South Korea: Victory to the mass movement - Parliament votes to impeach Park

On 9 December 2016, the South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-Hye with 234 out of 300 votes, including 62 votes from the president’s ruling Saenuri Party. This came after a wave of mass protests against Park has been taking place for seven weeks.

Pending Impeachment of President Park

Beginning in the end of October, the demonstrations have only been growing. On 12 November, it was reported that the number of people taking to the streets in Seoul, Busan and other cities of the country was the biggest since the democratisation movement that brought down the military dictatorship in 1987.

The protests that followed more than doubled in size, with around 2.3 million people participating on 3 December. On the day of the impeachment vote, hundreds surrounded the National Assembly, chanting songs and clashing with the police. Farmers from the countryside parked their tractors on the streets and one farmers’ group named themselves after a figure in the famous peasant uprisings of 1894. Activists also set up public concerts and performances with titles such as “The Chaebols [South Korea’s large business conglomerates - ed.]Are Responsible! Conglomerate Crime Expo for the Dissolution of the Chaebols and FKI [the Federation of Korean Industries]”. These attracted a large audience. Protesters of all ages held signs reading: “Arrest Park” and many think that an impeachment can only be the beginning of “torches that burn the roots of the system”, as one poem put it in reference to the candle lights demonstrations.

The ruling Saenuri Party tried everything to prevent Park’s resignation. Even to this day, Park has not accepted the parliament’s decision but is awaiting the official ruling of the constitutional court. The fact that parliament has buckled under the impact of street demonstrations is a very strong signal to the people, who have already drawn the parallels between today and the democratisation movement in the 1980s. As a professor of Seoul National University put it:

“Lawmakers don’t impeach the president. All they do is vote on the impeachment. The president is impeached not by lawmakers but by the people.”

The idea is spreading amongst the masses that they can affect real change by taking to the streets. This is worrying the ruling class. To counter this, and in order to buy time to wear down the movement, the Saenuri Party proposed that Park step down in April 2017 in ‘an orderly manner’. They also offered a joint coalition - i.e. a government of national unity - with other opposition forces and rekindled parliamentary chatter about a constitutional change. But to no avail. The massive show of strength by the people forced the liberal opposition parties, the Minjoo Party (121 out of 300 seats), the People’s Party (38 seats) and the Justice Party (6 seats) to support the impeachment. As one of the opposing MPs correctly stated:

“Why should we be worried about the impeachment motion failing? If it fails, the Saenuri Party will be crushed in the presidential election, so we don‘t have anything to lose.”

The opposition parties, as well as those MPs within the ruling Saenuri Party (128 seats) who supported impeachment, knew that if Park didn’t step down public outrage would crush them. The president’s approval rating has dropped to 4 percent and an overwhelming 78 percent of the population were in favor of the impeachment. Fearing the movement could get out of control, a large part of the ruling class decided to intervene to stop the movement from becoming a full-blown revolution.

The discontent against Park Geun-Hye’s presidency that has been simmering under the surface - with some (remarkable) outbursts of strikes and demonstrations since her inauguration in 2012 - has now become a mass movement that has managed to bring a South Korean leader tumbling down.

But what has led to the crisis of Park’s government, and what can we expect in the future?

Park’s past mistakes

The spark that set off the protests this fall was the revelation that Choi Sun-Sil, a close confidant of the president who is not in any elected political position, had been meddling with government business and advising Park Geun-Hye for years. The broadcaster JTBC, revealed a tablet belonging to Choi, which contained speeches by the president with side-marks and changes by the woman who has since then been titled South Korea’s “Rasputin”. The past few weeks of investigations have also revealed that Choi used her personal connections to allocate huge sums of money to her “non-profit” sports and media related organisations. Big businesses such as Samsung, Hyundai and Lotte have all been involved in this big corruption scheme. At one of the most prestigious universities of the country, Ewha University, students had been staging a university sit-in for 86 days against the undeserved admission of Choi’s daughter to the school.

Of course, corruption and nepotism are nothing unusual in South Korea. This time however, the revelations proved one too many.  Since Park, the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-Hee, won the presidential elections in 2012, discontent has been piling up within the population.

Broken promises

Park won with a campaign promising to ‘save the middle class’. She promised better social conditions, health care, more opportunities for small and medium sized companies and of course also used her gender as an argument for her so-called progressive stances. Reality turned out to be quite the opposite.

