department

There were a man and a woman. Alive during the dictatorial regime of the 1970s, both secretly dreamt of another world. The two met at an evening school, where they educated workers as voluntary teachers in Gwangju, a southwestern South Korean city. While working hard to educate workers, the woman died in an accident. It was 1978. The woman, Kisoon Park, was 21.

After dictator Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979, and another dictator, Chun Do Hwan grabbed power through a coup d’état. Martial law was imposed nationwide. Students in Gwangju protested the repression of their democratic rights. The military suppressed them violently. In reaction average citizens rose up. They were met with horrible violence, beaten and shot to death. Civilians bore arms and occupied the city hall. The man joined them and was shot dead there. He had been the spokesman and one of the leaders of the civil troops. It was 1980. The man, Sangwon Yun, was 30.

In 1982, there a wedding was held at a graveyard. The man and the woman were spiritually bound together as bride and groom. A song entitled, "March for the Beloved", was written and dedicated to them. After, it spread secretly among students, workers, and ordinary citizen.

March for the Beloved

Our love, our honor, our name, not leaving anything behind

Our solemn vow to march together throughout our lives

Though the comrade is gone, the flag still flutters

Let us not waver until a new day is here

Time passes by but the mountains and streams remember

The ardent cry of the awaken ones

Survivors, follow as I march ahead

Survivors, follow as I march ahead

With the march of the democratization movement in South Korea, this song has come to be sung at the opening of every rally. Once in 2010, when the Lee Myung bak administration refused to play "March of the Beloved" in the annual ceremony commemorating the Gwangju Democratization Movement, twitter users voluntarily organized a campaign to sing along it. The song has come to represent social movements in South Korea. "March of the Beloved" also has impressed many activists around the world. The song has been adapted and sung in many countries including Hong Kong, Thai, Myanmar, and China.

*March for the Beloved

* Twitter users singing along the song (sound only)

* Migrant workers’ band playing the adapted song in China

The Fallacies of Nuclear Security and the need for an Anti-nuclear Movement: A Critique of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

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RIAWM International Department

On March 25, thousands of Korean anti-war activists, union members and ordinary citizens gathered Seoul Plaza for a series of massive people's rallies. The protesters gave voice to many demands related to the livelihood and safety of ordinary Korean people: repeal of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the cessation of the construction of the Jeju naval base, the guarantee of workers' rights to a living wage and job security.

The first part of day was devoted to one issue in particular: The Second Nuclear Security Summit, held in Seoul from March 26 to 27. Protesters shouted "No to the Nuclear Security Summit," and called for promises of "Not 'nuclear security', but a nuclear-free world."

Many people are not familiar with the Nuclear Security Summit. Most Koreans had not even heard about it until the Lee Myung-bak administration began advertising it as the 'largest international meeting ever to be held in South Korea" a few months ago. Even after the billboards and television adds appeared, few have a clear sense of what the summit is about, given that that the government has done little to explain its details. The rally on March 25 provide anti-war and anti-nuclear activists a chance to spread awareness about the true character of the summit as a means for the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states to defend their nuclear hegemony and for the South Korean government to promote the development of its nuclear industry and export of nuclear power plants.

What is the Nuclear Security Summit?

The Nuclear Security Summit is a meeting of the heads of states and representatives of international organizations (the UN, the IAEA, the EU) to discuss the prevention of nuclear terrorism and the securing of nuclear materials and facilities. U.S. President Barak Obama first proposed the summit a speech in Prague in April 2009. In the same speech, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons, while paradoxically also promising that the U.S. "will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies," as long as nuclear weapons exist. The first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington D.C. in 2010, and the second in Seoul last month.

The ideas of 'nuclear security' and a summit of world leaders to discuss it sound good. In fact, however, the term and the meeting are part of the United States' efforts to maintain its nuclear weapons dominance, while also appearing to take steps towards a nuclear-free world. The premise of nuclear security is that the greatest nuclear threat comes not from nuclear weapons themselves, but from the possibility that nuclear materials, the main ingredients for nuclear weapons, will fall into the hands of terrorists or other 'irrational' non-state actors. While the Nuclear Security Summit discusses cooperation for securing such nuclear materials, it does not address the fact that over 20,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy humanity several times over, already exist in the possession of governments who have not ruled out their use.

