Socialism Today - Korea: Elections and Class Battles
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Issue 47, May 2000

Korea: Elections and Class Battles

IN SOUTH KOREA'S general election on 13 April President Kim Dae-jung's party, now called the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), was unable to gain a majority in the Assembly. The conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) won 133 seats in the 273-seat National Assembly, the MDP won 115 seats, while its erstwhile coalition partner, the right-wing United Liberal Democrats (ULD), fell from 48 to 17 seats. A record 43% of the 33.5 million electorate did not vote for anyone.

With no clear parliamentary victor, an 'understanding' seems to have been established between the two main parties. Before meeting Lee Hoi-chang, leader of the GNP, Kim Dae-jung announced that he intended to complete his programme of corporate, financial and labour 'reforms', including the privatisation of state companies. This programme had previously been blocked by the GNP out of hostility to the idea of non-Korean ownership of Korean industry.

The president's 'sunshine policy' of reconciliation towards the bureaucratic dictatorship in North Korea - arranging a summit for June - was denounced by the GNP as an election gimmick. But the GNP is still regarded as the natural party of business and is unlikely to block efforts by the chaebol conglomerates, which dominate the economy, to expand their empires across the border.

In the election itself, the only real excitement came from the unusually high number of re-counts, often involving prominent politicians whose political careers were on the line. A Citizens' Alliance of 460 civic organisations mounted a 'rejection' campaign, posting on the internet details of 86 candidates whom they regarded as 'corrupt, incompetent or lazy': 59 of the 86 lost their seats!


Another new feature was the fielding of 68 candidates by two new left parties coming out of the independent trade union movement - the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), created by the major trade union federation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and the Youth Progressive Party. They received around a third-of-a-million votes - 1.2% and 0.7% of the national total respectively. This is no mean achievement in view of the domination of the political scene by regional commercial, state and family ties. The Financial Times described the vote for the DLP as 'one sign of lingering economic discontent'. Other observers detected a shift in mood and consciousness - the beginnings of a revolt against the old way of doing things.

Kim Dae-jung's popularity had been considerably dented by a new wave of bribery and ethics scandals. In the 1997 presidential contest, which followed the massive general strike against the hated Kim Young-sam government, Kim Dae-jung had been seen as a better proponent of democratic practices. It was assumed that, having suffered at the hands of the notorious Korean CIA during the long, dark years of US-backed military dictatorships, he would annul the draconian National Security laws and end the harassment of the labour movement. Kim Dae-jung also fought that election as an irreconcilable opponent of the International Monetary Fund.

Within hours of his election, however, he did a 180-degree turn on the IMF, declaring it would be unwise to renege on the deal signed by his predecessor. On the first May Day of his presidency, he used riot police and water canon against peaceful demonstrators. The arrest and imprisonment of trade unionists continued.


As the screws were tightened, real living standards plummeted. The income of the richest 10% of the population reached ten times that of the poorest 10% as compared with seven times as much before the financial crisis of 1997. "While dotcom millionaires are being minted every day, many factory workers are earning only two-thirds of what they did before the crisis". (Far Eastern Economic Review, 20 April 2000) According to the Labour Ministry, only 46% of South Korean wage-earners have full-time employment. At least two million people have lost their jobs and unemployment has doubled. In a country with no real social security system, this has spelt disaster.

It is now claimed that the IMF's $58bn bail-out loan after the 1997 economic collapse has been repaid. Exports are up 23% on this time last year and GDP has grown by more than 10% per year. But the much-vaunted 'recovery' is extremely fragile. Inflation is rising, a current account deficit was recorded in January for the first time in 27 months and high oil prices are having dire effects. Morgan Stanley's Dean Witter estimates that for every $1 rise in the oil price, East Asia's trade surplus shrinks by over $2bn a year: South Korea imports all its oil. Recovery itself is seen as a disincentive to the restructuring being forced through against heavy resistance from the organised working class.

The economy is based on a high level of exports, in particular, of information technology (IT) goods. This means that South Korea's fortunes are heavily dependent on those of the advanced capitalist countries, especially Japan and the US. The former is still in the doldrums and the latter is already seeing a major 'correction', if not yet an actual bursting of the IT bubble, which will have big repercussions on the world market: South Korea is the world's third-largest producer of IT and telecommunications hardware.


Although the indebtedness of the country's 407 publicly-listed companies has been significantly reduced, it still averages 200% of their equity value. According to the LG Economic Institute, in absolute terms outstanding loans are 50% greater than pre-1997! As the KCTU explains, it is the working class - mainly through indirect taxation - which is footing the bill of bail-outs and bankruptcies. The workers' response to the worsening situation has been indicated by a recent upsurge in struggle.

The KCTU opposes the Korea-Japan Free Trade proposals for deregulation and its attacks on hard-won union rights, especially in the notorious Free Trade Zones. 'Restructuring' in banking and finance threatens mass redundancies and has led to big struggles on the part of organised bank workers. Cut-backs in public spending have affected public transport and seen Seoul underground workers taking action. Earlier this year, Sammi steelworkers marched on the capital to demand the jobs lost in the take-over by POSCO nearly three years ago, which were established as their right by court order.

Chronic over-capacity in the car industry world-wide was one of the major factors leading to the 1997 crash. It is also behind the recent collapse of one of the biggest Korean car firms - Daewoo Motors - and the take-over of 70% of Samsung Motors by the French car-maker, Renault. Just before the election, car production in South Korea was brought to a standstill for more than a week by strike action involving 80,000 workers, mostly in the KCTU unions, demanding the nationalisation of Daewoo: $44 million-worth of production was lost each day.


The leadership of the KCTU originally proposed a joint initiative to save the company which involved the union, government, employers and creditors. The bosses and their representatives will never protect workers in afflicted industries. For this, the nationalisation of the company under democratic control by workers' representatives is essential. So is a programme for the nationalisation of the chaebol and a democratic, socialist plan of production.

Even the KCTU's moderate approach has been rejected out of hand by Kim Dae-jung's administration, which says it will not participate in any consultations with the trade union movement! The car strikes were declared illegal and warrants issued for the arrest of 34 workers' leaders.

As May Day approached the leadership of the KCTU began preparations for a general strike. As a result of this challenge, and also to try to undermine the workers' resistance, 100 'battle-geared' police raided the Daewoo workers' union headquarters at Pupyung early in the morning of 25 April. Twenty trade union activists were arrested - seven were detained. The following day, 1,000 workers stopped work at the Pupyung factory, blocking the four entrances to the site. Five bus-loads of police waited outside. Serious clashes between workers and the state forces were inevitable.

Three years have passed since the Korean economic 'miracle' came crashing down. Experience since then has demonstrated that capitalist 'restructuring' does not benefit the working class. A serious and consistent political offensive is needed to fight for the reconstruction of the economy on socialist lines. A workers' party armed with such an approach could reap big electoral successes but, more importantly, lead the heroic Korean working class to a lasting victory over capitalism and all its associated evils.


Elizabeth Clarke

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