The Dignity of Continuity: Preserving Korean Farming and Food Sovereignty

By A.T.

“Before, no matter how hard they worked or how little they earned, farmers had always had at least the assurance that they were doing the necessary work of the world, and that before them others (most likely their own parents and grandparents) had done the same work, which still others (most likely their own children and grandchildren) would do when they were gone. In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity of at least knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself….The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them…what they knew was passing from the world.”

  • Wendell Berry Jayber Crow

American farmer, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry, wrote these lines to describe the plight of farmers in early 1960s rural Kentucky. In the post-war United States, economic growth and industrialization were rapidly leading to the decline of agricultural society. This model of development that devalues farmers would soon be exported and take root across the Pacific Ocean, in the much smaller land of South Korea. The results have been no less destructive.

After the Korean War, the country faced unprecedented levels of poverty. In 1970, the dawn of the second decade of his rule, president Park Chung-hee launched the Saemaeul (New Village) Movement and the Green Revolution to firmly kickstart Korea’s economic leap forward. The focus shifted sharply to exports of high-tech goods and imports of basic foodstuffs, effectively leaving Korean farmers – then still comprising half the population – in the dust.

Flash forward to 2014, Korean farmers – who now make up only 6% of the population – are facing one of the worst crises in their history. Over the summer, the government announced that this would be the last year of rice import quotas and 2015 would see the full opening of the Korean rice market. Competition with foreign rice growers is believed to lead to the collapse of Korean rice farming. [1]

Despite the dire situation that they face, politicized Korean farmers keep going because they “believe in the righteousness of their struggle.”[2] The Korean Peasants’ League and the Korean  Women’s Peasant Association are prepared to keep Korean farming alive by any means at their disposable. In October 2014, the ISC team worked alongside leaders of these two groups and heard their stories firsthand.

For me, it was a lucky time to participate in the ISC’s two farming-theme weekends. After a four-day school trip of following the footsteps of the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Revolution in Jeollabukdo (link to the ISC’s coverage of this historical event), I felt well-equipped to connect history with the present-day struggles. Our first stop was Sangju, Gyeongsangbukdo. The Seunggok Farming Experience Village is a “Back to the Land” center, a place where city people can get back to agricultural roots. Here, we were put to useful work, picking the famous Sangju (pears), threshing 들게 (perilla) and clearing an entire red-tinged field of 메밀 (buckwheat).

The work itself was meaningful, but more so were the informal discussions we had with the farmers over drinks and out in the fields. Particularly telling was the relationship between our host Jo Won Hee, Sangju’s Korean Peasant League secretary, and his mother, a life-long farmer. While overtaking us in the perilla field on a peaceful Sunday morning, this strong, friendly, outgoing elderly lady warned us “not to go into farming.” After a Saturday night of lively beer-fuelled discussion about the vital importance of food sovereignty, it was a huge reality check – farming is hard work and most farmers would rather spare their kids of it. Go to the city, get educated, get a city job. That seems to be the mantra.

Jo Won Hee and his female counterpart of Sangju’s Korean Women’s Peasant Association were university student activists during the 1980s democratization movement. Against their families’ expectations, their paths brought them right back to the farms where they came from. Seeing the preservation of farmers’ dignity as a vital struggle in Korea, they made the choice to pour their activist spirit into building a strong, independent agricultural community. With the recent protests in Seoul against the opening of the rice market, Jo remembers the days of “holding a molotov cocktail in one hand and a pipe in the other” while confronting the police. He says he is too old for that now, but he dedicates his time to advocating for the rights of farmers to keep their independence from big companies and foreign governments.

