General Strike: The Final Count Down Has Begun
The Tentacles of Repression Just Around Corner
On January 6, 1997, two well-built policemen budged into the KCTU office. The purpose of the
unwelcomed visit was to serve summons to the 8 top leaders of the Korean Confederation of Trade
Unions. The next day, this time four thick shouldered policemen tried to push through the door to
the KCTU office. This was the second serving of the summons. By 10 p.m. January 7, 1997, all
together 217 unionists were summoned for questioning by the public prosecutors. And the 8 p.m.
television news indicated that the public prosecutors were going to apply for warrant of arrests for
these people tomorrow.
And some sympathetic reporters kindly passed on information that public prosecutors are
preparing to raid the KCTU office during the night of January 7, or on January 8 for "search and
confiscation". This piece of intelligence made the KCTU activists busy. Important documents and
computers were taken out to safe house for future use. The reason that computers were taken
away is not because there are any confidential or incriminating information stored in them. It
reflects the police custom of seizing the whole computers as evidence when all that is required is
few floppy discs to copy the contents of the hard drive.
The Scenarios for Crackdown
It has been expected that the weekend would the critical moment for the current wave of general
strike led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. This is because it is more difficult to bring
workers out on to streets for demonstrations and protest rallies on weekends. Most strikes in
Korea are sit-down strikes where workers, instead of staying at home away from work, report to
work and begin the day with union meetings, rallies, and various other strike programmes,
including mass street rallies. Weekend, therefore, can spell a lull in the mass action, creating an
opening for police intervention.
The leaders of KCTU are camping out * despite the extraordinary cold weather * in improvised
tents in the compound of the Myongdong Cathedral. It would be difficult for the police to raid the
cathedral compound without the church authorisation. Therefore, the leaders may be safe for a
However, police may enter the factory compounds with ease while workers are out for the weekend.
When workers return to work on Monday, they may find the factory ground under police control.
This can generate two kind of reaction. One is a subdued atmosphere. Another is angry, volatile
outburst. Whatever the reaction it will bring an end to the well disciplined and peaceful rallies
orchestrated by over 200,000 workers weaving through all the streets of the major cities
throughout the country everyday.
The KCTU leaders may continue to hold out in the sanctuary of the catholic church for few days
and either go into hiding or soon end up in prison. The KCTU may be without stable leadership for
a considerable time. Then the KCTU may become easy prey to the pernicious labour law that
aims to weaken the trade union movement and worsen the working condition of majority of the
working people. It is, then, simple to see who will benefit the most from the weakening of the trade
union movement or the possible irrecoverable damage suffered by the Korean Confederation of
The Crisis and Opportunity:
the resilience of the KCTU general strike
This, of course, is the worst case scenario. The KCTU leadership, forged by more than ten year of
struggle to build an independent representative trade union movement, will undertake all possible
effort to maintain the restraint and peaceful nature of the current wave of general strike to induce
the government to make a sincere commitment to reopen the whole process for the genuine
reform of the labour law.
The upcoming weekend looms as the most critical moment of the current general strike. If the
ranks of the general strike is maintained without serious damage, then the KCTU unionist can look
forward to the resumption of some protest action from the brothers and sisters of the Federation of
Korean Trade Unions. The KCTU leadership will, therefore, prepare the most effective strategy for
the rest of the week to maintain the momentum of the general strike into next week. One
important source of strength for the KCTU in the current situation is international solidarity. The
combined force of creative resilience of the KCTU and effective international solidarity will make
difficult for the government to target the KCTU.
The Twelfth and Thirteen Days of General Strike
January 6, 1997 heralded the full return to the height reached before the temporary suspension at
the year-end. The major unions at the large conglomerate companies, such as, the Hyundai
Motors resumed their strike positions they had left for the New Year's Day holidays. This day also
saw the participation for the first time by many white collar unions of insurance, stock, and
All together 150 unions and 190,893 workers took part in the second phase of the second wave of
the general strike. Many of the striking workers took part in various public rallies held in 19 major
urban centres throughout the country.
In Seoul, some 20,000 workers converged at Jongmyo park in downtown for a vibrant protest rally.
