South Korean struggle through the life and tragic death of Bang Yeong-hwan (1968-2023)
South Korean struggle through the life and tragic death of Bang Yeong-hwan (1968-2023))

On 6 October the South Korean labour movement lost Bang Yeong-hwan—a comrade, leader and, for many, a friend. 

Born in 1968 to a working-class family, Bang’s early life was marked by the tumultuous struggle against the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship. Chun ruled South Korea from 1980 to 1988, when he was forced to hand over power to a successor in the face of a mass, millions-strong movement for democracy.

The “liberalisation” that followed, however, was limited. Business owners were satisfied with winning the right to have their interests represented in parliament. For them, the movement was over. But many workers—who in the period of the dictatorship had very few rights and suffered terrible wages and working conditions—were emboldened by the democracy movement’s gains and attempted to extend newly found political freedoms to the workplace.

Data from the Korea Labor Institute shows union membership doubled to 2 million between 1987 and 1989, and there were more industrial disputes in 1987 alone than in the preceding ten years combined.

Bang entered the workforce in the late 1980s. This was a time when, according to a Washington Post article by Peter Maass, workplace casualties in South Korea were “about 15 times the rate in Western nations”. 

Bang was employed at Wonjin Rayon, the biggest South Korean producer of rayon, an artificial silk. Workers there were forced to work with murderously inadequate safety gear and ventilation. Exposure to carbon disulfide—a highly toxic solvent used in the manufacturing process—resulted in more than 300 deaths and hundreds more suffering lifelong afflictions as severe as paralysis.

Bang became involved with the union and rank-and-file industrial activity. After successive strikes in which he played a significant role, the Wonjin Rayon workers forced the company to make significant investments to improve health and safety. 

Unfortunately, this victory coincided with a time of generalised retreat in the South Korean workers’ movement. In the early 1990s Wonjin Rayon moved its assets to China. Like other big capitalists, the company felt confident enough in the stability of the new South Korean democracy to wage an offensive against workers. Demoralised and blacklisted from employment, Bang resorted to petty crime to survive.

Tellingly, the post-democracy movement governments never repealed the draconian 1948 National Security Act, using it as justification for thousands of politically motivated incarcerations during the 1990s. Targeting “any anticipated activities compromising the safety of the state”, the act justified the imprisonment (and torture) of thousands of radical students, socialists and trade union organisers. 

Revolutionary socialist Choi Il-bung, in an interview published in the International Socialism journal, recalled, “During the whole decade more than 200 of our members [out of an organisation of never more than 300-400 members] were arrested, some comrades twice or even three times”. 

Bang was among those who spent time in jail. Although he was charged for petty crimes rather than being targeted because of his union activities, his experience of prison was similar to many working-class militants in oppressive regimes. He developed relationships with political prisoners across a variety of traditions and organisations, and was convinced of socialist politics. He emerged from jail with the intention of dedicating his life to being a revolutionary rank-and-file worker.

Bang eventually found work as a taxi driver. It was a difficult life, drivers often forced to work 12-hour shifts just to scrape by. To minimise costs, the taxi company, Haesung Transportation, instituted arbitrary unpaid work stoppages during non-peak times and would force drivers to operate vehicles drenched in vomit. 

Amid these conditions, Bang unionised his workplace, establishing a branch of the Public Transport Workers’ Union Taxi Division under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in 2019. 

In 2020, Bang was fired from his taxi job for refusing to accept a new yearly contract which offered no long-term security. After a long struggle involving coworkers, socialists and supporters, he was reinstated in 2022—but still refused to sign the dodgy contract the company insisted on. As punishment, the company paid him no more than three and a half hours’ worth of wages a day, while still expecting that he would work a full 40-hour week. 

Understanding how Bang found himself in this situation requires a broader view of the state of the class struggle in South Korea today, and how this relates to historical developments going back to the 1980s.

The flagrant disregard for minimum wages and conditions is encouraged in South Korea by extremely loose and largely unenforceable labour laws. In the current context, companies feel particularly emboldened in this area. The South Korean government is concerned by recent weak economic data.  Milton Ezrati, writing in Forbes in April this year, reported a drop in exports of around 15 percent in the year to February and factory activity lower than would be expected in a healthy South Korean economy. Although there was a slight jump in GDP in the most recent quarter, forecast growth is still barely half of the 1.4 percent desired by the Central Bank of Korea. 

Since the 2022 election of the ultra-conservative People Power government, President Yoon Suk-Yeol has intensified the ruling class offensive against the union movement—despite the total days spent on strike during 2022 being the lowest of the last decade. At this point, the workers’ movement seems to be decisively in retreat.