In Korea today, as in many places around the world, raising up farmers is inextricably linked with raising up women. In fact, women’s cross-generational efforts seem to hold the key to keep farming a living force. Although women have always contributed the lion’s share of farm work and have taken responsibility for seed selection and preservation, patriarchal society has denied them property and social rights. In response to this state of agriculture, The Korean Women’s Peasant Association was founded in 1989. In 2012, they won international recognition as winners of La Via Campesina’s biodiversity award for their work to preserve Korean indigenous seeds. Feminist and women’s studies PhD student Kim Hyo Jong studies the intricate ways in which “KWPA activists are working together with hal-mo-ni (grandmothers) to develop the indigenous seed preservation movement as the food sovereignty movement.”[3]

Young women farmers learning about seeds from their elders is just one way in which women are taking matters into their own hands. The KWPA’s version of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), 언니네텃밭 My Sister’s Garden Plot, has achieved success in empowering women to grow and sell their food directly to consumers. With fifteen plots now active in communities around Korea, this movement has the potential to sustain small farmers.

The aging population of farmers around the world and the unwillingness of many young people to go into the fields poses a severe challenge, but Korea’s peasant movement is devising innovative ways to move forward. The dignity of continuity is not yet a lost cause.

[1] http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/655935.html

[2] Interview, Sangju Sister’s Garden Plot, Korean Women Peasants’ Association

[3] http://www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/foodsovereignty/pprs/71_HyoJeong_2013.pdf

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Reflections from the Farm

During the weekend of October 11-12th, 2014, members of the ISC’s KHEP (Korean History, Economics, and History Program) team traveled to Sangju in Gyeongsangbukdo for a weekend of volunteer farming work with 승곡농촌체험마을 (the Seunggok Farming Experience Village), an organic farming village. Throughout the weekend, members harvested pears, red peppers, perilla, and buckwheat, as well as conversed with members of the Korean Peasants League and the Korean Women Peasants Association. Below are their reflections on the weekend experience:

IMG_3550Although I had already experienced urban and rural farming in Korea, I really enjoyed our visit to the “Back to the Land” village in Sangju. Though a staunchly conservative region of the country, the Peasants League and Korean Women’s Peasant Association are active here and they were very open to sharing their struggles with the ISC team. We also did truly meaningful physical work – picking the well-known Sangju pears and threshing perilla and buckwheat, all while munching on persimmon and enjoying our lovely surroundings. We struck a good balance between work and in-depth conversation, especially as we shared our personal connections to food and farming over a round of drinks with the farmers. A great learning weekend. – Ana Traynin

IMG_3537I was invited to partake in some of the autumn 2014 harvesting activities at the Saebyeok Farm. I looked forward to a weekend away from the city surrounded by nature and some good healthy labor as a switch-up from lab work. Upon arrival, we were given a hearty welcome by Jo Won-Hee, an avid farmer and member of the Korean Peasants League. We immediately jumped into the works going on by gathering dozens of crates full of pears along with Lee Seok-Min, another farmer of the cooperative. We learned some of the science and methodology of family-style farming, along with some of the social issues facing small farmers in light of free trade. Additionally, we were exposed to the implications of insurgence of imported food to South Korea. We also met with the president of the Korean Peasant’s Woman Association to hear of some of the struggles for female farmers in Korea. Coming from a place where you really should wash everything before eating, it was almost like a Willy Wonka experience to be able to just pick a huge pear off of a tree and taste some of the freshest fruit ever experienced. It did not end there; we also sampled a fair share of persimmon. The next day we continued to harvest various peppers and buckwheat before making the trek back to Seoul. Throughout the weekend, we met some very kind people who made sure we felt as welcome as possible. My first farming experience was well had. – Matt D’Arcy