Nuclear Non-proliferation and Nuclear Weapons Hegemony

'Nuclear security' is a fairly new word in U.S. foreign policy vocabulary. Until recently, the focus has been on 'nuclear non-proliferation'. The concept of 'nuclear non-proliferation', enshrined in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) [1970], is that states without nuclear weapons will be blocked from obtaining them while nuclear weapons possessing states will take steps towards nuclear arms reduction and eventual elimination. In fact, however, the U.S., along with the other acknowledged nuclear weapons states under the NPT (Russia, the U.K., France and China) have used the NPT and the concept of non-proliferation to pressure and control non-nuclear states, while refusing to give up their nuclear arsenals.

Recently, the Obama administration has made small steps towards nuclear arms reductions. These including the signing of a deal to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads with Russia (the New Start Treaty) in 2010, and consideration of further reductions currently underway. In fact, however, the U.S. is currently spending hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize nuclear weapons production facilities and develop new nuclear weapons that are more precise, less powerful and, therefore, more useable. The U.S., moreover, has repeatedly stated it considers a preemptive nuclear strike against its enemies an open possibility.

Far from preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the drive of the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states to maintain their nuclear hegemony has provoked other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons programs. Of particular importance in Asia, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003, citing the United States' failure to fulfill its promise to provide fuel and light water reactors to replace its existing nuclear program. It has since carried out two nuclear tests.

Nuclear Security, PSI and the Escalation of Nuclear Tensions

In the face of growing critique of the contradictory nature of the NPT system and its inability to stop proliferation, the U.S. has recently begun to stress nuclear terrorism as the main nuclear threat. It proposes international cooperation towards 'nuclear security' as the best response. Like non-proliferation, however, nuclear security measures leave the United States and other nuclear weapons states' arsenals intact while further provoking countries deemed 'capable' of leaking nuclear materials to terrorists. Given that North Korea is high on the list, this policy contributes to heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula and, by extension in the East Asian region.

A representative example of international nuclear security cooperation is the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). PSI calls on participating states to stop and inspect aircrafts or ships 'suspected' of transporting nuclear materials or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and authorizes the use of military force in the process.

PSI specifically targets North Korean vessels. It has thus been taken by North Korea as an act of aggression, even more so since South Korea became a full PSI member under the present administration. Many scholars have also criticized PSI as a violation of international law because no international treaty regulates it and because it goes against the internationally guaranteed right of free passage across open seas.

In 2004, the U.S. sought to provide PSI with at a degree of legal backing through the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1540. Resolution 1540 requires UN member states to take and enforce effective measures against the spread of WMD, their means of delivery and related materials.

Resolution 1540 has been a subject of both Nuclear Security Summits. A working paper submitted to the first summit called for its full implementation. During the second summit, France announced plans to host an international conference on implementation by the end of the year. Given the resolution's implications, these discussions can only be taken as acts of provocation by North Korea.

Safe Nuclear Power... Really?

In addition to talk of 'nuclear security', the Lee Myung-bak administration had another very specific goal for the Nuclear Security Summit: promotion of the South Korean nuclear power industry in line with its plans for nuclear power plant export. As a side event to the Nuclear Security Summit, the Lee administration held a 'Nuclear Industry Summit' on March 23. At this meeting, 200 industry leaders came together to discuss "safety measures" for nuclear power plants.

It has only been a year since a nuclear disaster the size of Chernobyl struck Fukushima, Japan, devastated the surrounding community and releasing radioactive materials that will effect residents and the environment for years to come. Just last month a dangerous blackout occurred at a nuclear power plant at the southern end of the Korean peninsula leading to an attempted cover up by South Korean authorities. Despite the very obvious continued dangers, the Lee administration's publicity materials for the summit blatantly referred to it as "a chance to rebuild trust in the atomic energy industry, which has diminished in the wake of Fukushima." The day after the Nuclear Industry Summit, participants were taken on a tour of Korean nuclear power facilities, a blatant sales pitch on the part of the government.

The Real Solution: A Movement for a Nuclear Free World

There is no such thing as safe nuclear power or secure nuclear materials or weapons. As long as nuclear power is generated, as long as nuclear weapons exist, we face a grave nuclear threat. In addition, the more the U.S. persists in its policy of preemptive nuclear strike and threatens North Korea with 'security' measures like PSI, the more likely it is that the Korean peninsula will become a staging ground for nuclear war. The real task before us, then, is not the prevention of nuclear terrorism, but the elimination of the more fundamental threat: nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and policies that stimulate their development. That the U.S. and South Korea have held Nuclear Security Summits while refuses to acknowledge these realities is not only contradictory, it is highly perilous.

The rally on March 25 offered an opportunity to raise these issue before the Korean public and criticize the hypocritical and dangerous nature of the Nuclear Security Summit. It is now up to Korean anti-war activists to organize a more sustained grassroots ant-nuclear movement in Korea and connected it other similar movements around the world.

