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Korea Reflections

Report on a May 2018 delegation of US trade unionists, Black Lives Matter, and other social movement activists to trade unions in Korea, sponsored by US Labor Against the War and the Korean Trade Union Confederation.

group photo of union activists
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Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) executive director Michael Leon Guererro reports on a delegation of US trade unionists, Black Lives Matter, and other social movement activists to trade unions in Korea, sponsored by US Labor Against the War and the Korean Trade Union Confederation. Michael reports that the Korean labor movement played a key role in the peace process:
 
The road to the peace process was paved by the Candlelight Revolution - a popular movement uprising that lasted for months - ending in December 2016 with the impeachment of Korean President Park Gun-hye. Anchored by the KCTU, the movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in a series of protests against the corruption of the Park government and political domination by the family-owned conglomerates known as chaebols. On May 9, 2017, Moon Jae-in, a human rights attorney, was elected as the new President.
 
The delegation learned the history of the KCTU, which has grown to be a powerful organized voice of workers and changed the political landscape of Korea since being established just 30 years ago. Some of them met with former KCTU Chairman Han Sang-gyun and former vice-president Lee Young-Joo, both imprisoned by the Park administration on trumped up charges while protesting labor law reforms that would further limit workers' rights.
 
Michael writes that many questions remain in the transition to peace.
 
How will the process of denuclearization take place? What will be the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops? How will the U.S. transition and clean up its military bases and the legacy of heavy toxic pollution that these bases invariably create? And will Trump ultimately derail a peace process that the Koreans themselves have taken into their own hands? 

Glass cases filled with gas masks is not a common site in any metro station except in South Korea. Metro lines are buried deeper underground than most systems. Transit riders walk through long tunnels to make connections between stations. This has become a cultural legacy in a country more than 3 generations into the Cold War. Over the years there have been hopeful moments that the politicalmilitary tension would come to an end - only to end in disappointment and frustration. But in this moment, there is cautious optimism that a transition to peace is really on the horizon.

From May 1 through 8 I had the honor to be invited on a delegation organized by US Labor Against the War (USLAW) to South Korea. It was a peace mission sponsored by USLAW and the Korean Trade Union Confederation (KCTU). Our group was a mix of trade unionists, Black Lives Matter and other social movement activists and a team of interns from Tougaloo College. Our purpose was to strengthen solidarity with the Korean labor and social movements. We couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Just a week earlier President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea met in an historic summit at the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries. Both leaders agreed to a peace process that will ultimately end the Korean War and eventually reunify the Korean peninsula.

The road to the peace process was paved by the Candlelight Revolution - a popular movement uprising that lasted for months - ending in December 2016 with the impeachment of Korean President Park Gunhye. Anchored by the KCTU, the movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in a series of protests against the corruption of the Park government and political domination by the family-owned conglomerates known as chaebols that control major sectors of the South Korean economy. On May 9, 2017, Moon Jae-in, a human rights attorney, was elected as the new President.

After a very informative orientation session at the Maritime Center in Baltimore led by Juyeon Rhee, Executive Director of Nodutdol and Reece Chenault, USLAW Executive Director, the delegation had to quickly troubleshoot as the first leg of our flight to Toronto was canceled. The team got most of us on alternate flights so that we arrived early in the morning of May 1.

A few hours later we were in the midst of tens of thousands of Korean trade unionists at the May Day rally. It was a powerful and visually striking event - with a parade of large flags representing hundreds of unions and expressions of solidarity with workers and communities in the midst of strikes or protests across the country. The #metoo movement has also had a strong influence in Korea and women workers throughout Korea were waging a nation-wide campaign to confront sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.

The next day we visited the small farming village of Seong Ju where a small army of 80-year old women is leading a protest movement against the THAAD missile defense system that the U.S. imposed on the region despite the objections of the surrounding villages. We were able to participate in a weekly Wednesday rally. We had great chants that a crew of our young delegates put together and the villagers loved the lively show of solidarity.

On May 3 we did a press conference in front of the U.S. embassy with leaders of KCTU. We recognized that the peace process is an important opportunity for workers and communities in the U.S. as well. We need to think about our own transition to a peacetime economy and to support the process forged by the Korean leaders. 

The rest of the day was spent with leaders of KCTU, including Vice-President _______, who is also the chair of the KCTU reunification committee and the Railway Workers Union (RWU) which has played an important role in building KCTU. The current chair of the confederation, Kim Myeong-hwan was the former chair of the RWU. We learned more about the history of the KCTU, which has grown to be a powerful organized voice of workers and changed the political landscape of Korea since being established just 30 years ago.

Small teams from our delegation were also able to meet with former KCTU Chairman Han Sang-gyun and former vice-president Lee Young-Joo, both imprisoned by the Park administration on trumped up charges while protesting labor law reforms that would further limit workers’ rights. Other members of the delegation met with representatives of the Korean Teachers Union which was decertified by the Park administration by allowing unemployed teachers to maintain their membership in the union. The team from Tougaloo college also met with a student organization and shared experiences of organizing and political education of students in their respective communities.

As a representative of the Labor Network for Sustainability I was of course interested in the position of the Korean government and the trade unions on climate change and a just transition from a fossil-fuelbased to a sustainable economy. In 2017 the Korean Power Plant Industry Union actually applauded the decision by the Moon administration to phase out older coal-fired power plants stating “Although our hearts are heavy, we welcome the shutdown of worn out coal power plants because we are clear about what kind of country we want to leave for our descendants.” Unfortunately I couldn’t find out more about other Korean union positions on these questions during the visit, but it is definitely an area where there is much opportunity for dialogue and exchange.

Our last visit was to the DMZ. We were met by representatives of the village of _____ and they hosted us for lunch. Our last stop was the Dorasan train station - a newly built station that was supposed to connect to the North Korean rail system when the last promising peace negotiations faltered a few years ago. The station is now a tourist spot with hopes of one day realizing its true mission.

Many questions remain in the transition to peace - how will the process of denuclearization take place? What will be the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops? How will the U.S. transition and clean up its military bases and the legacy of heavy toxic pollution that these bases invariably create? And will Trump ultimately derail a peace process that the Koreans themselves have taken into their own hands?

A promising proposal for the DMZ is that it be converted to a wildlife refuge. Apparently this fourkilometer wide stretch of land that spans the peninsula has developed into a de-facto, protected ecosystem where wildlife has flourished for nearly 7 decades - an unexpected legacy of the Cold War that hopefully has the chance to continue and expand across a united Korea.

Special thanks to Wol San Liem and Mikyung Ryu of the KCTU International Department for the hospitality, education and logistics coordination. Looking forward to more U.S.-Korea exchange and solidarity in the years to come.