IMG_3602As someone who grew up not only in produce-rich California but a town known for agriculture, yet had never experienced farming, I arrived for the weekend excited yet not quite sure what to expect. Thanks to the kindness and consideration of our host Jo Won-Hee, his family, and the rest of the Seunggok Village community, my first experience with farming was both fun and fulfilling. There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to see the fruits of your labor (pun intended). It also wasn’t until leaving Seoul that I realized how much of a tangible effect urban living has; in the countryside the air felt cleaner, the food tasted better, and people seemed more at peace, making the return to the hustle and bustle of Seoul a jarring one.
At the same time, though, I felt very conscious of the fact that, while this was merely a fun educational weekend activity for us, for the farmers we worked with, this was their life’s work and livelihood. They spoke candidly about the negative impact the FTA and other neoliberal policies have had on them and how protesting them is essential not only to protecting their way of life but for food sovereignty of Korea. As anxious as I feel right now about earning a sufficient income on a month-to-month basis, I can hardly imagine staking a year’s work and income on crops; and after seeing the dedication and care that goes into family farming, ensuring their security seems like something that should be a given. Yet, despite these hardships, the image that has remained with me is not one of victimhood, but of inspiring protagonism, of people who prize their right to self-sufficiency and a relationship with the land despite the forces of capitalism and neoliberalism. – Stephanie Park

IMG_3553Having just arrived in Korea a little over a month ago, I’ve been immensely curious about life outside of Seoul, in particular rural and agrarian life. Both Koreans and foreigners had told me there isn’t much to see in the Korean countryside. They dismissed its importance, remarking how there is very little un-urbanized land and what remains isn’t picturesque or well groomed. However, after a short but transformative weekend in Sangju, it became clear that the rural landscape and the communities that reside there are an indispensible part of South Korea’s past, present and future.
In the village, the air was fresh and rejuvenating; the fresh fruit and vegetables were nourishing, and the people were charming and welcoming. But there was more to our experience than these pleasant breaks from dense city-life. The long and intimate conversations with farmers revealed struggle, vulnerability, and defeat alongside courage, activism and empowerment. At times, I felt hopeless for this group as they spoke of their struggles with the free trade agreements and massive GMO seed companies. And yet, much of the time I felt huge waves of empowerment overtake these thoughts when they would speak about KWPA, Sister’s Garden Plot, or the back to the land movement. I left Sangju feeling the importance of this under-appreciated group of people and their landscape. In this place, a rare continuity of time still exists. Layers of Korean history still occupy the rural landscape and the memories of those living there – whether it’s the political history still restraining them, or the ancient traditions of community and ancestor worship still being practiced or remembered. And while the farmers keep a very present mindset structured by the weather and seasons, they are continually building, fighting, and working for the future of small-scale farming in South Korea.
It is clear that there is much to be learned from this group, about Korean history, food sovereignty, activism and more. While I learned an immense amount about Korean history, political structure and social movements, my personal role in the scheme of things also became clearer. I realize that we all have a say in these issues in some way and our decisions, actions and votes at home or in Korea, may ultimately impact the people we meet in a tiny farming village in South Korea. – Lindsay Burnette

DSC_8908This past weekend the ISC traveled to Sangju, a ‘slow’ city in South Korea’s countryside to learn about farming. From the moment we stepped on to the farm we were welcomed with hospitality, smiles and fresh, delicious food. Each farmer we met was beaming as many told us of the move they had made from city life, to country living. We were given a taste of what food grown by a strong local community can look like. We spent the weekend discussing politics while picking pears, persimmons and peppers. Our work was rewarded with fruit juice, sweet potatoes and traditional home cooked meals. We saw how hard people work to grow and harvest food. It’s a simple, natural cycle that is often taken for granted. We live in a fast paced world where people hardly have time to chew, let alone cook. People are disconnected from their food, most never have a moment to slow down and appreciate where it comes from and how it’s grown. Food and farming have become increasingly complicated and political. Economic barriers and capitalism are destroying the balance humans have with nature. Instead of our food being directly in the hands of the people, it’s controlled by corporations. Over the course of the weekend, I came to the realization that this fight isn’t just about food- it’s much deeper. It’s about the different cultures and communities that surround the food. Local farming initiatives, like the one in Sangju, are not only growing food, they are helping to rebuild communities. They are dedicated to preserving a simple, healthy way of living. This weekend was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. I was fed some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, from some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. All the political and economic facts and figures from food related documentaries, articles and books I’ve been exposed to were given context. I am grateful to all the farmers who shared their stories, wisdom and their work with us. When it was time to go home I was refreshed and happy- I also felt a sense of urgency. Farms and communities like these are rare. If things don’t start to change soon they will no longer exist. Food is integral, not only to our survival, but to our happiness and quality of life. We need to slow down and reexamine our current relationship with food and help support local farmers who are taking the time to grow food we can feel good about eating. – Erica Sweett

Struggle and Camaraderie : Survival as a Korean Long-term Political Prisoner

By A.T.