The workers were soon joined by many ordinary citizens, non-union workers, and students as they
marched about 4 kilometres towards the Myongdong Cathedral where the strike headquarters is
set up. The rallyists filled the shopping mall nearby the cathedral, singing protest songs, workers
songs, and democracy songs.
In Cheju-do Island, the southern most island of Korea, farthest from Seoul, 19 unions affiliated to
KCTU held public awareness raising campaigns, collected signatures for petition calling for the
nullification of the anti-worker labour law and the anti-democratic National Security Planing Agency
The continuing strike campaign began to stimulate other social organisations. A major citizens
movement organisation issued a special statement calling for an immediate re-amendment of the
labour law and the National Security Planing Agency Act. The organisatiion also launched a
nation-wide petition campaign for this purpose. The National Council of Churches in Korea called
a meeting of 52 regional human rights committees to set up a pan- christian taskforce for the re-
amendment of the labour laws.
A national body catholic priests decided to hoist special placards in the church compounds, make
the compound available as sanctuary to striking workers, and to hold special mass in support of
the striking workers. Buddhist monks organisation formed an emergency taskforce, while the
Association of Lawyers for Democratic Society made an official application for access to all the
relevant records of the extraordinary session of the National Assembly that saw the commando
style passage of the problematic bills. University Professors Association for Democracy began a
petition campaign to collect 2,000 signatures among the university professors calling for the
nullification of the errant laws. Similar efforts are being undertaken by medical practitioners and
On January 7, 1997, the KCTU-led general strike branched out into a new dimension. The day's
strike action began by the walkout, at 5 a.m. of the unionists at the four major television and radio
networks. The unionists at the two major broadcasting network, the Korean Broadcasting System
and the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation had immediate effect. The morning news programmes
came on air with replacement presenters who had no little difficulty in keeping up the programme.
While the pre-recorded programmes were not greatly affected, the live programmes, especially, the
news programmes suffered the most with the work out of the journalists and technicians. The
familiar faces who brightened the television screens were out in the streets or park mingling with
technicians and uniformed workers from factories and white collar workers from the stock exchange
singing songs together.
The broadcasters were joined by hospital workers who resumed their strike following a brief return
to work over the holidays. The unions at the 24 major hospitals in Korea, including the most
famous Seoul National University General Medical Centre, The striking unions, as in their first
spell at strike last year, made special arrangements to staff the intensive care units, the emergency
unit, and emergency (non-pre-arranged) surgery, to minimize the inconvenience and crisis in
medical delivery. The care the unions had taken in preparation of the strike had wiped clean the
concern and anxiety about the possible chaos that may be caused by a strike at a hospital. In a
sense, the current general strike had succeeded in lifting the taboo attached to a hospital strike,
breaking the grounds for a co-existence of industrial action and patient care.
Some 15,000 striking workers in Seoul gathered at the downtown Jongmyo Park for a public
meeting. They did not stay long for the rally as they dispersed themselves in groups of tens and
twenties to some 100 local centres in Seoul for public awareness raising campaign. The KCTU
Newspaper Department printed one million copies of a special strike edition for general public
reading. The striking workers took bundles of the newspaper and other leaflets and petition papers
to shopping centres, department stores, subway and railway stations, to meet with the general
public. Similar campaigns were repeated in some 20 regional centres, from the southernmost
Cheju-do Island to the northernmost cities in Kangwon-do province backgrounded by snow-
The Plans for the Days to Come
On January 8, striking unionist will hold a special day with ordinary people. The unionists at
automobile service companies will set up 27 car check-up points throughout the country for free
The members of the KCTU Chullabuk-do Province Council will go to various rural villages hit by the
recent heavy snowfall to assist in the recovery work. And other unionists, mainly in the especial
industrial estates, zones, and complexes, will conduct a clean-up campaign in the nearby
environmentally distressed areas.
