Archive for May, 2010

Working with Women Workers

by on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

In the fall of 1987, Greg arrived in South Korea, a tall, poised young man in his late twenties with a strong New England accent, in order to do Peace and Justice work. He learned Korean at a language school and then helped a priest set up a center which held English conversation classes for college and university students. The classes were directed toward clarification of values and building self-esteem. When the center closed, Greg asked to be placed in ministry to factory workers. Here is our 1991 interview.

[See also the link on your right to a review of Hagen Koo, “Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Ithaca: Cornell, 2001). What the Book? in Seoul carries the book.

Gregory’s Story

I was very happy at being allowed to join two Maryknoll sisters working in a ministry for factory workers. The community life was great—we ate together, we prayed together, we worked together on programs.

To give you some background in the labor situation, the big industrial conglomerates, the chaebǒl, have moderate unions which are generally not management-dictated, but they tend to be a little more moderate than radical, although they will strike when they have to. The big companies have maybe 15,000 to 20,000 workers at each plant. When twenty thousand people go on strike—like a big shipyard in Ulsan—that affects the whole city. Then 20,000 riot police are sent in. Generally only the big companies use replacement workers, or scabs. Those companies are located in cities outside of Seoul, and the labor pool they have to choose from is limited. The foreign-owned companies—either Japanese or American or German—just shut the company down. They’ll move to another country or another part of the country. That’s how they break a union or resolve any kind of labor dispute.

In 1987 the unions blossomed, then in 1988 when the workers went on strike for better benefits, after maybe a month, the companies in small communities suddenly gave in to labor and said, “Okay, you can have a union. We’ll give you everything.” Then one morning the workers showed up at the factory and all the machinery was gone, and the management was not to be found. They left without paying any wages or any severance pay. They took all the money from the employee savings plan, the company union dues—everything. Now when there’s some kind of negotiation going on, the workers always have somebody on watch at the factory to make sure management isn’t fooling around.

The main strategy these companies use is the labor law, which says only one union can represent a company and that union has to be registered with the government. The management sets up a union which won’t get out of line., a “yellow union,” rushes down to sign up. If another union claims to represent the workers in the factory, it’s breaking the law. There are a lot of illegal democratic unions in the medium-sized to small companies. If they’re espousing some type of ideology, the companies can claim the organizers are also violating the National Security Law. It’s illegal for a third party to be involved in union activity. The government considers the national labor federation a third party, so the organizers could be put in jail. It’s a very big, pretty strong organization, but the government already has its own federation of labor unions.

Most of the workers in the Kuro industrial area, about 60-70%, are young women between the ages of eighteen to twenty-five. This is an industrial area where they make electronic components—stereo parts, computer keyboards, equipment of that nature. The only unions are the “yellow” unions. We are working with young workers who are much worse off economically than blue-collar workers in our society. I helped with programs for traditional Korean music, traditional dance, traditional songs. We also had some Bible study classes, and I taught some basic English classes and some classes in labor law.

But there was a problem. Even back in the States I’d probably have had a hard time relating to blue-collar workers. I came from a white middle-class, white-collar background. I went to a Catholic high school where 95% of the kids went on to college. Here, when I first started this work, most of the workers were women and much younger than I was. They were sending me signals like “You’re brighter than me, you’re smarter, you have it more together than me.” I couldn’t accept that, but I also knew I couldn’t relate to them very well. So I knew I had to start challenging myself so I could help them with their struggles. I needed to know what was bothering them. I began to realize that these young women didn’t have any confidence in themselves at all. I saw that in school they were told, “There’s no way you’re going to college, you can’t afford it, so you might as well get used to the fact that you’re going to a factory.”

They had to come up to an industrial area to make money to send home to families, often so that the son could go to school. I had heard stories like this, but it’s different when you meet someone who says, “I’m here earning the money so my brother can go to school. We’re not farming anymore. We had to sell the land.” They were just not making it. Some were unable to finish high school. Everything’s free through grammar school, but when you start middle school you have to pay $150 a semester. High school is probably about $250 a semester.

We began to see the things that we needed to work on were self-development things. Let people talk to one another, try not to force anything on them, ask them, “How do you feel?”

“We’re both kind of stressed out after work.”

“Why is that?”