I am a 27-year-old American expat English teacher in Korea. My major challenges are: navigating a foreign culture and language, making good lessons, and balancing my life. At 25, Kwon Nak-gi and his family went to prison for violating the National Security Law with their pro-reunification activities. During his time in prison, 1972-1990, Kwon’s major challenges were enduring the beatings, torture, and solitary confinement that placed pressure on him to betray his political beliefs and comrades. Listening to Kwon’s account of his prison experience on a Sunday afternoon in June, I asked myself: “What do I stand for? Why do I exist?”

Korea’s prolonged division makes criminals of those who could help build it into a better society. Amidst widespread condemnation of North Korea and other regimes, a little-known fact about South Korea is overlooked: it boasts the world’s longest-serving political prisoners, some of whom have served over forty years. As Michael Breen explains in his 2011 Korea Times article “The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners,” Park Chung Hee’s iron grip in the 1960s drove these men from the public consciousness. Many of these unconverted dissidents – who never renounced their beliefs – have died or been killed in prison, but others like Nak-ki survive to tell their stories to the younger generations.

One night, returning to his solitary cell, beaten and bloodied, thoughts of caving in and signing the release papers emerged in Nak-ki’s mind. He had a girlfriend and a good life: signing seemed like such an easy way out. It was seeing the faces of his older comrades that made him realize he could never betray them and his conscience. So he endured until 1990, when Korea’s burgeoning democratization saw the release of the first round of long-term prisoners under Roe Tae-woo.

The Saturday before meeting Kwon Nak-gi, Justice Party candidate and reunification activist Jeong Yeon-ook compared the divided Korean peninsula to a living cell or a person. Jeong said: “If you put together countries that were never meant to be together, they will split apart, but countries meant to be together will come together.” While the former Soviet republics are now proudly independent countries, Korea entered the UN in 1991 as a sadly divided nation. To this day, the governments of the US, DPRK and ROK have been unable to propel this living cell back together. How much longer will this division last?

In the 1940s climate of the Japanese occupation followed by US occupation, leftist anti-colonial movements flourished but were quickly crushed. The window of opportunity for a truly autonomous Korean nation seemed to close under the weight of continued oppression and a brutal 3-year war. Divisions between pro-Japanese collaborators and those staunchly against the occupation plagued society before the demarcation line was even drawn and they only deepened over time, leading to a military border that separates families and national history.

To someone like me who comes from outside this society, Kwon Nak-gi’s account offers immense insight not only into Korean history but human resilience. Yet I’m afraid that many of those in the younger generation here are too concerned with their status and career-building to take advantage of learning lessons from the past and acting in the present. While the June reunification weekend left me with more questions and doubts than answers, one thing is clear – I respect people who have given their lives for the cause of peace and reunification. I hope to learn from their struggles and emulate their level of commitment to a cause. Above all, I hope to one day see Korea reunite as one strong, independent country.

Based on interviews with Jeong Yeon-ook and Kwon Nak-gi, Seoul, June 14-15, 2014

 Breen, Michael. (2011, February 20). The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners. koreatimes.com

5.18.2014

By A.T.