The white collar unionists of the Korean Federation of Clerical Workers Unions, the Korean
Federation of Professional and Technicians Unions, the Korean Construction Company Workers
Unions, the Union of the Employees of the National Federation of Medical Insurance Cooperatives,
the Korean Federation of Press Unions, the Korean Federation of University Employees Unions,
the Korean Federation of Hospital Workers Unions, and the Korean Teachers and Educational
Workers Union will hold a special "white collar workers" assembly in downtown Seoul. This marks
the full entry of the white collar workers into the current wave of general strike. This will, it is
believed, set the stage for a reenactment of the Great June Democratic Struggle in 1987 which
catapulted into a massive democratic uprising led by the "neck-tie corps" of the white collar
January 9, Thursday, is designated as a day of protest against the ruling New Korea Party led by
the President Kim Young Sam. The striking unions will hold protest rallies in front of the NKP
branch offices throughout the country. January 10, Friday, is set as a day of protest against the
"thief" government which commandeered the stealthy passage of the two repressive legislation.
Striking unions will bring their cars into the heart of the city to undertake a massive "car
demonstration". On Saturday, the KCTU members will join with other citizens and social
movement organisation for a nation-wide coordinated public rally to call for the nullification of the
anti-worker labour law and the anti-democratic National Security Planing Agency Act.
The KCTU leadership is currently working on the plan of action for Sunday, which will mark the
turning point for the general strike. A successful 'stroll' through Sunday will lead the general strike
into its third week which will bring the general strike in sight of success. The most important
question for third week will centre around the decision of the FKTU which has delayed its decision
for resumption of its protest action to January 13, 1997 having left the strike trail for a little more
than a week. Regardless of FKTU's decision, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions will be
able, if it can course the general strike into its third week, to force the government to come to
discussion table for the reopening of the process for re-amendment of the errant labour law.
Appeal for International Solidarity
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has called for international solidarity as it prepares for
the critical weekend. The KCTU's general strike provides the international trade union community
to undertake effective international solidarity which can make real contribution to the defense of
workers rights and welfare.
The following is an appeal for international solidarity issued by President Kwon Young-kil of the
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. (Another version of this letter was sent to the presidents,
general secretaries, and international directors of the International Confederation of Free Trade
Unions and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development, various ITSs, and major national trade union centres.)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Warmest greetings to melt all the snow and cold of this extraordinary winter.
I would like to express our sincerest appreciation for the international solidarity which was
instrumental in putting the Korean labour law reform in compliance with the ILO standards on the
agenda of the international trade union movement.
The general strike of Korean workers, led by the KCTU and FKTU, in defense of the trade union
and labour rights and the welfare of workers, now in its thirteenth day since December 26 last year,
has already succeeded as indicated by the failure of the government to react immediately with a
I write at a time when the government has began to take steps to swoop down on the striking
workers and unions with harsh crackdown and arrest. This is clearly indicated by the summons for
questioning and the public prosecutors' announcement of the plan to apply for warrant of arrest for
some 200 union leaders including myself and 7 other KCTU elected officers.
If there ever were an opportunity for international solidarity to have a real impact and influence on a
situation, I believe, this is the moment.
We would like to request international trade union movement to organise a special mission to
come to Korea to investigate to the new anti-worker, anti-union labour law. Such a mission will
have a very important effect of delaying the government crackdown and arrest of large number of
union leaders that is already in motion.
We would also like to request all trade unions and human rights, and democratic organisations to
issue protest letters addressed to President Kim Young Sam to be hand delivered directly to the
Korean embassies. This can combine with public rallies/pickets outside the Korea diplomatic
We believe the impact of such a solidarity action can be maximised if it is held on the same day.
So we suggest that this may be done on January 10, 1997, as much as possible. This will
magnify the international attention on the undemocratic action of the Korean government which is
already well reflected in the international media coverage.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions will, we assure you, will maintain our struggle until the
government makes an official commitment to reopen the parliamentary discussions involving the
trade union representatives for a re-amendment of the labour law. This will pave the way for a
peaceful settlement of the general strike and an end to the pernicious labour law which aimed to
set back the clock on both the working conditions and trade union rights.
We do not hesitate to acknowledge that the length and intensity of our struggle would not have
been possible without the strength of international solidarity and vigilance, not only during the
period of current strike, but through out the course of drawn out debate for the entire year of 1996.
The resilience by Korean workers and the international trade union movement till the last moment
will, we believe, bring about unimagined results that will usher in an entirely new setting for trade
union activities in Korea.
With a renewed appreciation of the power of international solidarity,
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions