It is a cloudy afternoon on November 13.
A young man steps out into the streets of Seoul, holding a copy of the South Korean labor laws. Gasoline fire consumes his body with every step. With labor movements suffocated by the regime, this is his last declaration against inhuman exploitation.
“We are not machines,” he cries through the flames. “Do not let my death be in vain!”
His name is Chun Tae-il.
Fifty-one years later, clouds once again fill the sky on November 13.
The shrill sound of whistles pierce the air. The police have already cordoned off the site of Chun’s immolation to prevent the workers from paying their respect. Roadblocks close off streets, subway stations, and public spaces are shut down. Even so, ten thousand workers from around the country are gathered in the Workers’ Rally to honor Chun’s legacy. Every single one is wearing a mask. Even with the ongoing vaccination, the pandemic is still a fact of life in Korea. Despite the loosened social distancing regulations allowing sports events and concerts, all requests by the workers to organize socially-distanced rallies in locations across the city were denied wholesale by the city government. Instead the police corralled all the workers into a single park.
Despite the constraints, the workers stand proud, showing both confidence and caution. They have organized safe, peaceful protests in such difficult conditions before, and they will do so again.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of flags and banners fly in the chill breeze, each representing a union, a political party, or a community organization. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest umbrella union in South Korea, leads the way.
The rally begins. Their heads bowed, the workers observe a moment of silence for the martyrs of the labor movement and the imprisoned comrades. The silence gives way to a song. Voices rise in unison into the anthem of the Korean progressive movements: “the March for the Beloved”.
“As we march ahead, let the living follow!”
As the song ends, the workers sit on the cold, hard pavement in orderly rows. The crowd stretches so long, that even with loudspeakers it is difficult to hear the organizers from the far back. Even so, some slogans are clearly audible.
“We are Chun Tae-il!”
“Let’s dismantle inequality!”
With every slogan, the workers hold their fists high, and wave their flags and pickets.
We approach a comrade holding one of the flags for an interview, Oh Sang-taek. the chairman of the preparatory committee of Together Labor. His flag says “Hope for the Working People: Together Labor” in simple, friendly blue lettering against white. His organization conducts educational programs for union organizers to develop political consciousness and organizing skills.
We ask him about the significance of the day’s event. The workers are suffering as they bear the brunt of the pandemic, Sang-taek explains. The government, rather than providing the support necessary for the workers to survive, has been suppressing their voices and their demands. The police even raided the KCTU headquarters to arrest its chairman, Yang Kyeong-su, for organizing a general strike.
“With this year’s Workers Rally,” he says, “the workers have decided to take matters into their own hands, to show their own strength to overcome this dire situation.”
The formation next to us is the supermarket workers’ union, composed of mostly middle-aged women. Their yellow vests are embroidered with their demands to stop layoffs and to improve their working conditions. They beat their inflatable thunder sticks together, as if cheering for their favorite sports team.
Once their cheer quiets down a little, Sang-taek tells us that the main slogans this year are “dismantle inequality” and “transform the society”.
“We need a broad, sweeping transformation of the entire society into a country that serves the good of the people, through expansion of the commons and the public sector,” he explains. In the rally they also call for the government to immediately release the KCTU chairman, and to stop its repression of the labor movement.
After the 2016 Candlelight Revolution overthrew the corrupt Park Geun-hye regime, the South Korean working class had high hopes for the new Moon Jae-in administration with policies like the abolition of irregular work, reduction of inequalities, improved working conditions, and a guaranteed right of union activity. All its policies, however, have been no more than empty promises to get votes. Time and again, the Moon government and the Democratic Party have shown themselves to be on the side of the capital-owning class, of the rich and the corporate conglomerates.
Behind us, sirens wail. Massive trucks and armored buses line up into a wall that blocks the street. Hundreds of police close in, forming a tight phalanx that encircles the protestors. Their loudspeakers bark at us to disperse or face charges. Entirely undaunted, the supermarket workers take selfies, with the riot police as their backdrop.
“As you can see from all the police around us,” Sang-taek says, his voice calm, “Workers gathering together is met only with opposition and repression from the government under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID.”
He emphasized that this is why we must carry on the Chun Tae-il spirit. Even in the most hostile situations, Chun tried to build organizations wherever he went, to make new comrades that can share the struggle. Under the military dictatorship, almost every effort towards progress was met with repression but he never stopped meeting new people, to organize them, and to walk with them, until the moment of his final sacrifice.
“His love for the people, his relentless drive towards practice and organizing, and his unyielding commitment to his comrades and the struggle are the core of the Chun Tae-il spirit.”
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which led the Candlelight Revolution and is leading today’s Workers Rally, proudly carries on that spirit. However, while it has passed one million in membership to become the largest umbrella union in South Korea, the number is still far short compared to the overall working population. Organizing more workers is the most pressing task, Sang-taek acknowledges, but personal improvement of each activist is just as important. Simply building skills and competence is not enough. Organizers must develop a clear anti-capitalist consciousness concerning the social and historical responsibility of trade unions.
“Power comes only from the organized workers,” Sang-taek says. “So our tasks are twofold: increasing the organizational coherence of the KCTU, and using that trade union power to strengthen the political party of the working class.”
Currently, while there are many progressive political parties in South Korea, no single political party can be said to represent the working class as a whole. This is a challenge that must be overcome. Unity must be achieved.
“Neoliberalism is attacking the whole world, not just Korea,” Sang-taek says. “Marx’s words, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’, have only become truer today. We need to unite, now more than ever. For that, we need communities and networks for the working class around the world to come together and support each other. We need to pay more attention to the struggles in other parts of the world, and to support them, and to show our solidarity.”
As the police encirclement encroaches even closer, the protestors break into another song: “the Song of the People”. We interrupt our interview and join our voices into the chorus.
Against the forces of tyranny, against imperialist exploitation, we make a vow to history and cry: liberation!
Sang-taek stands up and waves his Together Labor flag, the white and blue streaming along the music.
“We in Korea must do better, and I promise that we will do better.” It is his message to the international working class. “Comrades around the world, I hope you will join us in our struggle.”
The Song of the People rises into its triumphant conclusion.
Behold, our march for the new dawn, our banners flying in victory! Let the people storm onward!
The workers stand up, fists in the air. Their voices shout out in unison a single word. For the Korean working class, it is a greeting; it is a goodbye; it is a battle cry; it is a call to action. The word, repeated time and again by every worker, is toojaeng: “struggle!”
We are Chun Tae-il.
Our struggle continues.
Steven Lee is from the International Strategy Center, a South Korea-based organization that focuses on studying international issues and carrying out solidarity activities.