On this May morning at the 34th People’s Commemoration
We are full of color
Red spilled blood
Black death and cherished memory
Yellow ribbons of hope
Green spring explosion of life
Sitting between the graves
Fists raised to the fallen martyrs
Feeling their blood, tears and spirits seep from below
We weren’t there then, but we remember now
Singing, shouting, crying
Marching forward with the beloved

On this May morning in Mangwol Cemetery
We carry on the legacy
Rulers are not benign, but corrupted by power
Freedom is not given, but born of struggle
People are not weak, but invincible together
Lifeless bodies give us all life
So onward we march

My grandparents grew up under Stalin, my parents under Brezhnev. Scorn and disdain for the Soviet empire led our family, led by our grandfather, to dash through the 1991 window of opportunity and migrate to the USA, where I grew up.

America, land of the free, the greatest country on Earth, a bastion of human rights and democracy, the opposite of “oppressive Communist Russia” in every way. Many years down the line, a relative remarked that when it comes to controlling and keeping tabs on its citizens, the US government is not much different than the authoritarian Soviet leadership.

Beyond the spying and the many marginalized communities that struggle for survival within its borders, the USA has a shameful and contradictory foreign policy. While preaching human rights, democracy and anti-Communism, the government has historically supported right-wing dictatorships abroad. The reality is that many of these governments walk hand-in-hand with US business interests. Under industrial capitalism, business is a branch of government.

In Gwangju, May 1980 Koreans came face-to-face with this truth: instead of supporting the democractization movement, American powers continued business as usual and helped sweep the Gwangju Uprising under the rug. The US, as the bearer of South Korea’s wartime military operational control, gave Chun Doo Hwan, the pro-US military leader, permission to send paratroopers to brutally crush the pro-democracy rebellion. After Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Chun became the first honored guest in the White House. It was then that Koreans realized – the struggle belonged to them alone.

Every year, our high school commemorates 5.18 with a walking pilgrimage from our Damyang campus across the Youngsan River to the Mangwol Cemetery on the northern edge of Gwangju. As it’s usually a bright warm Friday, it is difficult to get more than 200 students and 20 teachers in the proper somber mode. On April 16th the Sewol ferry sank off the Jindo coast and killed the equivalent of our entire school’s population. In their memory, we walked the last 20 minutes to the cemetery in silence.

This is the original burial place for the martyrs. Here lie the bodies of activists and ordinary citizens murdered by Chun Doo-Hwan’s military forces. On Sunday, our International Strategy Center team returned here for the parallel alternative to the official ceremony at the National Cemetery. While the 5.18 anthem “March of the Beloved,” dedicated to a posthumously married activist couple, has been discarded under the official leadership, it is still sung loud and proud [instead of using cliches, consider using more evocative imagery fit for that moment] in Mangwol.

The day before, the ISC began the 2014 5.18 Memorial weekend at the Freedom Park in Gwangju’s Sangmu Jigu, an expanding well-to-do residential district. Densely packed with supermarkets, high rises, restaurants, cinemas and everything necessary for comfortable urban living, it is hard to imagine that the neighborhood was once Sangmu Army Base. It was here that many of the military’s worst atrocities took place after the Uprising. The 5.18 Memorial Park – the last vestige of a once formidable forest – and the 5.18 Freedom Park are the historical markers that keep Gwangju’s tortured revolutionary spirit alive in Sangmu.

At the entrance of Freedom Park, we met middle-aged and elderly men in army fatigues. I wondered whether they were real soldiers or just for show. We learned that these volunteer tour guides were all survivors of the darkest chapter in modern Korean history. In these former military barracks, reconstructed in this unassuming park and surrounded on all sides by modern apartments, these men were jailed, beaten and tried at gunpoint for their involvement in the 5.18 democratization movement. Every May, they don their torturers’ uniforms and retell their stories to visitors, sitting in replicas of the places where they endured so much suffering.

After the Freedom Park, we rode the bus to Sansu-dong, a central Gwangju neighborhood that I had yet to visit after a year of living in the city. At Seondeoksa, a beautiful Buddhist temple and community center on a hill, we met longtime Gwangju activist Lee Shin. Lee echoed American journalist Tim Shorrock’s on the ground account of the 1980s when Korean grassroots democracy was at its peak with students in the frontlines. Where has that spirit gone now? Lee and others blame the decline of revolutionary will on neoliberalism, which crushes citizens’ power under the pressures and demands of daily survival early on from their days as university students.