Under Park, health care has been further privatised by closing public hospitals, allowing profit-oriented subsidiaries and reducing health insurance coverage. Furthermore, waterworks, gas and energy supply have continued to be contracted to private companies. The Park-administration also took the first steps in privatising Korean Railways by splitting it into competing subsidiaries. Park also put labor laws on the policy agenda which would lead to massive casualisation of labour. Amongst others, they introduce performance based wages that will make it easier to fire workers and reduce wages for up to 40 percent of workers in the public and financial sectors. Furthermore, youth unemployment hit 9 percent this year while the country now boasts the second-highest number of low wage earners within the OECD, just after the USA.

This onslaught on all levels of the workers’ livelihoods has been met with an increasing number of strikes. This September alone, saw about 400 Seoul National University Hospital workers go on strike,  Hyundai had its first full strike in 12 years with 50.000 workers walking out in September, and on the 22nd and 23rd  of the same month the Korean Financial Industry Union as well as the Korean Public Industry Trade Unions organised strikes and demonstrations, with over 60,000 people attending the latter. Furthermore, Korean Railways went on strike for several weeks and were joined by the Seoul subway workers, where 30 percent of the whole workforce participated in a three-day walk-out.

Any resistance by the workers has been met with brutal repression by the state forces. The more radical Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has called for numerous general strikes over recent years. As a reaction, trade union offices were raided and the Teachers’ and Education Workers union has been illegalized. After a general strike on 14 November 2015, the KCTU’s president Han San-Gyun received a 5-year prison sentence for organising protests. At the same protests in November 2015, a  farmer activist, Baek Nam-Gi, was beaten up by riot police and subsequently died after months in a coma.

Park reacted to any form of discontent with extreme measures and even invoked the National Military Law – used mostly in times of dictatorship – against demonstrations. She has appeared as being completely detached from the reality of the lives of South Koreans. One example of this was when the passenger ferry Sewol sunk in April 2014. Due to mismanagement and lax security, more than 300 people – mostly school students – died. After the incident, Park didn’t show her face in public for seven hours. This led to huge protests. In the present movement, Sewol Victims Group is one of the most active groups. Park also tried to push through new standardised history school books which presented her father’s dictatorship in a more favorable light. She also outlawed the second biggest opposition party, the United Progressive Party, before the 2014 general elections, by accusing them of supporting North Korea and planning an uprising.

Global crisis reflected in South Korean situation

While Park certainly only feels contempt for trade unions and workers’ rights, when it comes to her economic policies she did not have much room for maneuvering.

The global crisis of capitalism has had a significant impact on South Korea. Within the confines of capitalism there is no room for progressive reforms or even the small concessions Park proposed in her electoral campaign. The export-oriented economy has had shrinking exports in 21 of the last 23 months. For three quarters in a row, growth has been below 1 percent. Last summer, overcapacity in the shipping sector led to the bankruptcy of Korean Hanjin Shipping, the world’s seventh largest shipping company. These are the direct results of China’s slowing economy, which is the main recipient (26 percent) of South Korea’s exports. Samsung’s scandal with the exploding smartphone Galaxy Note 7 put an additional dent in the economic figures.

At the same time, the relative decline of US imperialism affects the international relations in the region. The US army was the strongest ally of the South vis à vis the North and was in favor of a hardline approach towards the Kim dictatorship. But the authority of the US in Asia has been affected by the open display of its limitations in the Middle East. China plays an increasingly important role in South Korea’s calculations when dealing with its Stalinist neighbor. North Korea uses these circumstances for its own benefit and plays China off against South Korea and the US.

This pushed South Korea to sign a military intelligence-sharing deal with its former colonial master, Japan. Although South Korea and Japan collaborated economically, beginning right after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the politicians of the South were always careful to maintain an anti-Japanese rhetoric that connected with general sentiment amongst the population. It is thus, not surprising that the recent military agreement signed by Japan’s premier, Abe Shinzo, and Park Geun-Hye is opposed by more than 70 percent of the population.

Park finds herself squeezed between the demands of the crisis ridden system she represents and the demands of the people whose interests are diametrical to capitalism. To understand the outrage the public is feeling toward Park Geun-Hye, as well as all the corruption surrounding the huge economic conglomerates called Chaebol, it is worth taking a look at how Korea’s ruling class developed, how tightly it is linked to the political clique, and how closely it has been followed at every step by mass movements of the oppressed people in Korea.

