South Korea, Value and Workers’ Rights – Part 3

Here are Parts One and Two. In this final part, Prof. Kang discusses some of the victories of the Korean labour movement, as well as its failures to overcome the value system.

Sudol Kang: Of course, we must not forget that the people have a history of their own. At the least, we should start with:

  • the Donghak Farmers’ Revolution in 1894
  • the labor movement from the1920s up to 1940s
  • the Partisan movement during the Korean War (1950~53)
  • the youth worker Chun Taeil’s self-immolation in 1970
  • the Gwangju Struggle against Chun Duwhan’s dictatorship in 1980
  • the Great Workers Struggle in the summer of 1987
  • the whole process of building the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, minju nochong) in 1995
  • the struggles against mass-layoffs under IMF regime (1998~2000)
  • the Ssangyong Workers Struggle against mass-layoffs in 2009
  • and the Candlelight Demonstrations thereafter (2002, 2008, 2016) up to recently.
An autonomous and reciprocal working community in South Korea

One could say that every movement or event listed above was a kind of collective healing of trauma, at least temporarily and partially. However, I would add two aspects here.

The first one is that the collective trauma and fear are so deep that few movements or events could sufficiently heal them. I would mark a dividing line in the history of South Korea: the Korean War. Before this, there was a strong tendency for Korean workers and farmers to try and overcome the value system of capitalism. Both Japanese and American colonialism and its collaborators desperately tried to entrench this system, both through violence and ideology.

After the war, there were few leftists pursuing values beyond value. Almost all the people, deeply traumatized and frustrated, eventually decided they wanted more value distribution, rather than doing away with the system altogether. Though many resisted, under the Park Chunghee regime value production and distribution could show a kind of virtuous circle, at least to some extent.

Despite its demonstration of militant organizing, the Great Workers’ Struggle in 1987 accelerated this virtuous circle on a higher level, and by doing so however, eventually contributing to a method of crisis management for capital. It became a way for capital to escape its valorization crisis by co-opting the labor necessary for its further valorization. [Kang, S. (2000). Labour relations in Korea between crisis management and living solidarity. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 1(3), 393-407.]

All this means, however, that fundamental trauma has been left unhealed over and over again. Instead, people just get angry when value distribution appears unfair, and they fight for distributive justice instead. This is mainly owing to a fear of confronting reality, which can be characterized as ‘escapism’. In this process, people become unaware of their fundamental trauma. [Greg Sharzer (2022), Late Escapism and Contemporary Neoliberalism: Alienation, Work and Utopia, New York: Routledge.]

The other problem is that, with a strengthening of internalization of capitalist rationality, many people not only suffered external trauma from capitalists, gangsters, police, or prosecutors, but also internal trauma from colleagues, activists, and their leaders. Many struggles of workers and farmers began with human emancipation, at least partially. Their starting points were not hooked within value, economic value in terms of capitalism. However, because of two defects, every movement finally failed.

The one factor was a lack of people’s power, caused by social splitting. Many labor leaders in particular got a taste for enjoying power. To make it worse, labor unions in big companies tended not to cooperate with those in small ones. Male workers did not see their female colleagues as comrades in the labor movement, not to speak of equal activists for human emancipation. Instead, many of them regarded their female colleagues as competitors in value distribution.

The second factor lies in a lack of a clear concept of human emancipation. In a sense, one could say that workers now believe that fundamental system change is impossible. The only possible avenue for change is to improve their economic situation, at least it seems that way. However, this results from exactly what I tried to explain: collective traumatization. Although economic improvement and prosperity of workers does not mean human emancipation, many workers, activists, and their leaders think and act like it does. This is the source of internalized trauma.

Of course, this does not at all mean that today there is no more external trauma. The reality is quite opposite. However, external trauma is not so physically violent as before: nowadays, it comes from more and more economic and legal pressures. For example, after workers finish a strike, the company or police can go through the courts to request an overwhelming amount of money in compensation. To the unions or their leaders, this substantively means bankruptcy, and it often forces the objects of these complaints to commit suicide.

Q: Many countries have struggled for democracy, and built – or lost – strong labour movements in the process, while enduring collective trauma. I’m thinking of Chile, Brazil, even the U.S. to a degree. What can we learn about the struggle for labour rights and democracy from South Korea?

Good question! And I have two points as my answer.

First, as I indicated above, keeping a clear concept of human emancipation is the most important thing in a social movement. Human emancipation is quite different from just fairer value distribution. As value is the result of human and ecological oppression and exploitation, even its most just distribution is not human, let alone ecological. In sum, we need values beyond value.

The author harvesting in preparation for kimchi-making season.

Second, there have been some improvements in workers’ lives, not only in Korea, but in Chile, Brazil, and in the US. When we regard our history as a continual process of improving our lives, we have achieved much. In a sense we achieved too much, and at the same time we have lost just as much. We lost and are still losing a sound and harmonious ecology, humane communities, intimate relationships, and the tranquility that we enjoyed before our addiction either to work or to economic growth. [Kang, S. (2020). Workaholism in Korea: Prevalence and socio-demographic differences. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 569744.]

We lost too much for the sake of value. Instead, we now confront the global climate crisis along with covid-19. Of course, the global economy is not at all stable. Capitalism has achieved much, so much, and too much. But the very success of the value system now apparently seems to be the cause of complex crises: economic, social, and ecological.

If we are really homo sapiens, from now on we should feel and think, with wisdom, quite differently from the value system, and act in the direction of human and nature emancipation. We need complete liberation from value.

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