You let them talk about it. They have to look into little microscopes while they put tiny pieces together, so there’s a lot of eyestrain. Back strain, too, because they’re told, “Pick up that box and move it.” The boxes may be too heavy. But the biggest complaint is that they’re not treated as human beings. They are always spoken to with pan-mal, the lowest form of Korean, used for children and intimate relationships. Obviously the relationship between the worker and the supervisor isn’t intimate, so it’s an insult. They’re never called by name, but nom-a, “you thing” or “you it,” as in “you it, come over here and do this.” It drives them up the wall to be treated this way.

These young women realized they all felt the same way about this, and they wondered what to do about it. Well, the thing is, it’s very hard to do anything. It seems simple to us to say, “Okay, just talk to the supervisor and have this corrected,” but they have no voice because they have no real union. They can’t make any complaints.

I live with a worker right now. He was sick as a dog the other day, and I said, “Stay in bed.”

“Look, I have to go to work.

“What do you mean, you have to go to work? Obviously, you’re not going to get much done at work because you’re sick. Don’t you get sick days?”

 “No no no, we don’t get sick days.”

Sometimes they have to show up at work, do some work for a little while and then say to the supervisor, “Oh, I’m sick as a dog. You can see how I look.” He might send you home, or he might say, “No, we need you to stay and work.”

There’s no voice calling for benefits we take for granted in the States. If a worker complains to the management union representatives, who are appointed, there’s a good chance that nothing will be resolved and the worker will be punished and branded as a trouble-maker who needs to be put under control.

Management also gets employees to become goons for the company by giving them money or taking them to bars and room salons [hostess bars with private rooms so the women can take off their clothes]. The goons try to keep the girls in place or intimidate them using anything from verbal abuse to sexual harassment. There’ve been cases where the workers have been stripped. We’ve been seeing a lot more of that sort of thing under the Roh Tae-woo administration—far more. They’ve been trying to round up the former and present union organizers and throw them in jail.

I went home on vacation, and when I got back I was going to start up my programs again. Then I heard, “Oh no, that’s not a good idea.”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

Then I heard that all the young women who had been attending my English class had been pulled into the factory office and questioned, along with people who had attended the other team members’ programs. They were interrogated for four or five hours by the factory supervisors and passed around to the bosses at different levels. Many of them were suddenly moved out of the factory and sent to other areas to work, so now instead of a 15-minute commute they have an hour and a half-commute—partly as a punishment, partly to see that they don’t stick together. Management has ways of crushing or nipping in the bud any type of consciousness-raising.

They also knew all about me. The company’s asking, “What do you know about this guy? Why are you studying with him?” I was flabbergasted. I know I’m a Westerner and I stick out, but they knew who I was, where I lived and all these things about me. They also knew a lot of things about our team. These companies are very well organized, and they work with the police. They send people around.

A lot of the girls had been followed. One of the women who lived at our center had been followed home a couple of times and intimidated. When she was being interrogated at the factory, she recognized the guy who followed her home. They offered her money to move out of the center. She didn’t even participate in the program. She was a Catholic, and she just wanted a place to live outside of the dormitory. When she was being questioned, this woman figured out what was going on, and she was indignant. She said, “You’re not going to tell me what to do.”

I see the real struggle is with the workers, not the students. The students are not going to take these 200,000 won [$277] a month jobs. Generally women aren’t sent to vocational high schools for technical skills, so they aren’t paid much. The workers get 200,000 or 250,000—180,000 sometimes—and put in unbelievable hours. They might earn 200,000 won a month working a 44-hour week. But they’re often asked to do overtime. They might get very excited because they make a lot of money one week, but they worked sixty hours. They push themselves because, if they do the night shift from nine to seven, they get more per hour. Even though the government says they’re only supposed to be working 46 hours a week, I would say most workers get in 54 hours—some a lot more. The work week is Monday through Saturday. One of the workers told me, “But on Saturday we get off at six. Isn’t that great?”

Here’s a typical situation. An eighteen-year-old, female high school graduate, or near-graduate, comes up to Seoul. In the railway station or bus terminals, she sees signs on the “help wanted” board. A notice for a factory job paying 200,000 won a month might be next to one for a café job at 600,000 won a month. Well, she’s eighteen years old, and she’s made it to the big city, and she wants to live well, and she thinks everybody else dresses well and has a car. She knows she’s not going to get far on 200,000 won a month. That’s the first hurdle.

