Will Fight a Thousand Times Over: The Power of a Mother

Making History: Minkahyup

by Dae-Han Song


(from left to right) Kim, Hyun Joo; Kim, Jeong Sook; Jo, Soon Deok; Dae-Han Song; Stephanie Park; (camera-woman: Jeong Eun Hwang)

The interview was carried out by Dae-Han Song and Stephanie Park with interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang.

On October 16th, Minkahyup had their thousandth Thursday protest against the National Security Law and for the release of all political prisoners. On October 22nd, Jeong-Eun Hwang[1], Stephanie Park[2], and Dae-Han Song[3] visited Minkahyup[4] to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok[5]; former president Kim, Jeong Seok[6]; and administrative coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo[7].

“What was your reaction when you found out your sons were wanted by the police?” I start the interview. Jo, Soon Deok begins, “Mothers usually think, ‘The work [fighting for democracy] needs to be done, but why does it have to be my child?’ I felt the same.” A few months after becoming Student Council President, her son gave a five minute speech at a farmer’s rally in Yeoido Square and on the spot became a fugitive. “When a son or daughter becomes a fugitive the whole family becomes one too. The Gwanak police, the school police – they harass you at home, at work,” continues Jo, Soon Deok.

Both these women are of my mother’s generation. I wonder what my mother’s reaction would be given a similar situation. “You are both a little older than my mother. She is fairly conservative. Were the progressive politics always there or did they emerge from your work?”

Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “Your mother can’t but be conservative. She came from that time. Live as the government tells you to live; don’t do what they tell you not to do. Study hard; go work in a good company; make good money. Marry a good person; have children; live a good life. Those are the desires of a parent.” Her voice becomes tinged with emotion as she recalls the anxiety and distress of those times, “You don’t start coming out to the protests because you understand your child. You come because you are the parent, the mother. But as you come, as you listen to the stories and thoughts of others, you realize, ‘My son did right. How can we just live for ourselves? He is better than his parents: He wants to create a better world for everyone.’ When mothers realize this, they start to get even more active. It begins to matter less whether they ate or got roughed up by police that day.”

Their sons had both been incarcerated and/or been fugitives for a few years; yet Jo, Soon Deok’s Minkahyup activism spans nearly two decades and that of Kim, Jeong Sook’s over two decades. I ask what kept them committed. Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “At first people came out because their child was incarcerated. We came knowing nothing simply because the only people that could understand us and could comfort and console us were the veteran mothers who had experienced this. There was no other place. As we became the veteran mothers, we felt that same obligation towards mothers that were just starting.”

As Kim, Jeong Sook continues, it becomes clear that their work to free their sons became a gateway to a new understanding and engagement with the world. “At first, it was just about getting your child out of prison as soon as possible. And that was important, but we started to realize it was also about building a better world, about abolishing the National Security Law, and releasing the prisoners.”

Kim, Jeong Sook kept stealing glances at the clock. I find out she has to leave soon to pick up her grandson from school. Our interview focuses on her. As an activist, I ask the question I’ve posed to all the activists I’ve interviewed, “What was the hardest thing about the work? How did you overcome it?”

“Back then it was so repressive,” starts Kim, Jeong Sook. Her son became a fugitive in 1989. While the military dictatorship had technically ended with direct elections in 1987, the split in the opposition party allowed Roh Tae Woo, a military leader during the dictatorship, to win the election. My son was a fugitive for just a year. During that time, he would show up at a press conference, make a statement, and then flee. So many cops were looking for him, that they used to say that if you didn’t have a picture of my son in your pocket, then you weren’t a cop.” Jo, Soon Deok chimes in, “Her son’s was a high profile case. He is the current deputy mayor of Seoul.” For Kim, Jeong Sook, not knowing when or how her son would be caught was her greatest anxiety. She recounts an instance when he fled by getting on a bus. When the bus stopped and the police rushed in, he jumped out the bus window and broke his leg. He was arrested on December 19, 1989 after someone tipped the police of his whereabouts.

