South Korea, Value and Workers’ Rights – Part 2

A conversation with Professor Sudol Kang

This continues my discussion with Prof. Kang – you can read Part One here.

Greg Sharzer (GS): You speak of a shift, from fighting the entire system of value production, to just fighting for a bigger piece of it. This rise of distributionist politics – unions and working class parties leaving systems of power untouched, and just getting more for their members – is a global trend. Can you talk a little about what anti-systemic politics in South Korea looked like? How did those workers organize themselves, and what happened to them?

Sudol Kang (SK): Yes, it seems to be a global trend that labor unions and working class parties are fighting just for a better value distribution, for a bigger piece, instead of resisting destructive value production itself. Here it is worthwhile to ask piece of what? The answer is – though somehow abstract – what has been exploited from human beings and nature. In consequence, a bigger piece for working people means active participation in the destructive process of capitalism.

This trend is not a natural tendency but a historical product. It is in the sense that later generations of working people have learned to survive within the system, after the first generation, who resisted the inhumane value (production) system, had been violently and repeatedly defeated.

Here I would like to refer to the collective trauma theory developed by Holger Heide (2009). Owing to the overwhelming violence of capital and the state and also repeated defeats, the first generation of workers experienced collective trauma. This infected later generations. [Heide, H. (2009). Globalization of the Work Society. Proposal for a Re-Interpretation of the Work Society as a Posttraumatic Syndrome, in Trans-Humanities, 1(1), 9-38.]

An autonomous and reciprocal working community in South Korea.

In Korea this historical process occurred from the 1920s up to the 1950s under Japanese colonialism (1910-1945) and the American Military Government (1945-1948). Here, imperialism by itself is nothing other than the spatial extension of value production networks of capital. The National Association of Workers and Farmers in Chosun (Korea) [Chosun Nonong Chong Yeonmaeng] in the 1920s and 1930,s and The National Council of Labor Unions after 1945 [JeonPyung], had tendencies of both socialism and nationalism. The so-called “Left-Right Struggles” were nothing other than the right wing’s (representing capital) attack on the left wing and vice versa. The Korean War (1950-1953) with its heap of ashes was the nadir of collective traumatization. All these processes left people with the fear of starvation and death. This was the socio-psychological as well as politico-economical background of the “Miracle of the Han River” ever since the developmental dictatorship in the 1960s. (Heide, H. 2009)

Of course, there had always been resistance of workers against the capitalist system. However, radical groups and parties were systematically marginalized and exterminated over and over again, whilst moderate ones were accepted as bargaining agents with capital. Several decades of survival and recognition struggles among working people in Korea have made the value distribution struggle (job, wage, bonus, working hours, welfare etc.) more and more natural and neutral.

I’d like to draw out a few details from your description of South Korea’s tragic and tumultuous recent past, because they are usually left out of its success story.

First of all, there was a large degree of continuity, as you mention, between Japanese and American colonialism. I remember visiting the Soedaemun Prison Museum, where the Japanese housed, tortured and executed anti-colonial activists. It was only in the last room where it briefly mentioned that, oh yes, the Korean dictatorship kept the prison going for another 30 years after the Japanese left. It strikes me that part of the trauma you speak of, in many cases rests on what still cannot be spoken about openly: the vicious reprisals against South Korean labour and leftist movements. To what extent are the awful crimes of Japanese imperialism used as a cover for what came after?

Very interesting question! Yes, there is a large degree of continuity, as you like, between colonialism and the dictatorship. Why? They both have in common the rule of capital over human beings and land at the same time. The first generation suffered from both Japanese and American colonialism. They resisted colonialism and oppression, and they were defeated over and over again. They were systematically stigmatized by governments as communists or “reds”. Any idea or praxis beyond capital rationality was brutally punished and marginalized. People absorbed a great deal of fear of stigmatization and death.

However, people simultaneously suffered from poverty and starvation. The Korean War worsened their living conditions. Under such circumstances, people of the postwar generation, at least in South Korea, tended to internalize the belief in economic prosperity under the “strong leadership” of Park Chunghee (1961~1979). That was nothing other than the authoritarian form of the dictatorship of capital.

“The first in the world!” was one of the slogans during the Park Chunghee regime. It was a people-mobilization ideology, whose purpose was to transform living people into variable capital for capitalist development in South Korea. Besides, both the school system and mandatory military service functioned as efficient instruments for human transformation. The school system, from elementary school to university, contributed both to disciplining students within capitalism and to manpower training for productivity in factories or offices. In addition, every man had to serve a few years in the military. It was repeatedly taught that North Korea and communism were the greatest enemies. Killing the enemy, who could harm economic prosperity, was regarded as a heroic action. All these aspects consistently underlay the rapid economic development of South Korea.

A worker at Daewoo Shipping, on the 51st day of a self-imprisonment protest against 30% wage cuts.

Second, it seems clear to me that Korea is suffering from intergenerational trauma. When I taught in Korea, I drew a parallel between Indigenous people in Canada, and the trauma they suffer from the residential school system, and South Koreans who were brutalized under the dictatorship. To what extent does the “fear of starvation and lack of survival” still structure present-day Korean society? Do you think people have managed to collectively heal, at least to some extent?

Your comparison between the Canadian Indigenous peoples and South Koreans is highly relevant. The common essence of their traumatization lies, I believe, in the forced forgetting of their own history and culture for the sake of capitalistic development. Although nowadays few people fear starvation from extreme poverty and death due to political ideology, it is worth to note that people now generally internalize capitalistic competition and its fetishism. As the concept of fetishism indicates, people today feel, think, and determine in terms of value, i.e., money. This is exactly what Anselm Jappe (2017) criticizes, based on the theory of value critique. The subject form of today’s capitalism is equivalent to the value form in capitalism. [Anselm Jappe (2017), The Writing on the Wall: On the Decomposition of Capitalism and Its Critics, Zero Books.]

I mean this is also the general tendency in South Korea today.

Next: the link between overcoming trauma and fighting to transform the value system

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