Working for the owners of the cafés or room salons is almost slavery. A young woman may earn 600,000 won, but they deduct 100,000 for her room and board and 200,000 for another fee and 100,000 for something else. All of a sudden, she’s in debt. Sometimes she does make some money, maybe after a year.

In these room salons the factory owners or businessmen come in to drink beer or something, but usually they’re already buzzed. It’s not their first stop. The woman pours the beer and cuddles up next to the guy and feeds his ego by giggling and acting helpless—the act’s really dumb. This can lead to their going to a yǒgwan, an inn or hotel. The room salons are places where women can make contacts to become a prostitute or to be prostituted.

To keep up this lifestyle, the young woman gets involved in drugs. A lot of drugs are available over the counter—Valium, for example. Drugs are handed out by the owners of these cafés or room salons. “Here, take this drug. It will keep you going.” These room salons are not for the U.S. army. This is a Korean thing, and there are also many red-light districts for Koreans which are more obviously about prostitution than the room salons.

But getting back to the young woman at the job notice board, maybe she’s been warned about the cafés or the room salons, so she chooses a factory. Sometimes the factories say, “Complete your high school education with us.” In that case, she works all day, then at about six or seven o’clock at night she goes to school for around four hours, then to bed. If she misses school she loses her next day’s wages. They control women to make sure they don’t get involved in any activity outside the company.

So she finds a job, and then she’s got to find a place to live, like in one of the government dormitories. They are only about 15,000 or 30,000 won a month, but she only gets a third of a small room, not a place she can really lounge around in. There’s a kitchen in each apartment, so she can cook for herself. The grounds are always kept neat, and they seem to have good security. No men visitors. If she doesn’t want that, she might be able to find a room—maybe share it with another girl for 30,000 apiece. Unfortunately, in our area those rooms are becoming hard to find because the government development and beautification projects are eliminating all the cheap rooms. If you’re a worker who’s been able to save money for a couple of years, you might be able to buy a government-subsidized apartment. But if you’re just getting started, it’s hard to find a decent place to live.

These young women are alone when they come up here.Seoul is much different from the countryside. At home the typical young woman lives with her family and is surrounded by her family all day long. In the countryside it’s not as crowded or congested. Then all of a sudden she’s thrown into an apartment with seven other people she doesn’t even know. That has to have an effect on her. Loneliness is probably the biggest problem. But of course she does get a paycheck, and out in the country she didn’t have any money.

So she gets set up, and after a couple of years she becomes restless and wonders if this is all life’s about. When they’re around twenty-two, the girls start thinking of marriage. All they do is look at wedding dresses. They see how beautiful that is. “If I get married and I become a mother, I can stay at home, and I won’t have to be at this machine day in and day out, working all these hours and going crazy. They meet some man—usually another factory worker—and they live together. She thinks they’re moving down the road toward marriage. All of a sudden she’s pregnant, and he leaves. She’s left looking at the most likely option, abortion, which is fairly well accepted here [although illegal]. Even the Catholic bishops never talk about it. There are GYN-OB clinics all over the place. The government wants population control. They encourage people to have one child, two at the most. We have some health and sexuality education classes which deal with some of the problems. They’re very popular with the girls.

But suppose she does get married. It used to be thought that a woman would quit and have a baby within the first year of marriage and that the man would continue on. This was the rationale for paying women anywhere from 20% to 30% less for exactly the same work. In Korean companies the men get a special benefit or increase in pay if they have a child, so they get a little more money, but nowadays that’s not enough. So the woman has to go back to work.

Unfortunately, most daycare centers don’t accept children under three years of age. These days you often hear about accidents that happened to very young children left at home alone. News of such neglect contributes to the widely believed opinion that mothers need to stay home to look after their children. Few people have any happy experience of possible alternatives. There’s a new phenomenon arising now, centers for infants and babies to three years old. One of the Maryknoll missions started one in Taejun. These are desperately needed. A lot of missionaries and labor movement people are trying to offer infants’ daycare services so women can go back to work, because one income now is no longer enough to live on. For the working-class this means eating less nutritious food, doing without meat and cutting down on certain vegetables. People turn to junk food—cakes and ramyǒn. Sometimes you wonder how they can get by on what they eat. They do get fed at work, though. That’s part of their benefits. I think they depend on their lunch. If they work after the dinner hour, they get fed dinner. I don’t know if it’s worth the sacrifice.

