Labor strife in South Korea is back in the news, as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions launched a general strike on Nov. 2l. The KCTU also boycotted a meeting of the Economic, Social and Labor Council, a newly expanded presidential commission designed to develop policy consensus on economic and social issues. The KCTU is protesting the bipartisan agreement to relax temporarily the recently established 52-hour limit on weekly working hours.
In its protests, the KCTU argued that President Moon Jae-in was backtracking on promises to help workers and that he was not upholding the spirit of the candlelight demonstrations that eventually allowed him to come into power in May 2017. Tensions with the KCTU have put the president in a difficult position at a time when he is coming under increasing criticism for a sluggish economy.
Since democratization in 1987, South Korea has gone through cycles of labor strife. Each cycle has seen issues resolved that have helped make South Korea a fairer and more democratic society. This has helped South Korea overcome the history of labor repression during the years of dictatorship and rapid economic growth.
The problem with labor strife in recent years is one of optics. Scenes of striking workers make the public feel insecure. What once was seen as a natural outgrowth of democratic development is now seen as a threat to social order. The business establishment knows this and uses it to shift public opinion in its favor. The media and the political establishment join in calls for stability, further weakening support for labor.
What can be done to reduce labor strife in South Korea? The Economic, Social and Labor Council could help. The ESLC is rooted in the Korea Tripartite Commission of government, business, and labor that was established in 1998 at the depths of an economic crisis that began in 1997. Facing near default in late 1997, South Korea turned to the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans. In exchange for loans, the IMF required economic reforms that led to massive economic restructuring, which caused dislocation and suffering.
Former President Kim Dae-jung rallied the nation to work together to overcome the crisis. The Tripartite Commission emerged from that effort in the hope that a consensus could be reached. As part of overcoming the crisis, South Korea was courting foreign direct investments, and labor strife would have hurt that effort. Social consensus by a commission is never an easy task, but it worked in the years after the economic collapse because it had to. The depth of the crisis meant that everybody had to sacrifice.
The economic slowdown that South Korea has experienced since 2012, however, is nothing compared to that after the 1997 economic crisis. On the positive side, South Korea handled the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye with remarkable stability, and the current rapprochement with North Korea has reduced the threat of war.
Appealing to the sense of crisis to develop a consensus may not work because there is no crisis. Instead, appealing to the broad middle class’s desire for consensus offers a way forward. Public displeasure over labor strife mirrors public displeasure with feckless politicians. The broad middle wants a government that works to promote prosperity, protects democracy and defends the nation. It views ideologues and special interests with suspicion.
The rise of the broad middle is a result of South Korea’s maturity as an advanced democracy with a large middle class. As in other advanced democracies, the middle class prefers consensus over conflict and distrusts political extremes. Nations where the middle class is weakening, such as the United States, have seen an increase in political polarization.
The KCTU is mistaken in thinking that it made Moon Jae-in president because the broad middle did it. Impeachment would not have been possible without the broad middle, and Moon would not have been elected without its support. President Moon should continue to encourage the KCTU to participate in the ESLC rather than taking to the streets.
The broad middle has supported President Moon, often strongly, but that is beginning to change as the economic slowdown continues. Unemployment is rising, household debt is rising, consumer confidence is falling, and small business are closing. The broad middle is beginning to worry that prosperity could be falling away. To assuage its fears, President Moon should take a page from Kim Dae-jung’s playbook and focus sharply on pro-growth economic policies that create jobs and raise incomes.Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.