Unions Light the Candle of Democracy in South Korea

*By Lugha Yogaraja
Time Period: 2016-2017
Location: South Korea, especially Seoul
Main Actors: Korean Federation of Trade Unions (KCTU), People’s Action for the Immediate Resignation of President Park
General Strikes

In the mid-2000s South Korea began experiencing a period of democratic decline under the presidencies of Lee Myung-Bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-Hye (2013-2017). Both presidential administrations came to power in part through drawing on feelings of nostalgia for the period of high economic growth under Korean dictator Park Chung-Hee in the 1960s and 1970s. Once in power both administrations resorted to heavy-handed oppression of political dissent, including violent crackdowns on peaceful protest, outlawing civil society organizations that opposed them, and blacklisting artists and authors who were seen as insufficiently supportive of the government. Both governments, particularly the Park Geun-Hye administration, also engaged in widespread corruption, closely collaborating with Korea’s large chaebol company conglomerates.

The South Korean labor movement, which had played a key role in the country’s democratic movement in the 1980s, faced much of the brunt of the government’s oppression, and thus began organizing to oppose their authoritarian overreach. In particular, the national-level Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) organized several general strikes against growing government repression. These strikes initially gained little support. However, in 2014 the government’s corruption was brought into sharp focus through a national tragedy: the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which led to the deaths of over 300 ferry passengers. Later investigations revealed both government incompetence in the rescue effort, and corrupt relationships between the government and ferry companies, which had led to deregulation and lax safety standards. Then in 2016, a series of investigations revealed that President Park had offered extensive political patronage to major companies in exchange for donations to her personal advisor Choi Soon-Sil. The combination of public rage over both the Sewol disaster and the Choi Soon-Sil revelations led to widespread support for a movement to force President Park to resign.

The KCTU and other labor unions played a central role in organizing the protest movement demanding Park’s resignation. Using their long-standing networks across the country and their connections to other civil society organizations, the KCTU helped organize a coalition of over 1,500 organizations called the “People’s Action for the Immediate Resignation of President Park.” In addition to continuing labor strikes, the coalition organized a series of candlelight protests that drew millions of participants from across the country, peaking with a day of protest in December 2016 involving roughly 2.2 million protesters. After this day of protest, the Korean legislature voted to impeach President Park, but protests continued until March 2017, when the Constitutional Court of Korea upheld the impeachment and officially removed President Park from office.

The situation in South Korea offers some striking parallels both to past and potential future democratic backsliding in the United States and offers several lessons for pro-democracy organizers. The first of these is the importance of major triggering events. While the KCTU and other unions had long organized against the Park administration, it was not until the broader public was made dramatically aware of the administration’s failures through the Sewol ferry disaster and the Choi Soon-Sil scandals that their campaigns gained the level of broad support necessary to mobilize an effective pro-democracy movement. Second is the importance of coalitional organizing. The candlelight protests in 2016 and 2017 were able to maintain their unified message and disciplined, peaceful organizing due to careful collaboration facilitated by established organizations like the KCTU.

Where to Learn More
– Chang, Dae-Oup (2021). “Korean Labour Movement: The Birth, Rise, and Transformation of the Democratic Trade Union Movement.” in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea.
– Kong, Suk-Ki (2017). “The Great Transformation of Korean Social Movements: Reclaiming a Peaceful Civil Revolution.EAI Issue Briefing.
– Lin, Sacha (2019). “South Koreans Demonstrate for President Park Guen-Hye’s Resignation (Candlelight Revolution), 2016-2017.Global Nonviolent Action Database.
– Shin, Gi-Wook and Rennie Moon (2017). “South Korea After Impeachment.” Journal of Democracy
– Yun, Ji-Whan and Hee Min (2020). “Beyond Continuity: The Defiance of Ordinary Citizens and the 2016 Candlelight Protests in South Korea.Korea Journal

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