American young people’s Korean counterparts seem to be stuck in the same dilemma – too much to lose when one rises up against the system of oppression. Test scores, job interviews, appearances – everything is geared towards individualism and fierce competition. This is a far cry from the few days that Gwangju citizens cooperatively took control of their city, May 21-27, 1980. Now, thirty four years later at the commemoration ceremony, students once again raise their voices and fists aside elders, awakening hope.

Resistance hasn’t completely died in Korea. To get around the ban on holding public protests after sunset, Korean activists have created a culture of night demonstrations called chot bul or candlelight vigils, a vibrant mix of citizen speeches, songs and rallying cries lit by simple cupped candles. 4.16 – the day of the Sewol accident – will surely join the other watershed moments in Korean history. Gwangju itself has held many such vigils on the historical Geumnam-ro main street. On Saturday night, with Lee Shin and his daughter, the ISC team made its way to the traditional yearly 5.17 vigil. Students, elders, politicians, entertainers, religious leaders – everyone seemed to be out with banners, candles, yellow ribbons and black shirts with a slogan, sitting on shiny silver mats that flowed ever further back from the main stage. A group of my high school students gave speeches and sang, making this teacher proud.

Although we only touched on it briefly, what I took away from this year’s 5.18 weekend is the broader context for singular tragic events such as Gwangju 1980. The 1945 liberation from Japan promised an independent nation, yet modern Korea was broken in two from the start, an open wound that is the “demilitarized zone” and a historically unfounded Northern “enemy.” Since the 1980s, Lee Shin has dedicated his life to the premise “from May to reunification.” As long as a Communist enemy, real or imagined, lurks as a strawman and villain over people’s heads, the prospect of another massacre like 5.18 is not off the table. As long as a people united for all but 60 of more than 5,000 years – as long as they stand divided as enemies, peace will always be beyond grasp.

Reigniting the Spark

by A.T.

These days, most high-school-age Korean girls put on school uniforms and double over studying from morning to night, at the same rate as their male peers. As a visiting native English teacher in Korean high school, I’ve heard the word “hell” used more than once to describe these three years. However much they may hate it, for young people this remains the path to a kind of status denied to thousands of poor, rural girls growing up under Park Chung-hee’s military dicatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. Much of Korea’s economic progress, or the so-called “Miracle of the Han River” was carried out on the backs of workers like Shin Soon Ae of Cheongyye Union, Lee Cheong Gak at Dongil Textiles and Choi Soon Young at YH Trading Company.

As young women in the 1970s, Shin, Lee, Choi and their peers made up over 80% of the textile labor force. They sacrificed their youth, pouring into Seoul and Incheon to labor in factories and support their families. Instead of bending over textbooks, they spent their teens and early twenties bent over sewing machines in four-foot dusty attics. Sitting with these women in the quiet setting of Seoul cafes and hearing their stories from a distance of decades put a human face on cheap clothes and economic growth. It also revealed the deep-rooted context for the current labor repression under Park Geun Hye – the former Park’s first child and a woman roughly the same age as these three workers. The women’s personal histories make it clear who really made the sacrifice responsible for building Korea into a wealthy nation.

I’ve walked through Seoul’s huge Dongdaemun shopping district several times. I’ve bought clothes from one of the hundreds of small vendors. One warm summer night, as I walked outside after midnight, crowds and “Gangnam Style” were still jamming the streets. Dongdaemun’s late night shopping experience is one of Seoul’s prime tourist and fashion attractions but do any guides bother telling the history behind this after-hours cheap shopping party? Under the military curfew of Park Chung-hee’s industrialization regime, people were forbidden to be out in the street in the middle of the night. Instead, they stayed in the former bus terminal nearby and swarmed out at the break of dawn. Wholesale buyers and retailers from all over Korea would take the bus at 11 pm and arrive at Dongdaemun by 4 am just to get around the curfew. From this early bustling atmosphere, the late-night shopping mecca was born.