I’ve learned a lot from the workers about their lives and about how people can treat other people in the worst ways. It’s definitely affected me personally. It’s challenged my faith and everything I believe about the human spirit. Why do the supervisors treat the women like they do instead of like human beings? I always believed there was goodness in people. But here mistreatment is so institutionalized. Women from many different factories have the same complaints.

A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea

by on Sunday, May 9th, 2010

On May 18, 1980, the day after the declaration of martial law, a demonstration of 500 students was attacked by paratroopers who beat and bayoneted demonstrators. Over the next three days an ever-increasing number of shocked citizens joined the demonstrators, first in response to the violence of the troops and then in indignation at the government’s statement that the citizens were to blame for the violence. It became a popular uprising. The indiscriminate attacks continued until the citizens succeeded in capturing arms and vehicles belonging to the army and the police. The Black Berets were forced out of town by a counterattack led by infuriated taxi drivers. Although the citizens now had control, they were isolated. Two radio stations had been burned and some of the telephone service was cut. Regular army troops then surrounded the city and waited for the end of negotiations between the military and the newly-formed citizens’ council. In the meantime, the U.S. military had announced it had released the Korean troops under its control to put down the demonstration in Kwangju. When the citizens asked the U.S. government to help in the negotiations, it declined to do so. In the end, the army entered the city, more people were killed and thousands were imprisoned. Some sources estimated later that about 2,000 people were killed. Kim Dae-jung, the opposition leader from Kwangju, was tried for sedition, even though he was in prison at the time of the uprising. A few months after the Kwangju incident, Chun Doo-hwan was elected president by the electoral college with American backing.

In the fall of 1991 I interviewed an Irish Catholic priest on issues of human rights in Korea, which for him involved not just freedom of speech, association, and personal autonomy, but also the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, health care and education, which for over forty years have been part of the language of international agreements on human rights. As a champion of the poor and silent, George finds fault with the Korean record, but it was clear that Korea had become his country and the Korean people his people. Here are his words.          

George’s story 

I came here from Ireland in 1971 as a newly ordained, twenty-five-year-old priest. The beginning was difficult. Even with two years of language school and pretty heavy immersion in a rather isolated area, you need five years to develop fluency in the language and to start feeling comfortable. People here have such different beliefs and different values that the newcomer has to make a lot of adjustments.

My first impression was one of a very repressed society. I was saddened by the terrible air of mistrust and the feeling of constant surveillance. The KCIA [Korean Central Intelligence Agency] was the big power, and its agents haunted every prayer meeting. According to an article in Time or Newsweek, out of every twelve Koreans gathered together at least one was a KCIA agent. A great deal of pain was caused by the division of North and South Korea and the people’s helplessness to do anything about it. For example, I knew a man who came from the North. He might know whether his mother was still alive. But where could he have gotten this information? If he had illegal connections with the North, he could be accused of being a spy and be thrown into prison. He had to keep quiet, even to his own children. You can imagine what damage that sort of strain did to families.

The communist threat was used for a long time as an excuse for taking political prisoners—and still is. Under the National Security Law innocent people were tagged as communist and slapped into jail. They were held incommunicado, evidence was concocted, and they were given a secret trial. Even if people didn’t believe someone was a communist, almost no one could survive being branded one. There were mysterious deaths of people involved in the human rights movement, but no one was held accountable. Now, it depends on where you get the figures, but it is generally accepted that there are at least as many political prisoners in Korea today as there have ever been. In the worst days of the Chun Doo-hwan government when there was an average of about 3.5 arrests a day of people we would consider political prisoners. Now it’s 4.5 arrests a day. The KCIA has changed its name, but that’s all.

