Trends and Prospects in 34 Countries
Korean Labour in Crisis 519
DOOWON SUH Korean Labour in Crisis 1 1. Introduction Since the early 1970s the Korean labour movement has been one of the principal agents in the struggle for political democracy and socio- economic justice, operating and surviving under the draconian repres- sion of the authoritarian regime. In the June 1987 mass movement for democracy that was organised by a variety of civil groups, industrial workers stood at the forefront and helped to topple the dictatorial military government that had been in power since the birth of the Republic of Korea in 1948. With the advent of democracy, the union- isation of both blue- and white-collar workers nationwide progressed rapidly, and their movements were suffused with diverse demands for social reform and political innovation. Deprived of institutionalised policy-making roles even after democratisation due to the opposition of capital and the state, trade unions nevertheless emerged as an influential social and political force. Although at times the fledging democratic government suppressed trade union activity no less harshly than its predecessors, and although it maintained a strategy of ex- cluding labour from politics, trade unions increased their organ- isational, social and political power until the end of 1997. When Korea was struck by the financial crisis in November 1997, industrial workers and office employees faced hardships not ex- perienced since the Korean War (1950–3). Socio-economic conditions worsened considerably and job losses were high. In this atmosphere trade unionism lost momentum. Many organisations became rent by division, they were less able to mobilise...
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