by Stephanie Park
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Korea’s labor movement knows the name of Jeon Tae Il, the iconic young male worker who self-immolated in protest of working conditions in Korean factories during the 1970s, as well as the words he shouted that fateful day in Seoul’s Pyeonghwa Market. I first learned about Jeon Tae Il through a college class on Korean cinematography, where we watched A Single Spark, a film that dramatizes his life and the events that led him to such drastic action.
The film and its protagonist made a huge impact on me; not only was it my first introduction to Korea’s labor movement, but it proved to be a key part of my burgeoning political consciousness and interest in Korea. However, a crucial fact that I remained ignorant of until just a few weeks ago is that, although Jeon Tae Il may have provided the ‘single spark’ that set the labor movement of the 1970s in motion, the movement was by and large comprised mainly of female laborers.
As a graduate of a women’s college, I was both shocked and awed by the revelation. Throughout the weekend, we met and spoke with three former women laborers who spent the 1970s entrenched in the movement: Shin Soon Ae of the Cheonggye Clothing Workers Union, Lee Chung Gak of Dongil Textile Union, and Choi Soon Young of the YH Trading Corporation Union. Their stories impressed upon me the need to reclaim and assert our humanity in the face of systematic dehumanization of the industrialized world. What makes a worker decide to unionize, especially given the formidable threat of retribution promised by one’s factory and government? How does a labor force of women resist? And how can this history help me to understand the forces that shaped my own family’s history?
When Jeon Tae Il voiced his now-famous sentiment “We are not machines!” he challenged laborers not only to remember what they were not, but also what they were. In the case of female laborers, this meant recalling and reclaiming their humanity in the face of systematic dehumanization day in and day out at the factory.
Considering the way factory life was structured in order to mimic machinery as closely as possible – leave for work at 6:30am, scarf down lunch in the 10-15 minutes that remained of one’s lunch break after waiting to use the bathroom, and back to work from 1-11:20pm, with no water or bathroom breaks allowed – this was a feat in and of itself.
A well-known joke, based on a pop song by Kim Min-Ki, was that the boss’ dog had a better chance of being hospitalized than any female laborer. However, most dehumanizing was the fact that the women were not referred to by name, merely a combination of job designation and number such as “helper #5” or “machinist #3.” In this way, their individual identities were erased and they came to be defined solely by their utility in service to the factory. Maybe this is why Shin Soon Ae’s recollection of how she joined the labor movement is so unforgettable: “When I went to Work Classroom I became ‘Ms.’ Shin Soon Ae. I was so moved to be treated like a human being.” In contrast to the ruthless impersonality of factory life, how monumental it must have felt to have been recognized and valued as an actual human being!
The profundity of taking ownership of one’s humanity becomes so only after one’s eyes become opened to the naturalization of exploitative and dehumanizing labor relations, particularly in the face of organized resistance like that of Korea’s female workers, or ‘70여공. I had assumed that, like Jeon Tae Il, most male laborers were sympathetic to the plight of the female workers. After all, many women turned to factory work to provide for their families, brothers, husbands, and fathers included. Yet at Dongil Textile, it was most often male workers responsible for the most horrifying acts of intimidation and violence against female workers and their attempts to unionize. From locking their female coworkers in a dormitory without water or food, to smearing them with human excrement, to even physically injuring them, what was it that made these men see these women as subhuman, and not the sisters, wives, and mothers they were? If, as factory conditions and pressures of industrialization took great pains to teach, ‘70여공 were only as good as their cheap and unquestioning labor, perhaps it’s not that outrageous after all. After all, if people today can say and believe (as they do) that the sacrifice of a few was necessary for the good of all in creating Korea as a modern nation today, is that not violent and dehumanizing in its own way?
Most shocking of all, however, is that, in the face of this overwhelming violence and repression, the workers’ response was to make themselves even more vulnerable; in doing so, they brought conviction in their own right to humanity to the forefront and challenged the rote process of dehumanization that had become a given. An iconic example of this occurred at Dongil Textile when, in response to the arrival of riot police to break up a three-day strike, women workers stripped naked to the waist and confronted the police face-to-face. As worker Suk Jung-nam recalled,
“In the face of such an enormous threat of violence, it was our ultimate resistance, an action spontaneously taken, with no shame or fear. Under siege by the armed police and male workers, we hung tightly together in our nakedness. Can steel be stronger and harder than this? Who dares to touch these people?”
When faced with certain violence, my last instinct is to make myself even more vulnerable. Yet it is for this very reason that I find the response so revolutionary, as a powerful reminder of the humanity we are conditioned to forget.
One consequence of such conditioning can be the erasure of our own histories. Throughout the weekend, I found myself drawing comparisons between the women workers and my own maternal grandmother; as she is of comparable age to the women we met and possesses her own complicated relationship with labor, I couldn’t help but think of her. In particular, I found myself drawing parallels between her life and that of Shin Soon Ae.
Both grew up fairly prosperous in the Jeollabukdo region near Jeonju; both grew up in relative prosperity before seeing their family’s fortunes disintegrate with the arrival of Japanese imperialism; and both entered the labor force for the sake of their families (Shin Soon Ae to support her family after the war, and my grandmother to support her husband and sons after immigrating to America). Her words helped me understand a little better what it must have been like for my grandmother, and contextualized the health problems she suffers from today.
Unlike Shin Soon Ae, however, my grandmother never joined a union, instead working tirelessly and silently at odd jobs that didn’t require much English until she had enough money saved to start a modest sandwich business. Furthermore, while Shin Soon Ae, Lee Chung Gak, and Choi Soon Young have made it their mission to share their stories publicly, my grandmother’s story has gone largely untold. I have only begun to learn about my grandmother’s past and the hardships she faced in the past two years – and the process of retelling and thus reliving such times have been exhausting for her. Similar to some of Shin Soon Ae’s friends, whom she says still feel shame at being or having been a laborer, I sometimes sense a similar shadow of silence obscuring my family’s history.
As a child, I crept around subjects such as this, which I knew better than to ask about. But after spending time with Ms. Shin, Lee, and Choi, and seeing what can come of taking ownership of one’s story, I wonder what good such silence has done for my family. In any case, I can’t change the past, but I can impact the future. As Shin Soon Ae reflected on her legacy, one of the things that seemed to matter most was that her granddaughter be educated about the history of the labor movement. My grandmother lived a country away, was not part of a union, and perhaps wouldn’t have been even had she worked at Pyeonghwa Market, Dongil, or YH. But there’s value in both narratives, and in learning them, I feel compelled to carry them forward and keep the spark alive.