Janitorial and Security Workers Fight On

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RIAWM International Department

There are over 400,000 janitorial workers in South Korea. Of these, only 7,853, roughly 2%, were members of labor unions as of 2011. Only 2% of some 400,000 janitorial workers in Korea are organized. Despite this low figure, Korean janitorial worker' struggle has received considerable attention for many reasons. In particular, Korean janitors have refused to be satisfied with South Korea's miserable minimum wage. They have fought for and won a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees them wages above the legal standard. In addition, Korean janitors have built solidarity across workplaces and succeeded in carried out joint collective bargaining.

Last year, janitorial and security workers organized by the KCTU-affiliated Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union (KPTU) at 3 universities (Korea University, Yonsei University and Ehwa University) and one hospital (Korean University Hospital), made the first attempt at a multiple worksite struggle and joint collective bargaining. The general strike of these workers - the majority elderly women - carried out on March 8, International Women's Day, made a lasting impression on the Korean labor movement. Through their struggle, these workers won a collective agreement guaranteeing them an hourly wage of 4,600 won (roughly $4), 240 won above the current legal minimum. The effects of that victory were felt throughout Korean society. Notably, 4,600 won served as a standard for the tri-partied minimum wage committee in its deliberations on a new standard for 2012.

Janitorial and security workers

This year the janitorial and security workers have expanded their struggle. Workers at Hongik University and Kyung Hee University have joined the four other worksites to fight for a joint collective agreement. The workers began by demanding an increase to 5,410 won half the average for all workers. As of now, they have reached a preliminary agreement for 5,100 won.

Unfortunately, this year the janitorial and security workers face new challenges. This is because of a revision to the Korean labor law that went into effect on July 1, 2011, which allows more than one union to be formed at a workplace, but require that their be only one bargaining representative. After the law was passed, yellow unions were formed and the school administrations and subcontracted cleaning companies have used them as an excuse to refuse to bargain with the democratic unions.

The yellow union at Hongik University is becoming a major obstacle to the workers' goals. The yellow union has agreed to a low wage with the employer and is trying to convince the KCTU-KPTU union members to agree to accept the same standard. The employer is using this as an excuse to refuse negotiations with the democratic union.

Workers at all worksites have agreed that they will not leave their comrades at Hongik University behind. They began the fight together and will end it together and so are confronting the Hongik yellow union and will not sign a collective bargaining agreement unless it includes the Hongik democratic union members.

Throughout history, Korean labor law has been used to repress workers. And throughout history, Korean workers have fought back in the fact of that repression. The story of the janitorial and security workers is one and the same.

Ssangyong Motor Workers Continue their Struggle for Reinstatement

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RIAWM International Department

After more than 1000 days of struggle, workers dismissed from Ssangyong Motor's Pyeongtaek factory in 2009 have yet to be granted negotiations with the company's Indian management. Workers were dismissed in the process of structural adjustment in preparation for Ssangyong Motor's sale to the Indian conglomerate Mahindra Group. At that time, dismissed workers were joined by their still-employed colleagues in a 77-day strike and factory occupation under the slogan, "We will live and survive together."

Ssangyong Motor workers

The Korean government responded to the 2009 struggle with brutal and bloody suppression. It mobilized armed special police forces and helicopters, which rained pepper spray on the desperately struggling workers.

The struggle ended with the company agreeing to reinstate the dismissed workers after a year of unpaid leave. Yet neither the government nor the company has shown any accountability in the aftermath. Not even a small part of the agreement reached between the workers and management has been implemented. In the meantime, 22 workers and their family members have committed suicide due to deep sorrow and desperation.

Continuing the struggle, the Korean Metal Workers Union Ssangyong Motor Branch and many social movement organizations including PSSP have pitched 'Hope Tents' in front of the Ssangyong Motor factory in Pyeongtaek since December 2011. They organized national demonstrations called 'Day of Siege against Ssangyong Motor' three times in December, January and February. Thousands of people participated. On April 21, they will hold the 4th 'Day of siege'.

The Ssangyong Motor struggle epitomizes key issues faced by Korean workers, including mass layoffs, state violence and speculative foreign capital. We must build broader and firmer solidarity and strengthen our struggle if we are to win reinstatement of the dismissed workers, prevent further deaths and confront the wider social problems that Ssangyong Motor represents.