Just down the road from Dongdaemun’s shiny modern shopping malls, entering Pyeonghwa Market’s Myeongbo Dabang coffeeshop feels like stepping into another era. Usually, when I see the discreet “Dabang” signs, I assume these are just places for old men to hang out. I learned that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Starbucks, Caffe Benes, Tom n Toms and other chain coffee shops popped up all over Korea, places like Myeongbo served as prime meeting spots. Yet, as former Cheongyye Union worker Shin Soon Ae recalled with us over coffee, these same drinks were nearly off-limits for her and nearby workers, as they cost a full day’s labor. Myeongbo Dabang is where Jeon Tae-il held worker activist meetings before infamously setting himself on fire at the Pyeonghwa Market entrance on November 13, 1970. Knowing the prohibitive cost for workers, he bought drinks for everyone and made sure they could attend the meetings. Who knew that expensive coffee planted the seeds for Korea’s labor movement?

Shin, Lee, Choi and their sisters in the factories may have given up their formal education, but Jeon Tae-il’s sacrifice led to more than just the founding of the first workers’ union, the Cheonggye Union. It also led to the creation of a different kind of learning center – evening worker’s classes. Although, from day one, the unions had to fight merely to exist,  through these classes they taught the female workers – who in the beginning didn’t know the meaning of a union – to organize and instilled in them a new sense of pride that couldn’t easily be taken away. Here, exhausted no-name laborers transformed into valued human beings who would  eventually use their capacity to analyze and critique their situation to rise up against inhumane workplace conditions. While their peers in high schools and universities were busy learning facts, figures and national propaganda, these young women received education that made history, one that sowed the seeds of revolution that would lead to the end of Park Chung-hee’s rule.

Women struggling side-by-side also contributed to the ushering in of a concept that, according to Shin, the 1970s workers didn’t yet grasp – feminism. While burning in the streets of Seoul, Jeon Tae-il screamed “stop exploiting women!” Yet it was the women themselves who would fight this exploitation. Although they may not have viewed it this way, by organizing together with such strength and dignity, these women laid a strong foundation for the future of the Korean women’s rights movement. Lee Cheong Gak from Dongil Textiles recounted for us the shocking and unforgettable incident of being covered in human feces by male company thugs, simply for wanting to vote for a woman to lead their union. The response by Dongil’s female workers was equally unforgettable. By stripping half-naked, holding hands and forming a human wall against the riot police, they did something their male counterparts wouldn’t have the power to do. A single act set an irreversible precedent.

After Park Chung-hee’s assassination, Choi and Lee remember feeling a sense of elation. It didn’t last long, as the Chun Doo-hwan took power, companies busted worker-led unions, and members like Shin became jobless fugitives. Yet the 1980s saw the labor movement become infused with thousands of students, inspired by the previous decades’ struggles. Together, these powerful forces led the democratization movement that would transform Korean society.

With the current tragic events regarding the sinking of the Sewol ferry leaving Korea awash in a wave of mourning, many questions arise. They are not new questions, but they now seem especially pertinent. Under a capitalist system, what is the worth of one human being? Workers, as well as dead bodies, are assigned numbers. With so much technological progress, where are we really going? Towards societies that overcome the unequal structures of the past – or ones that value speed and the bottom line over peoples’ safety and well-being? Since the 1980s, when Korean students joined the labor movement to organize for democratization, it seems that the country’s compass has swung in the other direction – towards complacency and a fight for status and success instead of freedom. Perhaps now that corruption and carelessness have been revealed in such an ugly way, these questions will again begin to spur collective action that inspires international movements, as Korean workers and activists have done in the past. Perhaps it’s time to reignite the spark.