For Germany's media the smoky spectacle of the January labor strike in Korea was top news. For
weeks hardly a day went by without newspapers and television picturing battles between workers and police, demonstrating strikers and fist-swinging union-leaders. Special reporters were dispatched from Europe to cover the "story". No doubt - once more the international media attention for South Korea was extraordinary. This was very much like last summer. The media swooned while students and police fought bloody battles on the campus of Yonsei University and when a few weeks later, a North Korean submarine ran ashore on the east coast. What then followed to the disbelief of not only the Korean population was what looked like a mini-guerrilla war on the South Korean soil.|
The submarine-incident mobilized a lot of sympathy for the Seoul government in the international community, but the labor strike has produced a very different image. I did not come across a single international newspaper editorial that condoned the government's policies regarding the revision of the labor laws. Most of the opinions of the published articles were dramatically negative. They made a declaration that the Kim Young-sam's handling of the labor law revision was a set-back for democracy and a return to authoritarianism in South Korea. Setting aside the justification, there can be no question, that for the international image Korea, which likes to be portrayed as a dynamic, modern and ever successful industrial nation, the labor issue was a kick in Korea's face.
The question that still remains is why have the international community, specifically the public in Germany, shown such an interest in South Korea's turmoil? There are multiple answers to this question. Firstly there is the superficial explanation, that pictures of fighting demonstrators and police make good TV-news. Though this was very much the case last summer at Yonsei there is deeper and more personal public interest in Korea's social issue than a television voyeurism for violence.
Many people in Germany showed real interest in the causes and roots of the social conflict in South Korea, as much of what is happening here resembles similar controversies in Europe. For many years South Korea together with other Asian "tiger economies" were feared and admired as over-competitive, low-wage, and much-work "production machines". Workers in Germany and other European countries had gotten used to being warned by their managers, that they would lose the race with the "Asians" should they not get accustomed to harsher working conditions. Suddenly these same European workers are informed after the labor demonstrations, that their Korean colleagues are being told more or less the same thing by their bosses! There are some very interesting parallels regarding the battle over the revision of the Korean labor laws and the more recent social clashes in Germany. In both cases organized labor has been in the defensive, trying to defend a status quo, whereas management (in collusion with the government) has tried to revise social standards. In both cases, the revisionist - or from the workers' point of view, even reactionary - policy is justified with economic necessities for more flexibility in a globalized environment. At the center of the Korean turmoil stood and still stands the government's scheme to abolish the quasi lifetime employment contract between business and worker. In addition, Korean employers are complaining - very much as their colleagues in other parts of the developed world - about too high wages - which are forcing them to relocate more investment to "Cheaper" countries. Since the beginning of this decade, the transfer of capital abroad is a development Germany has been experiencing with an increasing tendency after the collapse of communism and the opening-up of Eastern Europe. With labor costs but a fraction beyond the borders, why not build new factories there? In regard to labor costs Germany is not and will not be - in the position to compete with say Poland and Russia, just as Korea is not in the position to compete with China or Indonesia.
Thus investment by German and Korean firms in foreign countries will continue. There is neither a rational nor a feasible solution prohibiting this and the improvement of investment conditions back home is the only workable perspective. The revision of the South Korean labor laws that date back to 1953 seemed a sensible measure. Flexibilization, modernization, and deregulation are development s the Korean economy, an economy so dependent on international exchange, cannot disregard. The Korean government cannot ignore the people's basic human rights.
It the aim is modernization and deregulation - in European concepts, liberalization - that should not be confined to a narrow economic perspective. However, this was the impression many critics of Seoul's handling of the labor law issue received. A central issue in the social conflict is that of the legal status of the "Korean Confederation of Trade Unions" - KCTU or Minjunochong in Korean. To the disappointment of many, the revision of the outdated labor laws excluded the legalization of the second biggest South Korean umbrella union. In effect the revised law criminalizes half a million members of Minjunochong!
One does not have to agree to all the positions and demands of this union organization in order to find their disregard for the fundamental right of association as being undemocratic. In an unusual expression of solidarity with the outlawed South Korean unionists, many human rights groups around the world, the international trade union movement, and even the government of the United States of America have jointly and publicly called on Seoul to revise the labor law and to legalize plural unions.
After weeks of tension and what was called by the international media as "South Korea's biggest strike", President Kim Young-sam finally agreed to rewrite the labor laws. For the President and his party, their handling of the labor law is an embarrassing setback and a serious loss of face. There is little doubt, that further concessions need to follow. Ultimately, the rights of association will have to be granted to all South Korea's unionists. Some embarrassment and even more economic loss due to the protracted strikes could have been averted, had the government of Korea accepted a simple truth: Strong and legal unions are not a threat to social peace, but that these human rights are an integral part of every modern industrial democracy.
Dr. Meinardus is Resident Representative of the