Tens of thousands are expected to gather in Seoul on December 5 to protest South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s proposed anti-worker labor market reforms, as well as her pursuit of new free trade agreements and plans for public schools to use a state authored history book. They hope to build on the momentum generated by the November 14 rally, when nearly 100,000 people, mostly farmers, workers, and students, marched in the country’s capital to call for her ouster.
The South Korean National Police Agency has banned the upcoming gathering but the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), calling the ban “unconstitutional,” remains committed to the protest. Workers see the fight to stop the labor market reforms as critical to the future of the South Korean economy. The reforms are designed to make it easier for companies to fire workers and unilaterally restructure work conditions, as well as increase their use of temporary and sub-contracted labor.
The South Korean government has responded to the protest movement by cracking down on organizers and protesters. It has come under widespread criticism for its excessive use of force against demonstrators on November 14. A 69-year old farmer remains in critical condition after being doused with tear gas and water cannons. Since November 14, the government has intensified police raids on labor unions and issued an arrest warrant for the president of the KCTU, Han Sang-gyun, for his role in organizing the protest. The police have surrounded the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, where Han has sought sanctuary.
Han has said he will voluntarily turn himself in to the police if the government will abandon its labor market reform plans. However, if the government refuses to change course, the KCTU vows to launch a general strike. According to Han, “We’re talking about stopping production, freight trucks stopping in their tracks, railroad and subway workers on illegal strikes, and immobilizing the country so that the government will feel the outrage of the workers.”
President Park has also come under fire for comments she made likening protesters to Islamic State (IS) terrorists. At a recent National Assembly meeting to discuss new counterterrorism bills she is reported to have said, “Rallies where protesters wear face masks should be banned. Isn’t that how IS does it? Hiding their faces….”.
The South Korean experience is far from unique. With the deepening of corporate-led globalization processes, governments everywhere seek to weaken labor movements and worker protections and restrict options for public education and democratic debate. As a consequence, the KCTU’s efforts to revitalize its own union structures through its first ever direct election for top officers and renewed internal education and anchor a broad coalition of social forces around an alternative social vision deserves widespread support and serious study.