President of South Korea's Militant Union Federation Arrested for Organizing a Rally
Update: On September 15, a Seoul court denied Yang bail. The KCTU stepped up the war of words. “In October, the government will see a general strike that knows no precedent,” the organization said in a statement—Editors
The South Korean government has arrested the leader of the country’s largest umbrella organization of independent unions, a move that will further strain ongoing tensions with the labor movement.
Yang Kyeung-soo, president of the million-member Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, was arrested in a predawn raid of his Seoul office, where he had taken flight from threats of an arrest, on September 2. Hundreds of police encircled the building as officers pried open the door. A local court had issued an arrest warrant for Yang after prosecutors alleged he had violated Covid social distancing laws by organizing a rally in downtown Seoul.
SUPER-SPREADER AND SCAPEGOAT
The KCTU had organized a rally in downtown Seoul on July 3, calling on the government to address inequality deepened by the pandemic. The government did not permit the rally, citing super-spreader concerns. About 8,000 union members gathered anyway, carefully following government guidelines for social distancing. After the rally, only three attendees tested positive for Covid, with little evidence to tie their infections to the rally.
South Korea’s initial response to the pandemic was successful enough to draw international attention. However, its strict quarantines and contact tracing measures would have been impossible without cooperation by residents, who readily sacrificed their livelihoods and privacy. The government now had unfettered access to every single individual’s movement while it remained stingy in directly paying the people to help them stay afloat through the pandemic. After 18 months of the pandemic, Koreans have grown tired and frustrated with a government that struggles to vaccinate the population and control new variants. Recently, the country experienced its highest daily death rate this year.
This was the backdrop against which KCTU held its rally, where unionists demanded a freeze on dismissals during the pandemic, and direct cash payouts for workers and small business owners.
BETRAYAL AND TENSIONS
IndustrialAll and the ITUC, two global labor union federations, condemned the arrest as “wrong and disproportionate.”
Yang’s arrest came on the eve of a threatened national strike by nurses and other health care workers—the strike was averted only by a settlement with the government a few hours before the police raid on the KCTU headquarters. However, workers at more than 10 hospitals nationwide said they would still walk off the job starting on September 2. As of print time, about five strikes are ongoing.
Tensions have been smoldering between organized labor and the government of Moon Jae-in, the former human rights lawyer who was elected president four years ago on a pro-labor ticket after months of mass protests, now known as the Candlelight Revolution, led to the impeachment of his corrupt predecessor Park Geun-hye.
Through protests and street pickets, the KCTU played a pivotal role in Moon’s rise to power. In 2015, KCTU’s then-President Han Sang-gyun was jailed for organizing anti-government protests that laid the groundwork for the Candlelight Revolution. Han had to wait three years until 2018, a year after Moon took office, to be paroled.
As a presidential candidate, Moon promised he would turn South Korea into a labor-respecting society. However, about two years into his presidency, in July 2019, the government arrested Kim Myeong-hwan, then president of the KCTU, on a charge of scuffling with riot police at the National Assembly over a controversial bill. The bill would have extended working hours to dangerous levels; the average South Korean already works 2,014 hours a year, the longest in the OECD. Kim was released on bail—a rarity in South Korea, where bail petitions are routinely denied. A final court ruling is still pending.
A NEW BREED
In protest of the arrest of Kim, the KCTU abandoned its participation in a tripartite commission of the government, labor, and business. But the union returned to the commission in April 2020, amid the pandemic’s rise—Kim reached out to the government asking for “emergency settlements” to protect jobs. Three months later, Kim had to resign after failing to win union delegates’ approval for an unprecedented but vaguely worded agreement that organized labor would “proactively cooperate” on “the flexibility of working hours” with corporations, which in return would put “the most efforts possible” into the retention of employment.”
Yang, 45 years old, was elected president of the KCTU in a snap election in December 2020 on a promise that he would call a general strike for October 2021.
He was a student activist whose involvement with labor had begun in the mid-2000s as a temporary assembly line worker at a Kia Motors plant. In 2012, he was elected president of a union representing temporary workers at that plant. He is the first KCTU president who has been a temporary worker.
At least in part, Yang represents a younger generation of the South Korean labor movement. Boosted by the effects of the Candlelight Revolution, the KCTU surpassed the symbolically important mark of 1 million members in 2019—supplanting its less strident, pro-government rival, the Korean Federation of Trade Unions, as the largest union federation in the country.
At a press conference after the raid, KCTU officials confirmed that they would call a general strike for October 20. Upon arrest, Yang began a hunger strike, calling for his release.
Kap Seol is a writer and researcher based in New York. His writings have appeared in Labor Notes, In These Times, Business Insider, and other publications. In 2019, his exposé for Korean independent daily Kyunghyang revealed an imposter who had falsely claimed to be a U.S. military intelligence specialist posted to the South Korean city of Gwangju during a popular uprising in 1980.
Correction: A typo in this piece has been corrected to identify Yang, not Kim, as representing a younger generation of the South Korean Labor Movement.