South Korea: one year into Yoon Suk-yeol regime, class conflict heats up

10 May marked a full year since the conservative right returned to power in South Korea under President Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party. This period has been marked by fierce attacks by the government on the working class, with a corresponding rise of class militancy. As the capitalist crisis deepens, the South Korean class struggle will reach new heights.

Oppression of workers and unions

At the time of Yoon’s election, we at In Defence of Marxism offered the following perspective:

“There is no doubt that his administration will be a zealous enforcer of the will of the Chaebols [big corporations]. Through him, the South Korean ruling class is getting ready to launch a fierce assault on the labour movement and the oppressed.”

This perspective has not only come true but has accelerated in the past few months. With a phoney excuse of “remedying income inequality in the labour market”, the Yoon administration is wasting no time in trying to roll back the meagre reforms passed by the previous Democratic Moon Jae-in government, including the Serious Accident Punishment Act and 52-hour workweek. 

In their place, Yoon has previously sought to put in counter-reforms that would allow the working week to be increased to 69 hours. This attempt was finally rolled back after intense protests from trade unions and the youth. But, according to Asian Labor Review, the current 52-hour maximum work week remains under scrutiny, and the Yoon administration still plans on eventually introducing a flexible hour system that could increase working hours up to 80 hours per week. Before his election, Yoon bandied around the idea of instituting a 120-hour work week!

The Yoon administration has also set its sights on the trade unions themselves. In this regard, no parliamentary niceties were necessary. On 18 January, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) raided the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), considered the most militant trade union confederation in the country. The raid was done under the pretext that one KCTU union official is suspected of being in contact with North Korea, which violates South Korea’s National Security Act. 

President Image Republic of Korea FlickrThe Yoon administration is wasting no time in trying to roll back the meagre reforms passed by the previous Democratic Moon Jae-in government / Image: Republic of Korea, Flickr

According to Labor Notes, 1,000 riot police and firefighters surrounded the union building during the raid. Later in May, four KCTU officials were charged by the Suwon District Court of being members of an underground organisation controlled by North Korea, while the NIS announced the investigation against the KCTU will continue, and that they “expect to find more members of this underground organisation.”

The National Security Act has been the South Korean state’s favourite hobby horse for cracking down on dissent, and was especially popular with military dictators of the past. The legislation still exists as a reserve weapon of the state to suppress any activity deemed out of bounds within South Korea’s bourgeois ‘democracy’. In 2013, the law was used by South Korea's Constitutional Court to force the disbanding of the Unified Progressive Party, a left-wing party that at one point served as the KCTU’s political wing.

Aside from baseless accusations of ties to North Korea, many union activists are placed under police investigation for “resorting to illegal and violent methods of struggle.” The Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCWU), a KCTU affiliate, has endured 13 search-and-seizure operations since the end of last year, with 950 persons investigated and 15 detained. This slanderous campaign, waged by the state, pressured one Gangwon Province KCWU official, Yang Hoe-dong, who was being charged with “business obstruction and racketeering”, to set himself ablaze in protest. 

The state is also hitting the trade unions’ finances. Both the KCTU and the traditionally conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) have been declared ineligible for receiving the state subsidies that they have been given in the past. The state is also threatening many unions with fines for not complying with a new rule that requires unions to submit their accounting books to the state.

That Yoon and his People’s Power Party government would initiate such a vicious attack against the working class is largely expected. They represent the conservative bloc that is deeply tied to the powerful Chaebol interests. On the other side, the liberal Democratic Party of Korea has remained completely silent on these raids. Both major political parties in South Korea once again reveal their fundamentally identical class nature. They are parties of the bourgeoisie that stand opposed to the interests of the working class. However, the workers are not taking this slew of assaults from Yoon lying down.

The workers fight back

In response to the state’s attacks, the KCTU and many of its constituent unions are building for a general strike in July, to take the fight to the Yoon government.

The KCTU mobilised over 40,000 workers to Seoul for a rally on May Day, during which they declared that a general strike will be organised to bring down Yoon.