Western audiences might have glimpsed the element of class-based radicalism within South Korean politics through cultural outputs like Parasite and Squid Game. To understand why this latent, unorganised class consciousness hasn’t translated into an uptick in the workers’ movement, two factors—both related to the role of trade union bureaucracies—must be understood.

The first is the distinction between “regular” and “irregular” workers, manifesting in a culture of workplace sectionalism even within industries with a high rate of unionisation and militancy.

 Irregular workers are those employed without an official contract. They are not covered under existing labour laws, but nevertheless often fill exactly the same role as their “regular” coworkers. A comparison can be made to “two-tier” contracts in Australia, and the division created is exploited by the bosses in the same way. The presence of irregular workers with inferior wages and conditions is used to scare regular workers out of taking strike action and fighting for improvements either for themselves or for their irregular coworkers.

The KCTU, despite posturing as a radical union confederation, will happily accept contracts enshrining divisions between workers if it means avoiding class conflict. Organised irregular workers are usually in unions or union divisions separate from their regular counterparts. Regular workers’ unions will do deals which (supposedly) benefit those workers at the expense of irregular workers. In reality, the main beneficiaries are the companies, which can deliver the bare minimum of improvements to one section of workers while dodging costly strikes and maintaining access to a growing pool of cheap, unprotected labour that can be used to undermine future organising efforts.

Many recent high-profile industrial disputes in South Korea have been concluded through sell-out deals pushed through by the KCTU. As recently as September, 89 percent of workers in Hyundai car plants represented by the Korean Metal Workers Union voted in favour of a walkout for higher wages and job security. A radical rank-and-file minority successfully won the inclusion in the log of claims of demands around the rehiring of fired workers and for irregular workers to receive equal benefits.

Before the strike even began, however, the union leadership forced through a sell-out deal which settled for a below inflation pay rise of 4.8 percent and nothing for irregular workers. The “sweetener” was a considerable one-time bonus for regular workers.

The second factor explaining the dynamics of Korean class struggle today stems from the defining period of Bang and many other working-class militants' political life: the failure of the 1980s democracy movement, and class struggle since, to cohere into a working-class-based political organisation.

A workers’ party—even a thoroughly neoliberal one like the Australian Labor Party—is interdependent with union bureaucracies, granting the union movement more structural permanency and legislative protections (although obviously not without the tendencies towards reformism inherent within trade union structures).

In lieu of this, the KCTU has adopted a tactic of lobbying the bourgeois Justice, People Power and especially Democratic parties to institute more progressive legislation, and shying away from strikes to avoid stepping on the toes of the big chaebol corporations (like Samsung) to which those parties are beholden.

A significant portion of the union bureaucrats’ energy is spent isolating and suppressing rank-and-file militants like Bang Yeong-hwan, who they see as a threat to this strategy. Indeed, the executive branch of the Public Transport Workers’ Union reportedly disciplined Bang in retaliation for protesting against the union’s treatment of militant low-level organisers—using crucial union resources to run a smear campaign against him. Exercises in internal discipline like this, the unions hope, will keep them out of the government’s crosshairs.

All this, then, explains why Bang ended up in such an impossible predicament.

On 26 September—the 227th day of his protest against his employment contract and the sell-out dealing of the union bureaucrats who were supposed to fight for him—Bang set himself on fire. On 6 October, he died. “Self-immolation” implies that the painful death was his own doing. This lets off the hook the corporate bosses, cowering bureaucrats and politicians whose action or inaction offered no dignified way forward to a decent life.

Before succumbing to his wounds, Bang spent his last days bandaged and unconscious. His final moments are a tragic but poignant metaphor for working-class life.

Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that workers are physically and mentally degraded by capitalism into becoming merely “an appendage of the machine”. Bandaged or healed, without class consciousness we are at the mercy of the relentless regime of exploitation and oppression that rules every aspect of our lives, and our horizon is confined to the day to day struggle just to reproduce our ability to work.

A universal class experience gives workers, regardless of language or ethnicity, an implicit understanding that society is unfair—that it doesn’t have to be like this—yet the vast ideological and coercive institutions of the capitalist class tirelessly work to bludgeon this consciousness out of existence. 

To honour Bang Yeong-hwan and the countless other martyrs of this system, we must build a mass party: one that can cohere and foster the militant spirit of workers like Bang, rather than allowing it be defeated by the capitalist weapons of demoralisation, violence and isolation. A party that can, through the power and courage of ordinary workers, make every glimpse of collective struggle and solidarity—such as we are witnessing internationally around Palestine—a chance to further tear away the bloodied bandages, revealing the conscious, loving and free humanity beneath.

 

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