Fri Feb 23, 2024
February 23, 2024

South Korea: An important victory for working youth

The South Korean government, faced with a strong wave of mobilizations, has just reversed its plan to raise the working week from 52 to 69 hours. Although people of all ages participated, the protests were led by young workers from the so-called millennial and Z generations [1]. Undoubtedly, this is a triumph in a very important country in East Asia.

By Alejandro Iturbe

South Korea is one of the two countries that make up the Korean peninsula, which has an area of about 200,000 km2. Currently, there are about 75,000,000 inhabitants on the peninsula (23 million in North Korea and 52 million in South Korea).

The Korean nation has a long-standing culture and language of its own. In 1905, after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the peninsula became a Japanese protectorate and, from 1910, was directly annexed as a colonial possession. Shortly thereafter, an anti-Japanese Korean resistance began and was harshly suppressed.

In this context, Japanese imperialism was defeated in World War II (1945) and had to abandon Korea (along with several other Asian territories it had annexed). The North of the country was dominated by military forces from the Soviet Union together with forces from the Korean resistance and a government headed by Kim Il-sung was installed. Meanwhile, in the South, another government was established, backed by numerous U.S. troops. Both countries declared themselves independent and claimed the right to govern the entire peninsula.

In this context, the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out between the two countries. In the course of the war, North Korea received support from China (ruled by Mao after the 1949 revolution). On the South Korean side, the “home army” proved incapable of sustaining the war and, in fact, it was the U.S. Army that led the war. After three changing and different phases, the war ended in a “draw” and the border between the two countries was maintained at the 38th parallel, which is highly militarized on both sides[2].

Some time ago, in an article on the Korean War, we analyzed some elements of the current situation in North Korea [3]. Regarding South Korea, we are interested in emphasizing that its “birthmark” is that it emerged as a tool (almost an “invention”) of U.S. imperialism in its policy of trying to contain the shock wave of the Chinese revolution in the region (as would also be South Vietnam). Without considering its origins, it is impossible to understand the economic, political, and military development that subsequently took place in South Korea or the country’s current situation.

A great economic development

Since the 1960s, in a series of waves, South Korea has experienced a great capitalist economic development. It is now an “economic powerhouse” ranking 10th or 11th in the list of the countries with the largest nominal GDPs. In the 1980s, it was ranked as one of the “Asian Tigers” (together with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan).

Later, its industrial production incorporated more and more technology and added value. At the same time, the South Korean bourgeoisie has the capacity to export capital and make investments in other countries. After the capitalist restoration in China, it began to be a major foreign investor in that country: “South Korean direct investment in China – South Korea’s largest trading partner – rose by 20.7 percent year-on-year to $5.8 billion in 2019, due to increased investment in facilities of electric vehicle and chip manufacturers.”[4] This development generated a major shift in South Korea’s industrial production.

This development generated a great change in the economic-social structure of South Korea from a largely agrarian country to a highly industrialized and urbanized one, with a large working class concentrated in large companies and industrial plants, and a high educational9 level.

The “secret” of this great capitalist development is the very high levels of exploitation to which this working class is subjected, with very long working hours: it is one of the countries in the world where people work the most hours per year[5]. To this must be added the extremely harsh working conditions determined by arbitrary corporate “dictatorships” which, among other things, promote fierce competition among the workers themselves. Union organization was long prevented and then tolerated, but its promoters are permanently subjected to persecution in the companies whose workers they represent.

For all these reasons, the population has high rates of stress and depression at work and the highest suicide rate among “developed” countries [6]. It is necessary to consider this context as one of the central factors that generated this rebellion of working youth.

The drivers and beneficiaries of these levels of exploitation and the great economic development have been the chaebols, as the giant business conglomerates (industrial, banking and commercial) that control most of the South Korean economy are called in the country. The most important chaebols (Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and Kia) are world-class companies that compete in the markets of high-value-added industries (automobiles, shipbuilding, semiconductors, cell phones, and electronics in general).

A “privileged” semi-colony of the U.S.

Despite being an “economic power,” a territorial base of international companies and exporting capital, we have always characterized South Korea as a semi-colony of U.S. imperialism because of the economic, political, and military pacts that subordinate it to the U.S. (let us recall its “birthmark” mentioned above).

This character of semi-colony is fully evident in the military field: South Korea has always been a part of the military devices of U.S. imperialism in the region. First, it played that part against the influence and “expansion” of the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Then, since the restoration of capitalism in China, it has been a part of the military encirclement mounted by U.S. imperialism against this country, through the AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S. alliance) whose objective is “‘to defend the shared interests in the Indo-Pacific’ of these powers to ‘counter the advances of China'”[7]. It is quite possible that Japan will join this alliance[8].

70 kilometers from Seoul is Camp Humphreys, the “largest U.S. overseas base”, a 1,450-hectareO fortress with more than 25,000 U.S. troops and state-of-the-art weaponry[9]. The South Korean military has been trained and molded by the U.S.  military and joint military exercises are held on a permanent basis (and we already know what this means). While the “strategic enemy” is China, the “conflict scenario” for these exercises (and the entire structure of the Korean military) is a hypothetical North Korean aggression.

Most of the 600,000 soldiers in this army are conscripts: all young South Korean males must perform compulsory military service of no less than 18 months, and those who attempt to evade it are severely punished, including with imprisonment. In theory, talks had been opened to end the “state of war” between the two countries, and, a few years ago, the regime made promises that it would end compulsory military service. But this did not happen and conscription continues. This 33fact has also fueled

 the rebellion of young South Koreans.

The 1987 revolution

We have said that the South Korean economy is dominated by the chaebols. For several decades this was expressed in a very evident way in the existence of a dictatorial political regime with presidents of military origin accompanied by harsh internal repression. This was the case of Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled since 1980. In 1987, he announced that he was appointing Roh Tae-woo (another figure of military origin) as his successor in

1988. It was clear that the promises made in previous years to modify the despotic constitution, in force since 1948, among other issues, and to institute the election

3 of the president by popular vote, came to nothing.

This announcement was received with great anger by the South Korean people. As a result, the June Democratic Struggle

 erupted, with gigantic popular mobilizations that took off after the assassination of student activist Park Jong-chol. The repression proved powerless to stop the process and the South Korean regime was left on the ropes[11].

Finally, the regime was forced to issue the Declaration of June 29, 1987, calling for direct presidential elections in 1988 and accepting the need to reform the 1948 Constitution and  

extend democratic guarantees.

The Constitution was reformed and a new one was established in October 1987, which established the regime called the Sixth Republic, which remains to this day. Among the modifications are the election of the president every five years by popular vote, and, as we have seen, greater guarantees of democratic freedoms.

In the 1988 direct elections, Roh Tae-woo himself and his Democratic Justice Party (favored by the division of the opposition forces) won. In spite of this apparent continuity with the previous regime, we consider that the June Movement of 1987 was a true democratic revolution that, with the popular struggle, overthrew a dictatorial regime and installed a new one (also bourgeois but much more democratic) expressed in the new Constitution. Therefore, in the political situation of South Korea, we must speak of “a before and an after 1987.”

The rejection of military subordination to the U.S.

The mass struggle process of 1987 achieved a great triumph because it overthrew a dictatorship and installed a bourgeois democratic regime. However, it did not change the semi-colonial capitalist character of the South Korean state. The new political regime that emerged in 1987 has continued to serve to maintain that character.

In the first place, the military subordination to U.S.  imperialism by which South Korea is a piece of its structure in the Asia-Pacific has only continued. We have already referred to the Camp Humphreys military base and the joint exercises of the two militaries and the obligatory military service.

Young South Koreans are already fed up with compulsory military service: “I would definitely prefer not to serve if given the choice”, because such “military service is a waste of my youth,” as it will delay getting a job in the hyper-competitive South Korean society, as Namnung Jing, a young computer science student stated in 2019 [12]. 

At the same time, they reject the cause with which the South Korean bourgeoisie tries to justify it: the state of “permanent war threat” that North Korea supposedly represents6z: “I have no hard feelings against the North… I have never considered North Korea as an enemy,” Namnung added. The aspiration of many of these young people is the peaceful reunification of the two countries: “I have always considered North and South Koreans as one people, I hope the two countries can unite one day,” said another young man, Hang Sang-kyu, in the same interview.