She then pans out to the story of countless other mothers. “At that time, they would torture the prisoners. We worried our children were being tortured. When we went to see them, they would always say they weren’t being tortured.” She recounts the story of an overjoyed mother whose son told her he had not been tortured. Later during the trial, the mother fainted at hearing his testimony of torture. He had been tortured by electrocution, water drowning, and whisky bottle. Kim, Jeong Sook recounts the whisky bottle torture, “They would place the prisoner’s penis on the table and hit it with the whisky bottle yelling that he didn’t deserve to have children because he was a criminal. Then they would take turns drinking from the bottle. ” “Now, he’s an Assemblymember for the Democratic Party,” she adds. “I could spend days telling you all these stories.”

Our time is up; I ask her for any last words for readers abroad. “I would like to tell them to not forget what has happened in Korea. All the prisoners of conscience and their families that lived such difficult lives, I hope that they will not forget them and help support us and remember us,” she responds.


Minkahyup mothers and long term political prisoners stand on stage closing out the 1000th protest.

I pose the same question of difficult moments and overcoming them to Jo, Soon Deok. She mentions that the hardest time was not her personal experience but that of witnessing the distress of countless others as they ran around protesting in front of police stations and the Agency for National Security Planning (now the National Intelligence Service).


“I hope that like the balloons rising in the air, so will the burden on these mothers.”

In the beginning, we never thought we would have 1000 protests. But because political prisoners and social problems persist, we keep going. It would not have been possible to do the Thursday protests for 21 years without those around us – organizations and individuals – supporting us,” Jo Soon Deok responds.In reference to the previous week’s 1000th protest at Topgol Park, I asked how she felt about it. Many of the speakers that day had mentioned that while sad that the NSL and political prisoners had continued for so long, the protests were nonetheless a testament to the mothers who had persisted for so long.


Jo, Soon Deok (third from the left) holding a banner calling for the abolishment of the NSL in its 50th year on December 1st, 1998.

The use of the National Security Law had peaked in 1996 with the Yonsei University Uprising. The Korean Confederation of Student Councils was labeled an enemy of the state, and many of its student activists became fugitives and were arrested under the NSL. When Kim Dae Jung came into office in 1998, the NSL persisted, but many of the accused were pardoned and the number of incarcerations under the NSL drastically dropped. Then in 2004, President Roh Moo Hyun stated he would put the NSL in a museum as it was outdated. This inspired massive mobilizations in civilWe move on to Minkahyup’s current demands. Kim, Hyun Joo the Administrative Coordinator answers, “Our demands are the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of the National Security Law.” Minkahyup also engages in various struggles around democracy, prison conditions, and peace in the Korean Peninsula. All the issues are part of a struggle to build a better world. As one of the key organizations against the National Security Law, Kim, Hyun Joo gives us a brief overview of the National Security Law and the struggle against it. She recounts its origins from a Japanese Colonial law used to capture and oppress independence fighters. On December 1st, 1948, it became a Korean law under its current name. While we were talking, Jo, Soon Deok slipped out and came back with an old photo. Kim, Hyun Joo notices and mentions, “That’s a picture of our annual funeral for the National Security Law in December 1st, 1998.” Every December 1st, social movements gather to call for the abolition of the National Security Law, thus celebrating not its birth but future demise.


1000 protestors went on hunger strike in front of the National Assembly calling for the Abolition of the National Security Law (December 20, 2004)