Of course gradually people began to question the anticommunist propaganda they had been indoctrinated with. In the 1980s ordinary workers began to go abroad to work in places like the Middle East. They left believing that  all communists had red faces and carried guns under their arms, and when they got there they found out they couldn’t tell who was a communist and who wasn’t. And they began to see that in places like France and Italy the communist parties weren’t illegal and that there were socialist countries in Africa we did business with. Those who came back began to look at the Korean government and to talk with others. People began to question.

First they saw Mr. Kissinger’s trip to China. Suddenly the United States, our great ally, was flying over our heads to shake hands with communists in North Korea. Then there were these Korean business people running off to China and Moscow to make deals with real live commies, while their poor neighbor who was shouting about human rights was slapped into jail for ten years as a communist sympathizer. They said, “Hey, something’s wrong here.”

But to go back a bit, in 1972 the Yushin Constitution was proclaimed. [Park Chung-hee proclaimed himself “president for life.”] The whole international diplomatic corps called Korea “the last bastion of democracy” and praised “Korean-style democracy,” which turned out to be dictatorship. After Yushin and the various declarations of martial law and emergency measures, there was continuous pressure for constitutional revision. In 1974 Bishop Chi of Wonju began to speak out. Bishop Chi had been friendly with the popular dissident poet Kim Chi-ha, who had been jailed a few times and had once been condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted. So this friendship was used to smear the bishop by imply he was connected with communists. This time the attempt to slap a communist tag on someone didn’t work. There were many Protestant ministers who were also involved in human rights activities, and it didn’t work with them either. People thought too highly of them. The labeling strategy has an obvious problem anyway. If I happen to say something similar to what Kim Il-sung said, does that make me a communist or him a Christian?

I was living and working in Bishop Chi’s house in Wonju. I got involved, so there was an extra KCIA guard on me. There were prayer meetings organized all around the country, which gave the people an emotional release. In many cases they also provided a way to get the real story out about what was happening—the abuses of power, the people taken prisoner, the beatings and torture. In the atmosphere of fear and distrust, the churches provided an opportunity to awaken the people. It was the churches’ big contribution and certainly one I was proud to be involved with. I think it was Karl Marx who said, “Religion is the voice of the voiceless and the cry of the oppressed.” All religions have in some way been a liberating experience for people who were oppressed and voiceless. Later, when photocopiers became readily available, they were used to spread information.

In all this activity there were numerous incidents, but I remember one particularly. Two KCIA men came down from Seoul, overstepping the authority of the local guys. Since I was tipped off by a priest they had already seen, I had a little tape recorder waiting. The senior KCIA man told me that I had better watch myself or I would be thrown out of the country. They had already thrown out someone for “political activity,” so this was a real threat.

I said, “Excuse me, sir, I’d like to have on tape whatever you have to say to me.”

He wouldn’t talk then. He passed the responsibility over to his deputy. As soon as the deputy started talking, I said, “I’d like your name, please. Identify yourself.” I put his whole speech on tape.

In their view this sort of thing was not supposed to happen. So many sinister little moves were made—involving even torture and death—without anybody being willing to take responsibility for them. So the fact that I was taping this conversation put a whole new dynamic on the thing, even though who knows what I could have done with the tape afterwards. The deputy said that according to my visa I was here as a religious worker and I should stick to religion. I said, “Well, my bishop is in jail. If I pray for him that’s not a political act.” Then we had a discussion on the definition of religion.

In 1976 there were more attempts to frighten the priests who were the most vocal in the human rights movement. The local police and the KCIA would make little visits. I was working with the workers in Puchun, and the KCIA man would come around occasionally.  Then in 1981, shortly before I arrived at my new post in Pusan, the American Cultural Center in Pusan was firebombed. One person was killed. A number of people were arrested as suspects, including a priest from Wonju diocese. It was definitely a manufactured case. They were trying to blame a group of individuals—and put them on trial together for this crime—who didn’t even know one another. The case was tried in the newspapers for at least a month before it came to trial. The “ringleaders” were labeled as communists and communist sympathizers.

About the same time just outside Pusan, a policeman went berserk with drink and shot fifty-three people. He wandered around the village from eight at night until four in the morning shooting people. Now, it’s a real mystery to me how this can happen in a highly militarized country without a marksman from the riot police or the army picking him off. This incident made the newspaper for two days.