And they permanently manifest this aspiration and their rejection of military subordination to the U.S. For example, the Camp Humphreys military base was planned since the 1990s, replacing an earlier base, but was only inaugurated in 2018 because of the strong rejection and significant mobilizations against it. “Thousands of people were involved in the incidents unleashed during the protest against the creation of a new and larger U.S. military base.”[13] There were also mobilizations on the island of Jeju (a province in the south of the country) against the construction of a second airport for military purposes[14].

Anger over corruption

Secondly, it is still a regime whose institutions (Executive Power, Parliament, and Judiciary) are at the service of and controlled by the chaebols. Only now they must do it in a more “disguised” way than before 1987. This situation gives rise to the permanent outbreak of corruption scandals that disgust the youth and also generates4 strong mobilizations.

For example, in 2016, “Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Seoul to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye, who was accused of allowing a very close friend, Choi Soon-Sil, to access private government documents without proper authorization.”[15]

Choi was arrested and investigated for “using her friendship with the president to solicit donations from companies such as Samsung for front foundations she managed. Samsung’s headquarters were raided in the process in search of documentation related to the case[16].

President Park did not resign and was not even included in the investigations, although two of her “closest collaborators” were. The conclusion of the article is that “the investigation has begun to surround her. So have the protesters.” In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear to the Korean people, especially its youth, that there is corruption at all levels of the government as a whole and is a result of its relationship with the chaebols.

Some conclusions

The current working and student youth of South Korea are “the children of 1987.” These young people were born and raised in the “after” of the regime change, in the framework of a “richer” country experiencing great economic development, and with a bourgeois democratic regime in which supposedly “all are equal before the law,” although it is really dominated by the chaebols.

We have analyzed three factors that feed their anger and rebellion. The first is the rejection of the military semi-colony character of U.S. imperialism and the character of South Korea as a “piece” of its military policy in the Asia-Pacific. The second is the repudiation of the corruption of the regime, through which the domination of the chaebols is expressed. The third is the rejection of the harsh conditions of exploitation to which it is subjected and which the current regime not only maintains but wants to increase, which was clearly expressed in this latest wave of mobilizations that forced the government to back down on its project to extend the work week.

We have the impression that this recent triumph will strengthen the fighting spirit of these youth and opens the hypothesis of new and even stronger struggles. A continuation and strengthening of the struggles could be the objective basis on which these youth advance in their objectives towards the demand to end U.S.  semi-colonial domination and, from there, the proposal of peaceful reunification of Korea. This aspiration is closely linked to the need to end the current reality of the chaebols as masters of the country. In other words, the goal is for the youth to advance in their struggles and organization toward a program of socialist revolution. In the framework of this process, the LIT-CI proposes the need for the construction of a revolutionary socialist organization in the country to intervene and promote these struggles and organization and defend this socialist program.

[1] In Korea, young people throw out the working day (diariopresente.mx)

[2] On this subject, see https://litci.org/es/a-los-66-anos-del-inicio-de-la-guerra-de-corea/

[3] On this subject, see the article in the previous reference.

[4] https://sp.yna.co.kr/view/ASP20200320001600883

[5] The countries in the world where people work the longest hours (and the first two are in Latin America) – BBC News Mundo

[6] Korea’s hidden problem: Suicidal defectors – BBC News

[7] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-58579238

[8] https://meta-defense.fr/pt/2022/11/15/o-jap%C3%A3o-est%C3%A1-cada-vez-mais-perto-da-alian%C3%A7a-aukus/

[9] U.S. opens its largest overseas military base in South Korea | HISPANTV

[10] U.S.  and South Korea announced new military exercises to counter Kim Jong-un’s aggressions – Infobae

[11] For anyone interested in learning more about this movement, we recommend Watch the 1987 film When the Day Comes, directed by Jang Joon-hwan (2017).

[12] South Korean youth fed up with military service – SWI swissinfo.ch

[13] Police and protesters clash over new U.S. base in South Korea – Cooperativa.cl

[14] https://ejatlas.org/conflict/second-airport-in-jeju-south-coast-of-south-korea/?translate=es

[15] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-37962254

[16] South Korea: Samsung offices raided in connection with political scandal surrounding president – BBC News World

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