Currently, the NSL discussion has been put on the back burner since 2004 because there were so many other struggles like the Ssanyong Auto Workers Struggle, or the Yongsan Eviction Tragedy. The NSL struggle never reached the peak it did in 2004. Minkahyup, Alliance to Abolish the National Security Law, Human Rights Groups, or the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements – we keep holding protests every December 1st calling for the abolishment of the NSL.society to get the NSL abolished. A thousand people fasted for its abolishment in Yeoido Park (near the National Assembly). Yet, the growing protests and mobilizations sparked a backlash from conservative groups. Kim, Hyun Joo recalls, “The conservative groups argued, ‘If the NSL is abolished, how are you going to lock up a person that goes out to Yeoido waving the North Korean flag and yelling long live Kim Il Sung?’ My response is: ‘So what?’ When Obama comes to Korea, aren’t there people outside waving US flags and saying long live Obama? How is that any different?” Ultimately, the NSL failed to be abolished or even reformed. Nonetheless, it was rarely used under Roh Moo Hyun. It was only after the conservatives came back into power with Lee Myung Bak’s election that the NSL began to be used to investigate, prosecute, and convict people. It continues to be so used under the conservative Park Geun Hye administration.

Currently, conservative groups are trying to introduce legislation that would confiscate property and mete out harsher punishment against those that join organizations deemed enemies of the state. While individuals can be arrested, the NSL cannot disband these groups. So, other people can still join the organizations. So, the Saenuri Party introduced these types of legislation where property would be confiscated or there would be harsher punishment if you joined such illegal organizations. We have managed to keep this legislation from being introduced in the National Assembly.

I wonder at the survival of such vestige from Japanese colonialism and the Cold War, “What would it take for the NSL to be abolished?” Kim, Hyun Joo explains that the NSL is linked to inter-Korean relations. She elaborates, “When inter-Korean relations are better, when we view each other as partners in reunification and cooperation, then the National Security Law loses significance. Back when hundreds a day would visit Mount Geumgang – when exchange was very active – all of those were infractions of the NSL; yet, so many people were doing it, that the NSL dissipated from the hearts of people. But now when inter-Korean relations are bad, and the government has a policy of pressuring North Korea. We start to think, ‘If I say anything nice about the North Korean government, will I be violating the National Security Law? And so they self-censor.’ Roh Moo Hyun’s statement about abolishing the NSL in 2004 had only been possible because there had been a policy of engagement and reunification since Kim Dae Jung’s presidency because the Mount Geumgang tours were happening, because the exchange was very active. So the struggles for improving inter-Korean relations and for abolishment of the NSL are interconnected.

As we wind down our interview, Jo, Seong Deok has the last word, “I hope that the NSL is abolished, that there will no longer be any political prisoners, and that we no longer have to have the Thursday protests.”

‘Till that day.

[1] Jeong Eun Hwang is the ISC Communications Coordinator.

[2] Stephanie Park is an ISC intern.

[3] Dae-Han Song is the ISC Policy and Research Coordinator.

[4] Minkahyup was established in 1985 by families of political prisoners. In protest of President Kim Yong Sam’s statement that “there are no political prisoners in Korea,” they held their first Thursday protest in September 23, 1994 at Topgol Park. Since then, regardless of the bitter cold, scorching heat, and pounding rains, they have held their weekly Thursday meetings. On October 16th, they held their thousandth Thursday protest.

[5] Jo, Soon Deok has been Minkahyup[5] president since 2011. Previously, she served as president 2002-2005. She has been a member since 1996 when her son, a college student at the time, became a fugitive under the National Security Law. After two years as a fugitive, her son was pardoned when Kim, Dae Jung took office in 1998.

[6] Kim, Jeong Sook was Minkahyup president in 1992 and 1998. She has been a member since 1989 when her son, a college student at the time and now the deputy-Mayor of Seoul, became a fugitive under the National Security Law.

[7] Kim, Hyun Joo has been the Minkahyup administrative coordinator for 4 years. She joined the social movement as a university student upon witnessing students incarcerated for violating the National Security Law.


Unbroken: Kwon Nak-gi, Long Term Political Prisoner of Conscience

By Dae-Han Song
On June 14th, Kris Pak, an adoptee; Stephanie Park and Dae-Han Song, two Korean-Americans; Taryn Assaf, a Lebanese-Canadian; Anastasia Traynin, a Russian-American; and Erica Sweett, a Canadian meet with Kwon Nak-gi: trim, neatly dressed, nearing 70, set of black hair, hint of  slouch, and tattooed eyebrows. He speaks with the earned conviction and justification of one who stayed true to his beliefs and comrades in the face of torture and 17 years of solitary confinement.

