Are communists discriminated against in South Korea?

Two standards: trade unions have a hard time in South Korea

At the latest since Jang Ok-gi was released on bail of 100 million won (around 77,800 euros) in April 2019, he has been one of the most colorful union activists in his country. Hardly anyone has been behind bars more often, and probably no one has remained as unapologetic as he. "I'm ready for the next trip to jail," says Jang and seems to think that this is only partly a joke. He has been chairman of the Korean Federation of Construction Workers' Unions (KFCITU) since 2016 and is ready to fight: "We still have a lot ahead of us. We will have to take to the streets often for that."

Detention of trade unionists

In recent years, South Korea has made headlines around the world as a model democratic state. After all, thanks to public demonstrations, President Park Geun-hye, who was involved in a corruption affair, was brought down here in 2016. In 2017, Samsung's de facto chief Lee Jae-yong was jailed for bribery. At the same time, there is hardly any other democratic country where trade unionists are arrested more often.

In 2015 and 2016 alone, according to the General Union of Trade Unions (KCTU), 56 trade unionists were arrested for "offenses against public order" for campaigning for workers' rights. South Korea's constitution expressly guarantees the right to freedom of assembly. But even approved demonstrations often end with arrests. And while corporate bosses are usually quickly released or pardoned, trade unionists have to serve their long sentences.

At Samsung, the country's largest group, there have been multiple examples of preferential treatment. Lee Jae-yong, arrested in 2017, was released after only one year despite a five-year prison sentence. In 2010, his father, the then Samsung boss Lee Kun-hee, was pardoned after a year and a half, although he should have spent three years in prison for tax evasion in the hundreds of millions.

In contrast, KCTU chairman Han Sang-gyun was sentenced to three years in prison in 2016 after rioting at a mass rally he organized for workers' rights. He was released after two years. His colleague Jang Ok-gi from the construction workers' union last went to jail for a protest march in November 2017 demanding higher pensions for non-employed construction workers. There was a police operation when thousands of demonstrators blocked a bridge during rush hour. As the organizer of the demonstration, Jang was held responsible and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He had to serve twelve months.

Criminalization of protests

The list of cases in which the punishment is blatantly disproportionate to the offense could go on. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association Maina Kiai said after visiting South Korea in 2016 that prison sentences for disturbing public order were used as a means to criminalize public protests. Demonstrators who are involved in trade unions are particularly affected.

The suppression of trade unions by companies and the judiciary has a long history in South Korea. This is also due to the communist brother state in the north. Since the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, a proxy war between the USA and the Soviet Union, many citizens in the strictly market-based south of North Korea saw themselves threatened. Conservative politicians and entrepreneurs exploited this feeling and denigrated the commitment to workers' rights as a communist danger. For example, the founder of Samsung Lee Byung-chul, who died in 1987, sounded during his lifetime that he would tolerate unions "only over his corpse".

Black employee lists

This attitude is particularly widespread in the powerful Samsung Group, whose around 70 companies generate around a fifth of the South Korean gross national product. It has been known on several occasions that the management of the companies keeps blacklists of union active employees. Workers who set up a workers' council shortly after the turn of the millennium were fired and later imprisoned for protests.

Because such practices are not only common at Samsung, South Korea ranks second worst in the legal index of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), along with China, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. An ITUC survey in 2017 found that 70 percent of South Koreans were concerned about weak and increasingly weakening workers' rights.

Especially since a third of the workforce in the country is not regularly employed. Precarious workers are neither entitled to dismissal protection nor to social benefits, and their wages are on average 45 percent lower than those of salaried employees. The proportion of people living in relative poverty is 17.4 percent. The old-age poverty rate is as high as 44 percent, which is higher than in any other industrial country.

Anti-union times in transition?

South Korean workers therefore have many reasons for protests, but their successes are modest, complains Jang Ok-gi: "For years we have been demanding that our people get better insurance, that they are permanently employed, that employers pay into the pension fund for them . Instead, they indicate to us when we complain about all of these shortcomings. " And then the threat of going to jail again.

But the anti-union times could change. In late 2019, a Seoul district court sentenced seven Samsung executives for systematically preventing their employees from organizing for years. Some of them had not only urged employees to end their union involvement, but had also gathered information about them in order to use it against them. Even with security forces, action was taken against employees.

Politics professor Park Sang-in at the prestigious Seoul National University sees signs of change. "South Korea's judicial system has so far only imposed mild penalties for company violations." This relatively gentle treatment could be over after this judgment. The unions, too, could finally breathe a sigh of relief and claim the rights to which they have long been entitled according to the constitution.