The South Korean Governments' "Program to Alleviate the Hardships of Undocumented Overseas Koreans" and South Korea's Racial Hierarchy: It's time to start breaking it down

Posted in articles, statements on March 25th, 2011 by pssp – Be the first to comment

25 March 2011

On 3 January 2011, the South Korean Immigration Service, an agency of the Ministry of Justice, began an unprecedented program for the 'alleviation of hardships' for undocumented overseas Koreans residing in South Korea. Under this program, which will go on until the end of June, a large portion of the undocumented overseas Koreans ineligible for F-4 (overseas Korean visa) visas now living in South Korea, the vast majority of whom are Chinese Korean, are allowed to apply for and receive a D-4 visa (general trainee visa). After completing a 9-month occupational skills training program conducted by the Overseas Korean Technical Training Foundation, these individuals will be permitted to change their visa status to H-2 (working visa) and thus be allowed to work legally in one of the 36 industries now open to overseas Koreans under the South Korea's Guest Work System for a period of 4 years and 10 months. The primary targets of this program are Chinese and other overseas Koreans who have resided in South Korea for over 10 years along with their spouses and direct decedents. In addition, undocumented overseas Koreans who have spouses who have obtained citizenship or permanent residency, those who require treatment for the aftereffects of industrial accidents, those who are married to Korean citizens and those who have become undocumented after entering Korea on H-2 visas are also eligible. Overseas Koreans who were born before 1 October 1949 will not have to participate in the training program and will be granted F-4 visas, giving them a status near permanent residence that is now granted to overseas Koreans from Japan and the United States under the Law on Overseas Koreans. In reality, the vast majority of those who will benefit from this program fall in the first category. The Ministry of Justice has estimated that the program applies to roughly 6,000 Chinese and other overseas Koreans. Migrant-related NGOs, on the other hand, say the number could be as high as 20,000.

Reaction to this program has been mixed. Understandably, the Chinese Korean community and some of the NGOs serving it have welcomed the measure. Other forces in the migrant workers movement, however, have been highly critically. These groups (which include the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK) and the Alliance for Migrants Equality and Human Rights) have called the program racially discriminatory because it is not open to migrants of not of Korean decent. JCMK collecting over 500 petitions from non-Korean migrant workers, both those who have resided in South Korea for over 10 years and those who have not, and submitted them to the National Human Rights Commission on March 21, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On the same day JCMK and the Alliance for Migrant's Equality and Human Rights held a press conference in front of the Human Rights Commission to call attention to the discriminatory nature of the program and racism in South Korean society, and demand legalization for all migrant workers. The press conference statement presented this day, which was written by JCMK, also criticized the legalization program for effectively concealing the fact that while the National Assembly approved the application of the Law on Overseas Koreans to Koreans from China and countries in the former Soviet Bloc in 2004, this measure has not been implemented. It called on the government to replace the 'deceitful' legalization program with guarantee of freedom of travel, employment and residence in accordance with the Law on Overseas Koreans for these overseas Koreans.

That migrant rights groups used March 21 to call attention to the discriminatory nature of the legalization program is commendable. If the South Korean movement is gong to take on racism as a serious issue, however, we need a more nuanced understanding of the implications of the legalization program and how it fits into the government's overall policy towards overseas Koreans and other migrant workers in South Korea. The passing of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination seems like a good occasion to start building this analysis.

Let's begin by looking at the interests and intentions behind the Program to Alleviate the Hardships of Overseas Koreans. The Ministry of Justice says the program is being implemented out of humanitarian consideration for the difficulties faced by (non-F-4) overseas Koreans due to their lowly economic and social position. We can guess with fair certainty that this is not the whole story. On the one hand, the program is a response to lobbying efforts by the NGOs serving Chinese Koreans. While it does not go far enough to meet their ultimate demand - the application of the Law on Overseas Koreans - the program is likely to placate them to a certain degree. In addition, the program is a means to address labor shortages in particular industries shunned by native workers with a cheap labor force that is more highly trained and socially assimilated than temporary non-Korean migrants who enter Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS). Through the required training program and the granting of work permits, the government will be able to channel undocumented overseas Koreans, who may now be employed in any number of occupations, into specific industries where the need for labor is high while keeping them out of industries were native workers are facing high unemployment rates, most notably construction.

The Guest Work System, a program exclusively open to overseas Koreans, was first introduced in 2007. It allows for a 4 year 10 month period of residence. For the first group of workers who entered South Korea through this system, this residence period will be up in 2012. Since it is likely that many of these workers will remain in South Korea in an undocumented status, the government faces a potential social crisis next year. We can guess, therefore, that the current legalization program is also a means to test out the effectiveness of extending expired H-2 visas as a method for averting a rapid rise in the undocumented population.