I hadn’t lived in Wonju for a number of years, and yet there was a KCIA man who came to see me every day to fish for information. He was always nice and friendly, but this was very clearly harassment. So I said to him, “Look, you’re annoying me. I’m in the middle of building this place here. If you’ve got questions to ask me, we’ll sit down and talk. But what I’d like to explain to me why there was a month-long trial by the press after an incident in which one person was killed, and when a policeman kills fifty-three people it’s in the paper for two days? Why are you coming around to see me? Where were the police when this man was shooting all these people?” He didn’t come around again.

 After my first encounter with the KCIA, I became more interested in human rights, which in Korea means poverty, housing, hospitalization, health services and education.  Today there are not as many poor people in Korea as there used to be because the military-business dictatorship made the “economic miracle” possible. But is it enough for every Korean house to have a television set? Is the quality of life any better than it was? I think most Koreans would say no. Some things have loosened up, but the basic rights to speak your mind, to choose a lifework, to move about freely, to own your own home, to have medical care, those rights have been denied a lot of people.

After I left Bishop Chi’s house in Wonju, I moved to a parish in Puchun, a port city between Seoul and Inchon, and began to get involved with ordinary factory workers. There were questions of workers’ rights, and the laws are still so bad that Korea can’t get into the International Labor Organization. Workers don’t have the right to organize or speak out against injustice. Korea has the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world. In the last few years it’s jumped from three workers being killed in a day to five. Not only is no attention being paid to this, safety precautions are even being cut back. Once their ten-year tax-free period is over, factories close overnight and companies just scamper. The workers are left high and dry. As soon as people try to organize or voice an opinion, they’re slapped into prison for violation of the National Security Law. A blacklist was organized by businesses and the KCIA and passed around among the factories so that any worker accused of speaking out can’t find a job anywhere.

Now, the one resource South Korea has to offer is a big, hard-working population. In 1972, when Park Chung-hee made himself president for life, he promised that by 1980 the country would be fully developed. Everyone would be going to Cheju-do [a resort island in the south] for the weekend, and everyone would have a car. Workers were told that in the meantime they would have to work hard and practice family planning. “Just do a little more, just put up with it, it’s for the good of the country and of the nation. When the country gets rich, we’ll all get rich together.” Economic progress was made, but it was the same old thing with a bigger gap between rich and poor. So when 1980 came and it wasn’t lovely, the workers became aware that some people were getting terribly rich while they were still being told to put up with it. At that point Park’s successors had a problem. If they admitted that the country was “developed”—which they had to do to have the Olympic Games here—then the workers would ask for their share. “What about our working conditions? What about our share of the wealth?” The government then changed the terminology by inventing a new category, “newly developing nations,” to put the workers off a little bit longer.

After the death of Park Chung-hee, Korea had an opportunity to move toward democracy and toward a society where people could learn how to express their feelings. But we didn’t. With Chun Doo-hwan we took the old way again. The politicians all come from a military background. A good soldier cannot help create democracy because democratic thinking is directly opposed to the thinking of a military mind. There is no concept of accountability in the Korean public mind.

The clearest example of this, of course, is the Kwangju Massacre. In 1979 the downfall of Park Chung-hee began with the disturbances caused by workers in the Pusan-Masan area. The government was in a quandary about how to handle the situation. By February, 1980 there were demonstrations among the coal miners in Kangwon-do, and the riot police were sent in. there were industrial strikes in several areas. In March the students came back to school. By April there were demonstrations all over the country. Everyone was moving.

Kwangju was by no means the noisiest place in the country. It was about the same as anyplace else. I think there were many more disturbances in Seoul—certainly in the Pusan area. But if you were to make an example of a place in order to quiet people down, and you really wanted to send in the heavy guns, the best place to do it was Kwangju. Traditionally the Cholla Provinces were supposed to be the places that always opposed the government and were always full of rebels. There’s a long-standing agreement that the intelligent, arty people come from Cholla, the singers and the poets. People from other places don’t trust them. This prejudice is very common. Park and his successors neglected Cholla and kept it out of the plans for economic development. It is still neglected.