Characterizing South Korea’s ruling class – and its greatest fear

South Korea’s economic oligarchy, the so-called Chaebol, date back to the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. When the USA landed on the peninsula after WWII, they found themselves confronted with a revolutionary movement sweeping over the country. However, as around 80 percent of the capital had been in the hands of the Japanese, there was no Korean capitalist class to lean on to counter this movement of farmers and workers. With the help of Stalinism, which had no interest in a genuine revolution, the situation was resolved by separating the country into North and South and by brutally suppressing the revolutionary movement (see for example the 1948 Jeju massacre, where around 30,000 people were killed by the newborn, US backed government in South Korea).

After the formal division of the country between the Soviet Union and the US in 1948, the latter built a regime based on the old colonial state apparatus, incorporating collaborators of the Japanese rule. In the 1950s a few companies, such as Samsung and Hyundai, that would later become the Chaebol profited from beneficial trade terms, which protected domestic industry from foreign capital (measures that were only accepted by the US because of the Cold War situation) and lay the foundation of today’s capitalist class.

South Korea’s First Republic didn’t even last 20 years before the “April Revolution” - a wave of protests mainly led by students, sparked by the killing of a student by the police - brought down Rhee Syng-Man and his government. After one year with an unstable liberal democratic government, general Park Chung-Hee (the father of today’s president Park Geun-Hye) took over in a coup in 1961. This heralded the Third Republic and then led to the the Fourth Republic after the introduction of the Yushin Constitution which gave Park limitless power in 1972. Under his rule old as well as new Chaebols such as Daewoo and Lotte were systematically raised to the position of huge conglomerates. By controlling investments, huge amounts of US aid, subsidised credits, land allocations and so on through the Bonapartist, military-backed state; heavy industry was built up.

This went hand in hand with a rapid urbanization and proletarianisation of the work force. As noted in another article, it was in the 1970s and the 1980s that the Korean workers started to tentatively build grassroot unions and circumventing the government-controlled union federation. When Park Chung-Hee was killed by his own security chief in 1979, the absence of a strong, organised working class led to a political vacuum. Soon general Chun Doo-Hwan showed ambitions to take over in a coup. This sparked another movement that reached its highpoint when the citizens of Gwangju built a people’s army and held power in their city for 10 days between 18 May and 27 May 1980. In the end the uprising was drowned in blood, giving way to another seven years of military rule.

The relationship between the state and the capitalists of South Korea has always been tightly knit with personal relations, marriages, blood relations and outright corruption. But whereas in the 1970s the state had the upper hand, this changed in the 1980s under Chun Doo-Hwan. When he tried to prosecute Chaebol owners for illicit wealth accumulation and restructure the huge conglomerates, he failed. The basis of the Bonapartist regime was quickly eroding with the rise of a strong working class, as well as a capitalist class with growing self-confidence. The military found itself more and more isolated and unable to maneuver. It was dealt the final blow when the Minjung (“popular masses”) movement gained momentum just before the Olympic games were to take place in Seoul in 1987.

This inspiring mass movement involved the participation of all layers of society. It even developed its own art-forms, historical theories and theology (influenced by Latin American liberation theology), and inspired left intellectuals like Park Hyun-Chae to redefine Korea’s oppressed class as the “Minjung class”. Had there been a strong working class party, it could easily have led this movement towards a revolution. But in the absence of a workers’ alternative the fall of Chun Doo-Hwan merely gave way to a number of liberal presidents in the 1990s and 2000s.

Financial regulations were further liberated; credit became available to the Chaebols on the international market. This led to the big housing and credit bubbles which burst during the Asian crisis in 1997. The conglomerates are extremely diversified and have a say in basically all economic sectors. In 1997, 30 firms controlled more than half of all equity and sales in Korea. They also had accumulated the most debt – the largest five Chaebol accounted for 55 percent of all domestic bank loans, while 43 percent of the Chaebols’ shares were owned by their respective immediate families.

Although most of the Chaebols were bailed out, the crisis nevertheless served as a reason to implement somewhat stricter regulation of the finance sector (i.e. creating the legal possibility for banks to go bust, a greater independence of the Bank of Korea from the government and a non-governmental financial supervision agency) and some large firms were even sent into bankruptcy. The crisis was also the cause of a huge strike wave in 1997-8. But again, due to a lack of a revolutionary leadership, the mass movement did not lead to decisive change. Aside from a few cosmetic changes during these crisis years, power in South Korean society remained largely with the Chaebols.

The opposition is not an alternative

South Korea’s economic elite is more homogenous than its counterparts in other countries, but its friends in politics have been much less so. Political parties and formations in South Korea are quite unstable. Not one major party has gone more than two years without splits, mergers, and name changes. Even the Chaebols’ stronghold, the Saenuri Party, despite its roots leading back to dictator Park Chung-Hee’s Democratic Republican Party, has gone through a number of transformations and changed to its current name, from the Hannara Party in 2013, after an internal crisis. After the current Park scandal it is yet again on the verge of a split.

This political instability is a reflection of the problems of unifying the interests of the parasitic and rotten Chaebol ruling class with the illusion of bourgeois democracy. In this rigged system, replacing a Saenuri government with a different kind of coalition will not solve any of the problems the workers and youth are facing. The former presidents Roh Moo-Hyun, who served the position from 2003-2008, is a clear example of the limitations of any government which wants to rule within the confines of South Korean capitalism. Coming from a poor farmer’s family Roh, a human rights lawyer, won the sympathies of many voters. We can assume that he went into politics with the best of intentions and tried with all kinds of means to tackle the rampant corruption in South Korean politics. Soon however, he had to realize that as one individual he had no chance working against the system. At the end of his career he was embroiled in a corruption scandal, mercilessly criticized by the media, and in 2009 he tragically ended his life.

A real alternative is needed

The impeachment vote in parliament was a huge victory for the masses. It was a sign that the ruling class, or a big part of it, is afraid of losing control. They want to give concessions from above to avoid revolution from below. But this victory will only spur the masses forward. The key problem for the ruling class is that it cannot satisfy the real demands of the South Korean workers. It might be able to buy some time by removing Park. But this will not change anything fundamentally. Corruption, a widening gap between the rich and poor, unequal opportunities or the immense power of the Chaebols will continue regardless. Meanwhile the traditional parties of the ruling class are more discredited than ever before. Combined with the rising confidence of the workers, the movement is set to develop and the clashes with the ruling class to intensify in the next period.

The only way to put an end to corruption, misery and casualisation of labour, is by overthrowing the present system. The conditions for this are already there in the mass movement, which is beginning to question the very system. The working class is ready to go on strikes and defending its rights. The ruling class is afraid of the growing confidence of the masses in their own power. It fears that this movement could go further than the system can stretch. Indeed, the only thing holding the movement back is – its own limitations.

An alliance of several civic society organizations has organized the huge demonstrations. They founded a committee that calls itself the ‘Emergency Public Campaign for the Resignation of President Park Geun-hye’ which includes groups such as Seoul Walk, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, the Sewol Ferry Victims Group, the Green Party, the Labor Party and the KCTU. Together, they worked hard to mobilize and accommodate for the protests, organizing a meticulous schedule, installing screens, security measures and “impeachment busses” from other cities to Seoul while collecting donations during the demonstrations. We know from past demonstrations and strike action that the KCTU alone can mobilize more than 100.000 people. During these protests the Platform for Workers’ Rights, which they initiated, has put forward demands such as “fair wages”, “job opportunities for the youth”, “break the Chaebols’ rule” and so on. These are very legitimate demands – but how should they be put into action, and more importantly, by whom?

The most urgent task of the KCTU and other class fighters is to boldly put forward not only the demand of Park stepping down - but to reject the agenda of the opposition parties and fight for a true workers’ alternative. The present movement is an ideal launch pad for a political party to organise and generalise the struggle. Admittedly, this is not at all an easy task, particularly in a country that is still trapped in a cold-war-like situation and where trade unions are heavily restrained by law. However, shortcuts do not work in history. Once an organisation has been established with correct demands and methods, it could quickly spread to fill the vacuum which exists for an anti-establishment party of the Korean working class. Such an instrument would enormously empower the working class to be able to challenge South Korean capitalism itself.

After Park’s impeachment new elections will be on the agenda, until which time all establishment parties have anxiously promised to work together in a bipartisan discussion body in order to avoid a government crisis. But a new president, a grand coalition or even a constitutional change will only bring a short period of calm. The underlying contradictions will not be solved. The victory over Park proves once again to the people in South Korea that the power ultimately lies in their own hands. A whole generation of youth has been politicized under her presidency and they have learned that putting your demands on the streets does reshuffle the balance of forces in the country. The recent events have opened a period of class struggle in the country, and more and stronger eruptions will follow. This round of protests has been only a forewarning of what is to come in South Korea and the whole of East Asia.