Crisis takes its toll on South Korean workers

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Jang Ho-jong, Kim Munseong and Lee Jeongwon respond to questions about the pandemic and class struggle in South Korea

SR: The South Korean government of Moon Jae-in has been praised internationally for having stopped the exponential spread of the Covid-19 without resorting to curfew. What did the lockdown in South Korea look like?
The Moon Jae-in government got it lucky. First, South Korea saw Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) spread in 2015 with 186 infection cases and 38 deaths. The government’s incompetence over disease control at that time was revealed during the outbreak. This sparked massive fury among the public, which led to some reforms being implemented in the disease prevention and control system.
However, there was not a single measure the Moon administration added after taking office.
Second, thanks to these reforms, the Korean Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC) produced large-scale pandemic response plans, but its simulation programs were only carried out as late as December. Shortly after this, the Covid-19 outbreak occurred and the KCDC was able to write pandemic guidelines based on Covid-19.
This explains why the SK government was able to develop test kits, and receive approval for their use, in order to implement testing fairly early in the outbreak. Training programs for medical professionals were also helpful.
Third, Koreans were relatively more familiar with using face masks. Ten or some years ago, many Koreans began using them because of concerns over air pollution and high levels of fine dust. This gave them an advantage in producing and utilising face masks during the pandemic. Fourth, Korea saw a rapid spread of Covid-19 in February when most schools are on school break.
Despite all these, infections spread outside the disease prevention and control system which led to thousands of cases in south-eastern parts of the country. Dozens of people were not even able to go to hospital due to the lack of beds for Covid-19 patients, who grew in number suddenly and died in their homes. This tragedy occurred because public hospitals make up less than 10 percent of all hospitals in the country. In reality, South Korea was able to avoid a massive outbreak only because the public themselves took extreme caution.
SR: In many countries, the pandemic led to open racism towards Chinese people, or people who were thought to be Chinese, as governments attempted to scapegoat minorities. There are similar reports from South Korea. Is this a big problem?
South Korea was able to avoid a massive outbreak only because the public themselves took extreme caution There were attempts at the beginning to spread bias against Chinese people. Conservative parties and the doctors’ association demanded a ban on entry of Chinese people, and the media played up such demands. But not many people took such demands seriously, given the close economic ties between the two countries. Also, bias against the Chinese, although it exists, cannot strictly be equated to racism. Chinese and Koreans are ethnically very similar.
The Christian Shincheonji sect was blamed for the Covid-19 outbreak in February. The city of Seoul even filed criminal charges against several leading members of the group. This is scapegoating. Other churches hate Shincheonji because of its unorthodox creed. But investigations by both the prosecutor’s office and the KCDC revealed the sect was blameless.
The government waged a campaign to demonise Shincheonji and shift the blame upon individuals in the run-up to the general elections. It has since repeated such scapegoating attempts against LGBTQ people and migrants who contracted the virus.
SR: How is the pandemic affecting workers?
Workers have been in serious pain. Over a million jobs disappeared during March and April, while layoffs shot up by 870,000. There have also been serious drops in wages due to shortened operations. Restructuring in the airline, auto, shipbuilding, and other industries is gaining momentum. In the midst of it all, union leaders are pushing hard for a grand social agreement.
The landslide victory of the ruling party over the right in the April general election has further fuelled expectations for a partnership with the government. A tripartite meeting to discuss a way out of the Covid-19 crisis has recently launched, in which the leadership of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) offered to allow unemployment insurance premia for regular (more secure, better-paid) workers to rise in order to help protect the more vulnerable. By promoting class collaboration, such concessions and a penchant for compromise can adversely affect class struggle and consciousness.
However, the crisis is so deep that some workers are going into struggle to defend their lives. The worsening crisis in airlines has led to attacks such as dismissals and forced unpaid leave. In response some of the fired workers are staging rallies and sit-ins.
Some irregular workers have also joined short strikes. The most impressive among recent struggles is the strike by container freight transport workers. Their employers used the Covid-19 crisis as a pretext to not even pay them the minimum rate set by government policy.
The workers struck in multiple regions. They won tangible gains through a determined battle in which they blockaded the entrances and exits of ports and warehouses.
The previous government had adopted a hardline approach against the unions, but got ousted by a mass movement only a few years ago. This made the ruling class more cautious this time. Moon Jae-in seeks to manipulate the angry public’s thirst for reform and turn it into passive expectations for his government.
For this reason, it is important for him to placate union leaders. So, the government have cracked down on militant struggles on the one hand but also floats agendas that can entice union leaders on the other. The government’s objective is to implement attacks on labour at the same time as maintaining political stability, and thereby win the confidence of capitalists in its ability to manage crises.
This is a highly uncertain enterprise. The left has at times exploited opportunities to politicise some sectional struggles, and once successfully derailed KCTU’s move to participate in social dialogue.
Nevertheless, the left in Korea is having a hard time pursuing its proper task in a consistent way. Its dismal performance in the last general election, has seen some sections morph into left reformist tendencies.
We have raised demands on the government to ban the sacking of workers, to provide income, strengthen public healthcare and so on. But apart for us, the visibility of the left as a whole has diminished during the Covid-19 crisis, with sections of it retreating into broad left electoral projects.
(Jang Ho-jong, Kim Munseong, Lee Jeongwon were interviewed by the German revolutionary magazine, Marx 21)