Left, right and nationalism in Korea's trade unions

Submitted by Anon on 6 March, 2004 - 9:05

Militant class struggle has been a feature of South Korean politics for many years. In April there are elections to the National Assembly (parliament) and some workers' candidates are standing.

This critical assessment is written by Won Youngsu, a member of the South Korean Marxist group, the Power of the Working Class. It is abridged from International Viewpoint No 356, February 2004.
In the summer of 1987, after a nationwide mobilisation against the military regime's attempt to maintain its grip on power, workers rose up all over the country. Spontaneous waves of over 3,000 strikes were organised, and more than 1,000 trade unions were formed. Pro-business union bureaucrats were the targets of working class anger. Workers wanted independent and democratic unions.

In the early 1990s unionising drives swept over all industries. Finally in 1995 these currents of democratic unionism united, forming the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

The first leadership of the KCTU represented a right-wing shift in democratic unionism. It prioritised bargaining over the struggle, alliance with NGOs over popular movement, and a social democratic orientation. This current is a very odd mixture of pro-North nationalism and reformism. Also, there emerged another current, mostly ex-militants and top union officials, favouring industrial unionism over political unionism, and prioritising the institutionalised bargaining structure. Finally, the militants were united into the left-wing current of the KCTU, mostly rank and file activists and leftist union leaders.

The general strike from December 1996 to January 1997 was a serious test for the democratic union movement. At the final moment, the right-wing leadership of the KCTU retreated to occasional strikes, attracting harsh criticism from the strikers and rank and file workers. At the end of 1997, under enormous pressure of economic crisis, the right-wing leadership opted for compromise with the government, accepting management's right to dismiss workers. This was a betrayal of the gains won by workers' struggle over the previous decade.

Thus, there arose a harsh debate on the orientation and perspective of trade unions, and the resolute militancy of rank and file workers drove the irresponsible leadership out of office. Under this new militant leadership, the KCTU fought back the neo-liberal attack by state and capital.

In the 1997 presidential election, Kwon Young-gil, a former KCTU top leader, ran for the presidency, winning 300,000 votes (1.2%). After the election, Kwon and his colleagues formed a new party called the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), with the official support of the KCTU. Kwon was a journalist, and leader of the journalists and press workers' union, representing the right wing, reformist, social democratic tendency, with a perspective of legalism and electoralism. In spite of strong support by KCTU top officials, its working class base was rather narrow.

However, in September 2001, the nationalist wing of the movement decided to join the DLP en masse, in an attempt to take hold of the party leadership. This nationalist tendency, as majority of the movement, had refused to build an independent political party, because of its pro-North position, claiming that, as the leadership of the movement belongs to North Korea, the South Korean movement should build a united front, not a party.

As this move went on, the DLP showed some growth in membership, but it was exposed to incessant internal factional fighting. Though there are some leftist currents inside the DLP, their influence is negligible. In municipal elections in 2002, the party won about 8%, but at the presidential election in 2002, Kwon won less than a million votes (3%) out of 28 million votes.

Among the diverse left currents, the DLP seems to monopolise the KCTU's support. At the moment it claims 40,000 party members, but the class base is rather weak. Despite KCTU-DLP links, the DLP failed to take control of the KCTU, not to say of the whole movement.

The DLP imitated some ideal type of the Brazilian PT, the British Labour Party, and the German or Swedish Social Democratic Party, in a totally different situation that lacks the material conditions for social democracy. In this way, electoralism and sensationalism will ceaselessly distort working class politics.

With the launch of the KCTU, the labour movement set itself two strategic goals - to build a workers' party and to turn enterprise unions into industrial unions. At the moment, the building of industrial unions is underway, rather than at the final stage, and there is a political party, the DLP.

Outside the DLP, there exist a certain number of radical lefts, of which the Power of the Working Class (PWC) and the Socialist Party are most important. The Socialist Party is now undergoing a crisis of identity as a result of a series of failures at elections. It hoped to make use of the right-wing shift of the DLP.

The PWC's standpoint is to be independent from electoralism and a social democratic orientation, and to pursue class struggle trade unionism. Critical of dogmatism and sectarianism, it also favours left unity or regroupment as the first step to building a genuine working class party.

The PWC also plays an important role in working class struggles at a local, national and international level. It has done important work in the anti-globalisation movement, despite the difficulty that most of its members are based in the workplace and unions. In spite of rather moderate size, it has an extensive network of activists and a clear political position, playing a leading role as a left opposition within the framework of the labour movement.

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