The Koreas

South Korea’s Labor Protests Weren’t an Aberration

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The Koreas

South Korea’s Labor Protests Weren’t an Aberration

South Korea’s labor protests should come as no surprise — and you can expect more to follow.

Clashes between police and labor activists and their supporters, like the one which took place on November 14 in Gwanghwamun (north-central Seoul), galvanize supporters of labor and excite newspaper editorial boards. In protest of supposedly pro-business labor reforms, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the second largest umbrella labor organization in the country after the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) (it is the more mobilized, and many would say militant, of the two), organized the demonstration.

Confronted by droves of riot police equipped with water canons, some of the more militant protesters were met with high-powered streams of water leading to, in one unfortunate case, the hospitalization of an elderly protester. State-KCTU relations are contentious, to say the least, but this should surprise few. Claims that the November 14 confrontation was born of new developments – newborn authoritarianism or new radical labor activism – miss the broader, institutional reasons behind the contention.

Significantly different from the neo-corporatist and coordinated market economies of central Europe, labor interests have long been subordinated to the interests of development and business – such was the nature of South Korea’s developmental state. Despite winning significant gains following the culmination of the 1980s labor movement – codified legally in the “four major insurances” – a destructive financial crisis in 1997 and the downward pressures of globalization have only exacerbated already antagonistic state-labor relations. The decrease in organized labor (trade union density has declined rapidly since the late 1980s) and South Korea’s uneasy postindustrial transition have created shaky conditions for labor market insiders (those who enjoy favorable conditions of employment) and deteriorating conditions for those on the outside (irregular or precarious workers).

This is the backdrop upon which the confrontational meetings between labor and the state take place. Issues like the re-nationalization of textbook writing, an important issue in its own right, are somewhat peripheral – it’s hard to imagine violent confrontation over the content of high school history textbooks.

Many were likely relieved to see a peaceful labor protest last weekend; civic and religious groups involved themselves as advocates of peaceful assembly and demonstration. The day’s events proceeded in a very democratic way. There is some question regarding the state’s behavior: was this an act of good faith (befitting a democratic polity) or an otherwise repressive entity temporarily behaving itself under the international spotlight? It’s hard to say, but what seems certain is that more protests are likely to follow. The proliferation of irregular workers, the very real phenomenon of increasing economic inequality (see Kim Nak-nyeon and Kim Jong-il’s recent findings), and a general export slump makes for an unstable blend of variables. That state-labor relations were already rocky only adds further volatility to the situation.

Conditions in South Korea beckon a return to political scientist Samuel Huntington’s early work, Political Order in Changing Societies. Huntington’s more recent work has been heavily criticized for methodological and theoretical simplicity, but his early work is generally well regarded. In the early goings, Huntington interested himself in the relationship between political institutions and order. And he had a delightfully simple formula for understanding this relationship. If political institutionalization is low but the degree of social change and mobilization is high, then violence and instability will ensue.

This logic explained relative instability in some parts of the world – new independent or “developing” countries — but lifted from its Cold War context (the book was published in 1968), the basic formula still has explanatory potential. Applied to South Korea, it goes a long way in explaining why there are demonstrations in the streets and violent confrontations.

In addition to being sidelined or largely excluded by the decision- or policy-making process, labor’s interest is not well represented politically. Neither political party can be said to represent the interest of wage earners or those taking on precarious or unstable work. Absent a body willing or capable of aggregating the collective grievances of groups like laborers, the result is marches on the Blue House. Symbolically such social events are powerful, but their political efficacy is arguably quite low – absent nationwide protests a la June 1986, politicians aren’t likely to act collectively.

This is all rather unfortunate, because as labor market conditions worsen in South Korea, the need for reform increases. And as Kathleen Thelen in argues in her latest work, Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidarity, limited labor market liberalization can improve, rather than worsen, the relationship between social groups – namely, labor and business. Unfortunately, conditions in South Korea are such that social solidarity seems poised to remain low. As such, mobilization will likely remain high and, absent greater political institutionalization, contention high.