REPRESSION GROWS IN SOUTH KOREA
Police break down the glass door at the Korean Confederation of Trade Union headquarters during a government raid of KCTU in Seoul on December 22.
Umbrella trade union KCTU sets Dec. 28 for a general strike
By Jeon Jong-hwi, Im In-tack and Lee Jung-gook, staff reporters
The Park Geun-hye administration, which has maintained an “uncommunicative and proud of it” approach on contentious social issues, is ramping up its use of force and rejecting dialogue.
In the latest development, police stormed the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) on Dec. 22, the fourteenth day of an ongoing strike against railway privatization. It was the first time authorities had been sent into the KCTU since it was legalized in 1999.
The police were there to execute arrest warrants for nine members of the leadership for the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU), but the individuals in question weren’t there. Instead, the 136 KCTU officials and members who fought back against the police were rounded up and arrested.
After convening an emergency meeting of its central committee, the KCTU declared a “genuine campaign to bring down the Park administration,” with a general strike to start on Dec. 28.
The government’s attack on the KCTU was a signal of how anxious it is to end the KRWU strike, which has drawn out to become the longest in South Korean railway history. As popular support for the anti-privatization strike remains high, the situation appears poised to escalate into a more general anti-privatization campaign in areas like healthcare and education. With the “front lines” of the privatization furor now parked on the railway, the government appears to be trying to break them down as quickly as possible.
Previously, Park called the strike a “groundless action that shows a lack of trust in the government’s promise not to privatize.” Police and prosecutors promised to enforce the law rigorously.
“There seems to have been a strategic decision by the hard line bureaucrats in the Blue House,” said Cho Hee-yeon, a professor at Sungkonghoe University’s graduate school of NGO studies. “Crushing the privatization strike is the only way to keep the unions in check, and they would also be able to push the next phase of their policy.”
“In short, they see it as a great opportunity,” Cho said.
Indeed, unions are among the best organized areas in South Korean society for speaking out on social issues.
Another of the government’s aims is to draw a clear line that extends beyond the KRWU to all members of the labor community who oppose the administration’s policies. While the KCTU, KRWU, and civil society in general have proposed setting up a “social dialogue” framework to address the key issue in the privatization furor - the establishment of a KORAIL subsidiary - the government’s response has instead been an ostentatious use of force. In effect, it has shown that it intends to respond to the debate by putting physical force ahead of dialogue.
“The government should be the ones initiating dialogue,” said a KRWU source on condition of anonymity. “Instead, they’ve issued what amounts to a declaration of war. They refuse to even recognize the body that is the supreme representative of unions, viewing it as an enemy instead.”
Some are saying the administration’s militant response is a reaction to having its legitimacy called into question. From this position, the actions are intended to break a deadlock that has been going for nearly a year since Park took office.
It’s a year that has seen one problem after another for the administration. Already facing a challenge to its legitimacy due to the election interference by the National Intelligence Service and the military’s Cyber Command, it has had to deal with a backlash over backpedaling on its basic old age pension election pledges, the privatization controversy, and charges of “targeting” former Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook.
“These actions come in the context of questions about the administration’s legitimacy, after it emerged that the election that brought it into office was unfair, along with a loss of popular support over the backpedaling on election pledges,” said Catholic University of Korea professor Cho Don-moon.
“They can’t win the people over, and they’re trampling on the right to pursue stability and happiness,” Cho added. “What happened today shows just how weak the administration’s legitimacy is.”
The KCTU’s declaration of a campaign to “bring down the administration” comes two years and one month after the ruling Saenuri Party (NFP) single-handedly pushed the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement through the National Assembly in Nov. 2011. All that’s left now is a clash between giants.