by Yi San
Last week South Korean prosecutors called for an eight-year jail term for Han Sang-gyun, leader of the country’s 800,000-strong independent union federation. The request is outlandish even in a country that was once moving toward democracy but is now rapidly eroding back to authoritarianism.
All eight charges against Han center on traffic and public-safety violations in connection with unauthorized rallies the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) called between April and November 2015. The government was forced to use a technicality—traffic violations—to interfere with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.
Nevertheless, the prosecution is seeking a heavy jail term. It claims Han attempted to incite violence at a November 14 rally in central Seoul when he yelled, “Let’s advance towards the Presidential Palace.”
The rally indeed turned violent, not because of the tens of thousands of workers and citizens who were protesting two-tier-wage legislation and government austerity measures, but because riot police cordoned off the streets and water-cannoned the otherwise peaceful protesters.
A high-pressure streak of capsaicin solution from a water cannon felled Baek Nam-ki, a 69-year-old farmer activist. Baek remains comatose with irreversible brain damage.
After the rally Han, already wanted on an arrest warrant, took sanctuary at Jogye Buddhist temple, in central Seoul, where he stayed for 24 days before turning himself in to the police. The government summoned about 1,500 other rally participants for investigation.
Elected on a Pledge to Fight
In December 2014 Han was elected KCTU president in the first-ever non-delegate, direct vote in the federation’s 19-year history. He was also the first president elected on a pledge to organize a general strike. “They [the government and business owners] were aiming to annihilate the KCTU, and we had little option but to fight back,” Han said in court June 13, explaining why he had run.
Under Han’s leadership, the KCTU twice called for a general strike. But both calls ended in only symbolic stoppages, adding to a grim picture for South Korean labor.
The country’s unions, once one of the best organized and militant segments of the global labor movement, have suffered a series of setbacks since the late 1990s, when the government made it easier for employers to lay off workers and hire casuals. Fewer than one in 10 workers is now unionized, the country’s lowest level ever, including in the 1970-80s when Korea was under a harsh military dictatorship.
One in seven workers in effect takes home less than the legal minimum wage of about $5.15 an hour, because they are casual workers and thus not fully protected by law.
These defeats, coupled with the ongoing economic recession, have divided union leaders and demoralized members.
Much of the religious establishment, once shelter for political dissidents, has turned a blind eye to labor’s agony. Han initially planned to organize a general strike while in sanctuary at Jogye temple, home to the Buddhist sect that is the country’s largest.
But from day one of Han’s sanctuary, the leadership of the sect, implicated in a series of corruption scandals, quietly mobilized a group of loyalists to evict him. During his 24-day sanctuary, Han often scuffled with these henchmen who, on one occasion, stripped him almost naked.