The KCTU leadership has promised that, aside from its own constituent unions, it will build for a “broad alliance” for the general strike. With around 1.28 million members, the KCTU is the biggest trade union federation in South Korea. Though formidable, it is usually offset by the more conservative FKTU, which numbers at 1.23 million. 

However, the traditionally compliant FKTU is now also under attack by the state. The pressure of the capitalist crisis is leading the Yoon regime to undermine one of its most important levers in the class struggle in the form of the FKTU bureaucrats, by forcing them (reluctantly) to take a more militant line. Together with KCTU, the two largest unions in the country are now demanding a 25 percent increase in the minimum wage next year.

On May Day, the FKTU also held the first workers’ convention in seven years, during which representatives from many industries, such as bank workers and food industry workers, spoke about many struggles waged against the bosses' assault on conditions. 

May Day demo Image KCTU FacebookThe KCTU mobilised over 40,000 workers to Seoul for a rally on May Day / Image: KCTU, Facebook

The last time such a convention was held it was also when the FKTU came under severe attack from the previous conservative government of Park Geun-hye. The convocation of such a meeting signals that there is significant ferment amongst the ranks of the unions to respond to Yoon’s attacks.

Although South Korea’s overall unionisation rate remains low at 14.2 percent, it has steadily increased in the past years. As of 2021, the total number of union members was 2.93 million, an increase of 128,000 over the previous year. This is part of a general process that we have observed throughout the world, as workers begin to turn towards mass organisations to defend themselves against attacks on their living standards and conditions. 

Some new and important sectors of the working class are rapidly organising. The membership rate of IT company unions is also increasing. The union representing workers at Kakao, the company behind one of South Korea’s most popular super apps, which had 100 members in 2018, now has 4,000 members across all Kakao affiliates. NAVER, another major internet company, has seen its union grow to about 40 percent of its members at the headquarters in January 2023, and now it has 3,500 members across all affiliates. Nexon has 35 percent of its employees unionised. The conglomerate's subsidiaries, N-Tech Services (NAVER) and Kakao Mobility, have already become their own majority unions.

The ferment from below is clearly growing. This, coupled with the state’s attack on union organisations, is forcing even the usually servile union leadership to stand up and wage a fightback.

An important opportunity for a united front therefore presents itself. The FKTU, though totally bureaucratised and held back by its existing yellow leadership, is feeling the pressure from below. On the other hand, while the KCTU remains the largest and most militant union federation, it cannot launch a real general strike when their members represent a little more than half of organised workers. 

To build for a real general strike, the KCTU must make an appeal to rank-and-file members of the FKTU, despite their wrecking leadership, proposing a genuinely effective strike that can paralyse South Korean society and hit the Chaebols in their bottom line.

This would put the FKTU leadership firmly on the spot. Should they reject such a proposal for joint action, they would expose their servile nature to their members. In so doing, the KCTU could strengthen their own authority and even welcome new segments of the workers into their ranks. 

South Korean capitalism in crisis

The intensifying class struggle is taking place against a backdrop of a deepening crisis for South Korean capitalism.

South Korea’s economy has slowed to an anaemic level. Between 2021 and 2022, the growth rate slumped from 4.1 per cent to 2.6 percent. The OECD expects South Korea’s economy to grow 1.6 percent in 2023. Oh Suk-tae, economist at Societe Generale Securities in Seoul, has an even more pessimistic forecast of 0.8 percent growth. He grimly told Reuters, "I don't see any sign of strength from the detailed figures about the future path of the economy" 

Like much of the rest of the world, South Korea suffers from inflation. Its central bank was compelled to follow the lead of the US Federal Reserve in raising interest rates. While inflation has somewhat slowed, South Korea’s central bank chief maintains for now that they have no plan to reverse raising interest rates. 

The decline in global demand is also ravaging the export-dependent South Korean economy. A particularly severe drop in export during February this year, when all South Korean exports stood some 15 percent below the levels of one year ago. Sales to China were some 30 percent lower. Forbes contributor Milton Ezrati observed that, “Declining exports to the United States, Europe, and China make for the strong likelihood that this important Asian economy has entered recession for the first time since the Covid pandemic.”