The 'hardship alleviation' program comes in the wake of an announcement by the Ministry of Employment and Labor of an increase in the quota for new E-9 (EPS) visas in consideration of the vast numbers of undocumented migrant workers that have been deported and improvement in the economy. The quota has been increased by 14,000 over last year to a total of 48,000 for 2011 with the possibility of further increases later in the year. At the same time the Ministry has announced its plan to maintain the target number of H-2 visa holders in South Korea at the same level as last year (303,000), meaning that few new over Korean migrants will be permitted to enter South Korea under the Guest Work System this year. Given the implementation of the legalization program, it appears most new H-2 visas will go to long-term residents, not new arrivals. Clearly, the government envisions different roles for overseas Korean migrants and migrants of non-Korean decent. The latter are to be the most short-term, most expendable workers, with the more seasoned EPS workers pushed out at the same time as a never-ending supply of new recruits is brought in. The former, on the other hand, will be a well-trained, more assimilated and more stable, but still cheap, labor force.

The 'hardship alleviation' represents clear partiality towards 'fellow countrymen'. It, along with the recent granting of voting rights to overseas nationals and the introduction of a written pledge of allegiance to South Korea's liberal democratic system in naturalization procedures, is part of a trend towards strengthened nationalism in South Korean policymaking. Nationalist favoritism towards overseas Koreans, however, has a strong utilitarian element and is applied differentially based on wealth. The legalization program currently under way still falls short of granting F-4 visas to the majority of Chinese Koreans. The ultimate result of the benefits it grants will be to further solidify Chinese Koreans' position as second-class citizens who exist somewhere between migrant workers of non-Korean decent and Korean citizens (and overseas Koreans from developed nations) in the social hierarchy. This positioning is accompanied by an ambiguous racialization: Although Chinese Koreans are referred to as 'countrymen' [dongpo] in policy discourse and the media, overseas Koreans from China and the former Soviet bloc are still maintained as a temporary workforce tied to particular industries and are, as such, a target of government management and regulation. These overseas Koreans are still 'others' who have to register as aliens, while Japanese and American Koreans are allowed to simply notify the government of their residence in South Korea. In the workplace and in daily life as well, Chinese Koreans are treated as 'other's, lumped together with other 'Asian' migrants. (In South Korean racial discourse, native Koreans are generally excluded from the category 'Asian', which is used to refer to people from South and Central Asian countries.)

The government's utilitarian nationalism and discriminatory policies are contributing to the institutionalization of a racialized hierarchy in South Korean society where Korean citizens are at the top, Chinese Koreans in the middle and migrants of non-Korean descent from 'Asian' countries at the bottom. This hierarchy is part of a system of social control that operates through a mixture of appeasement and oppression. It also deepens divisions among the working class that keep workers from coming together to demand their rights. Chinese Koreans are being placated and incorporated as countrymen, or at least good 'migrants' who are deserving of humanitarian relief yet who will always be second-class citizens and the objects of regulation. Non-Korean migrants, on the other hand, remain outsiders and the most expendable form of labor, controlled under the EPS system or demonized as 'illegal' and 'criminal'. Meanwhile, native Korean workers are encouraged to see social belonging, political rights and employment as their unique birthrights and blame migrants, including and sometimes especially Chinese Koreans, for taking their jobs or creating downward pressure on working conditions. Being positioned at different places in this racial hierarchy makes it different for workers of different backgrounds to see their collective interests in fighting labor exploitation and the racism that facilitates it.

The 'hardship alleviation' program will be beneficial to some Chinese Koreans in the immediate. In the end, however, the racialize hierarchy it is helping to institutionalize is good neither for Chinese Korean workers nor for non-Korean migrant workers nor for native Korean workers. Accordingly, breaking this hierarchy down must be a goal and a struggle shared by all workers, regardless of their nationality and their position within it. The labor movement needs to be an anti-racist labor movement, one that finds ways to empower racialized groups that are systematically disempowered in South Korean society and the labor movement itself, at the same time as it strives to build unity between migrant and native workers. The migrant rights movement needs an analysis of racial capitalist and the place of different groups of migrants within it.

Together, we need to formulate demands that disrupt this racial hierarchy rather than perpetuating it. In this respect, the demand for application of the Law on Overseas Koreans to Chinese and Koreans from Soviet bloc countries is not helpful. While respecting the fact that these overseas Koreans are discriminated against with respect to Korean Japanese and Korean Americans, we must replace it with a call for pathways to long-term residence and political participation that applies equally to all migrants. The migrant rights and labor movements must join forces to develop concrete strategies for organizing Chinese Koreans, non-Korean migrants and native Koreans together to demand full legalization, equal labor rights, and ultimately equal citizenship rights for all.