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[Editorial] Political strike

KCTU's general strike demanding Yoon’s resignation will dampen signs of export recovery

By Korea Herald

Published : July 5, 2023 - 05:30

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The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions launched a two-week general strike on Monday, demanding the resignation of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

It is feared the general strike will dampen any signs of a recovery in exports, which prop up South Korea’s economy. The country posted a trade surplus of $1.13 billion last month, ending a 15-month streak of trade deficit.

The confederation threatened to mobilize more than 400,000 of its 1.2 million members to strike, which will rotate among its affiliated industry unions. If as many members as expected join the strike, it will be the largest walkout under the Yoon administration.

The Hyundai Motor labor union with the largest membership in the Korean Metal Workers' Union is scheduled to join the strike for the first time in five years. Nurses, care workers and other members of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union are scheduled to start an indefinite strike on July 13.

The confederation also plans to hold candlelight rallies in major cities across the country on four occasions demanding Yoon's resignation. The KCTU said that through the strikes it seeks to pressure Yoon to resign, block Japan from releasing wastewater into the sea from a crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima and build the political influence of workers. The confederation is also planning a rally against military exercises among South Korea, Japan and the United States next month. It owned up to staging a “political strike” that is far from expanding labor rights.

It is hard for labor strikes to win over public sympathy when they neglect the reality of the country. Korea posted a trade surplus last month, but this was largely thanks to reduced imports. Its external trade conditions are still unfavorable amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and the escalating competition between the United States and China. Above all, the self-employed and working class are living through hard times.

Many members of the working class are weighed down with debts. According to the Bank of Korea, 3 million people spent almost all of their income on repaying principal debt and interest as of the end of the first quarter. Of them 1.75 million were in a state of de facto bankruptcy as their outstanding debts exceeded their annual incomes. A confederation-led strike in this precarious situation will only aggravate the feeling of loss among economically vulnerable people who long for economic recovery. The trade group should consider the economic and social aftermath of the strike, including the collateral damage it might inflict on innocent working people.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the confederation has taken the side of a particular faction under the mask of a labor movement whenever social conflict happens. It did so when the whole nation was rocked by the scandal involving Justice Minister Cho Kuk. It often shouted for US troops to leave South Korea. This time, too, it appears to keep step with the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea over the issue of the Fukushima wastewater discharge. Obviously the labor group is moving with next year’s general election in mind.

The confederation’s political and radical struggles will only weaken its base. Member unions including the Bank of Korea and Posco have started to drop out of the group because it is buried in an anachronistic ideology and pursues political influence rather than substantive assistance for workers.

A political strike to bring down the current government will only set back the country's economy which began to gain momentum from overseas construction orders and nuclear power plant projects. The authorities must protect peaceful demonstrations but show a policy of zero tolerance for illegal acts. After the government’s strict response to truck drivers' collective refusal to work last year, the president’s approval rating rose into the 40 percent range. Many support the current government's rule-of-law response.