Tens of thousands of workers, many dressed in costumes modelled on the Netflix series Squid Game, demonstrated in Seoul and other South Korean cities on 20 October as part of a general strike organised by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
The strike was to demand a range of pro-working class economic and social reforms, as well as freedom for KCTU president Yang Kyung-Soo. Yang was jailed last month, along with other organisers, after the government claimed a union demonstration in July violated Covid restrictions. He is the 13th KCTU president in a row to be jailed.
Following the strike and demonstrations, the South Korean government is now threatening further repressive measures.
The unions are demanding stronger workers’ and trade union rights, the abolition of precarious work, a workers’ say in the shape of post-Covid transition, the creation of jobs in strengthened public services and more public ownership. A widely circulated report on the US left news website Truthout suggests this includes a call for major nationalisations, including of the country’s auto, airline and shipbuilding industries.
The KCTU called the strike “the first step towards overcoming inequality in the world.” Demonstrators raised the slogan “Tear down inequality!” In Seoul Korean Metal Workers’ Union president Kim Ho Gyu told strikers: “Inequality is a disaster. An industrial transition dominated by the Chaebol conglomerates would spawn deeper inequality, just like the Covid-19 phenomenon. The Korean Metal Workers’ Union will treat this plague of inequality by promoting an industrial transition led by the participation of labour.”
Squid Game has struck a major chord in South Korea, where it is set, because its grisly fantasy is inspired by the increasing precariousness of the country’s workers following the 2008 capitalist crash. The main character is an autoworker who lost his job when the company he spent years working for went bust. His flashbacks parallel the real-world 2009 bankruptcy of the Ssangyong auto corporation, and the violent crackdown on sacked workers who occupied a factory to demand reinstatement.
South Korea has had relatively low numbers of Covid cases and deaths, but its economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. In the midst of deepening precariousness and poverty, there have been repeated high-profile scandals about corruption and embezzlement by the super-rich and politicians.
The million-strong KCTU has a long history of struggle. In 2016-17 it was central to the “Candlelight Revolution” that ousted right-wing South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
We will look further into the scale of the 20 October mobilisation and the content of the KCTU’s demands. What is already clear, in addition to the need for solidarity, is that our labour movement can learn a lot from South Korea’s.