Now, you see, with that kind of long-term, deep-seated prejudice against an area, you can do what you want. You can send in the army, and the rest of the country will have no sympathy at all. You couldn’t do that in Pusan or Taegu, let me tell you. It’s still not known how many were killed there. The government stopped all investigations. It was made to look as if the massacre had never happened. Word was put out that a lot of Kwangju people had made it up, and—this was in the most repressive period of Chun Doo-hwan’s rule—people accepted that. Then about 1985 a video was put together from pictures the German and Japanese media had taken right after the uprising. Copies began to waft into the country and people began saying, “Hey, wait a second. Something did happen in Kwangju.” Before that, their prejudice would not allow them to entertain that idea. Nowadays there are protests every year with exhibits of still photographs of corpses taken from the foreign video.

Government policy has been very harsh in many areas. A lot of farmers have been deliberately wiped out. Korea does not have very good farmland, but in the late 1970’s it was self-sufficient in rice and a few other crops. There was even some for export. In 1978 a man called Farmer Oh organized a farmer’s group which objected to government fraud with regard to farming. People tried to make a liar out of him. He disappeared for a few days on a KCIA trip. The incident caused the government and the KCIA to lose a lot of credibility and helped to bring about a change. Then came pressure from the outside to open up the farm markets. There was also a government policy which forced farmers off the land and into the cities, where they were needed as unskilled workers. In 1980 there were eleven million farmers, in 1988 seven million. That’s four million, a third of the farming population, who were forced off their grandfathers’ land and into the cities. The government actually favored this. Agricultural products from abroad were cheaper. Now, I’m not against farmers moving into town, but I don’t think it was of their own free will that they left their homes to come to a place where they would never have a home of their own, where they had no land to grow a few vegetables, and where they had no community support.

 Then there is the issue of housing.  In 1986 there was an editorial in the Korea Times, which had somehow got past the censor, about people’s houses [dwellings, usually apartments]. It said that one-third of the population lived in one-room homes, one third lived in two-room homes, and the rest had more space. It also said that in 1980, 87% of the householders were homeowners; the number of house-owners had dropped 5% between the years 1980 and 1985, and it was then around 53-58%. Now, 1980-85 were the most stable years in recent history. Chun Doo-hwan cracked down so hard that there was no obvious sign of discontent. The rate of economic growth was at ten or twelve percent, the highest in the world. Because Korea got the 1988 Olympics in 1981, there was a housing boom on. So why are there so few homeowners? Recently I saw in the paper that if a twenty-eight-year-old university graduate had his monthly salary as his only source of income, and if he worked only to pay for his expenses and save for a home, he would be able to buy it around the age of sixty-two or sixty-three. It would take him thirty-three years to work for a home so he could enjoy it in his retirement. If his wife worked with him, it would take them twenty-eight years.

 In the 1980’s, in response to the complaints of factory workers, the government brought out a new national health insurance plan. It looked great at the beginning, but then it became clear that the new scheme just enabled the hospitals to raise their prices. A lot people still can’t get hospital care. Suppose someone needs a treatment which will cost 500,000 won [$675]. That person has a card saying the government will pay 50% of the hospital bill, but he or she still has to come up with 250,000 won—and may not have the money. In that case the card isn’t worth anything. Often today people are worse off than they were before, because now they can’t even get into the hospital. There are also people who work in sweatshops which offer no hospitalization insurance at all, and they can’t get health benefits or any other benefits. So they die.

In education, people are taught by rote, and the authorities don’t want to deviate from that, even though it’s clear that this education system doesn’t work. I think a proper education is a basic human right, but of course it conflicts with the interests of authoritarian leaders. It used to be that you could take any object you had at home—a radio, a pair of shoes, a piece of clothing—which you had brought with you from abroad, you could take it down to a shop in any little village and the craftsperson there could copy it for you. That was fine in the early stages of industrialization, but those skills aren’t needed so much anymore. Now the people in power are beginning to see that they need workers with enough creativity to get into the high-tech stuff, but they still want to be able to control what they learn.

From my own experience living in various parts of Korea, I would not accept the statement that human rights have improved since I’ve been here. There have been areas of improvement, but it has come from the grassroots, from people demanding their rights. The newspapers give the impression that the wonderful progress has been made on the reunification issue is due to Mr. Roh’s initiative. The students aren’t buying that, and they shouldn’t. The workers and the students started working on reunification themselves and pushed the government to move on it—and further than the government wanted to go.