Demo Image Korean Confederation of Trade Unions FacebookThe intensifying class struggle is taking place against a backdrop of a deepening crisis for South Korean capitalism / Image: KCTU, Facebook

Against this backdrop are long standing crises of housing, inequality, and household debt, all of which are only worsening. 

The situation in South Korea is far from unique. In fact all of these symptoms can be seen throughout the entire world, further pushing the masses to realise, in the words of Lenin, “the impossibility of living in the old way, and [the need to] demand changes.”

All capitalist politicians discredited

As the class conflict is ratcheting up in South Korea, the credibility of all capitalist politicians is crumbling.

Yoon’s vicious attacks on the masses have earned him a disapproval rating that has hovers around 60 percent in recent months. Yonhap News Agency conducted a survey that shows that, in all policy areas, the Yoon government faces more than 50 percent disapproval. 

But as bad as things are for the regime, the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which usually plays an analogous role to its US counterpart as the “smiling face of capitalism”, is in a pathetic state. Its current leader and former presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, is now being investigated for bribery. Although the DPK now leads in the polls compared to Yoon Suk-yeol’s PPP, it does not inspire any enthusiasm. According to a poll by KBS, more than 50 percent of respondents believe that the probe against Lee is credible and that he should step down as a member of the National Assembly.

The two main pillars of South Korea’s bourgeois democracy, the DPK and the PPP, are thoroughly discredited. What is still lacking is a genuine independent party of the South Korean working class, a party capable of leading the working class to take power. 

Perspectives for a workers’ party

On May Day, KCTU chair Yang Kyung-soo reiterated a proposal submitted to the KCTU extraordinary congress on 24 April to create a “labour-centered progressive coalition party.” 

As of now, it would appear that the KCTU’s plan is to encourage four existing small left-wing parties (Justice, Labour, Green and Progressive) into such a single “coalition party”, that would in turn be backed by the KCTU. In this way, they hope to bolster their forces and end division among the left. 

However, while Marxists welcome any initiative to create a genuine party of the Korean workers as a vehicle for struggle, we must voice a word of warning.  

The leadership of the KCTU seems to think that the fragmentation of the left on the political front can be solved by merely calling for “unity” in words. We should remember that most of the parties the KCTU are calling on to unify, had split off from the KCTU’s previous attempt at building a political vehicle: the Democratic Labor Party (later the Unified Progressive Party). 

The UPP was a ‘big tent’ coalition party, based on a loose reformist programme, which is very similar to what the KCTU leadership has in mind for a new party. This political weakness lies at the root of why the party failed, and why the fragmentary left parties that came out of it are so feeble. The main problem is not one of form, but content. 

Flag KCTU FacebookThe leadership of the KCTU seems to think that the fragmentation of the left on the political front can be solved by merely calling for “unity” in words / Image: KCTU, Facebook

What is needed is a bold and unambiguous programme to radically transform society by expropriating the capitalists, democratically managing the economy under workers’ control, and addressing the most pressing needs of the Korean working class around wages, working hours, housing and so on.

Moreover, South Korea has a vicious ruling class and state apparatus, which is backed by US imperialism's direct presence. The former UPP was subjected to severe state repression, which coupled with its political weakness, forced it to disband. If this fate is to be avoided, the leadership of any new labour party must be prepared to fight to the finish against the rule of the Chaebols, and not buckle in the face of threats or repression. 

It must not attempt to appease the rotten capitalist state by watering down its programme, but answer inevitable attacks with defiance and militant class struggle methods. The ferment in South Korea is reaching a point where the masses would be willing to join such a fight.

Thus, rather than building a ‘coalition’ on an ambiguous and unprincipled basis (a proposal that seems to have been already rejected by three of the four parties the KCTU is trying to win over) a new labour party must be founded upon a clear, fighting, socialist programme. This is the real way to forge a strong and unified party of struggle that can draw in the broadest possible layers of workers and youth, becoming a powerful weapon in their hands for the battles to come.

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