The National Security Law
Kwon, Nak-gi was arrested in 1972 (along with his father, mother, and younger brother) for violating the National Security Law in the incident of the Gyongsang Province Revolutionary Party for Reunification. The National Security Law had been created soon after liberation from Japan to repress the uprisings erupting from a divided South Korea: On one side stood the nationalists, communists, and socialists; on the other, the Japanese collaborators. Since that time the National Security Law has been used to censor, incarcerate, torture and kill dissenters. Those imprisoned are grouped between ones who renounced their beliefs under torture, and ones who did not. Separating those let free and those that persisted was a signed statement renouncing one’s beliefs. Those that persisted are referred to as prisoners of conscience. Kwon Nak-gi is a third generation long term political prisoner of conscience.

Four Generations of Political Prisoners
The first generation of political prisoners was arrested at the end of the Korean War: they had fought for the North but were trapped in the South when the war ended. Some were executed; others received life sentences eventually serving up to 40 years. The second generation was arrested upon returning to the South in the early 1960s to jumpstart the South’s reunification movement. The third generation was too young to fight in the war but old enough to participate in the South’s reunification movement in the early 70s. The fourth generation was arrested in the latter half of the 1970s, framed as spies to justify the continued existence of the National Security Law. They were later retried and found innocent, including those executed and those killed in prison.

Struggle and Freedom
As the struggle for democratization intensified, pressure to release the political prisoners mounted. Many, including Kwon Nakki, were released after the October 1987 uprising. Others were released under Kim Yong Sam, and finally one by one the remaining unconverted long term political prisoners were released under the Kim Dae Jung presidency. 63 of them were repatriated to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture under the June 15, 2000 agreement between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il.

Prison Life
As we move from the background to his story, I ask, “What was prison life like?” Kwon Nak-gi describes the cells for political prisoners: Each prisoner was held in a 0.75 pyeong (2.5 square meters) cell: just large enough to sit against one wall and touch the other with your feet. To break them, the prison kept them under solitary confinement. “In our cells, we didn’t have any books. If you had books, you could escape. They wanted to keep the pressure on: They wanted us to feel sadness, misery, loneliness.”

As he relates his daily prison life, I glimmer moments of resistance, persistence, and dignity in the mundane: keeping mind and body busy, strict adherence to hygiene and exercise, and even discipline and resourcefulness in the use and reuse of a pail ration of water.

“One of our greatest sources of strength was study. Among the hundreds imprisoned, we had philosophers, professors: learned people. So, they created lessons on dialectical materialism, contradiction, the principles of an organizer, political science, economics.” While each of the political prisoners was kept in solitary confinement, they communicated through a secret system of taps, scratches, and knocks on the wall.

“We would sit alone in our room doing these studies. Our elders would tap out a sentence on the wall. Then I would recite and memorize it in rhyme.” As he demonstrates by tapping, scratching, and knocking in rapid succession, he murmurs off a string of sentences from memory. “It’s been so long, that I’m starting to forget them…It took me about a year to memorize it all.”

“After breakfast and the dishes, I would recite my lessons. It took exactly three hours. Without that, there was no way we could have held out for 10, 20, 30 years. A human being needs a purpose and a practice. That’s the only way to endure. We have to remind ourselves why we exist. For us, it was important to not while away the day. That’s why we studied everyday. It gave us a purpose.”

“The second source of strength was struggle. If they simply left us alone, we would have become bored, listless. But, they tortured us. All animals fight back when you mess with them. But, humans are special: We also fight back when someone messes with others. That is our strength. If they beat one of us, then the others would start a hunger strike. These struggles helped keep our humanity.”

“Study, struggle, and finally comradeship. I wonder if without comrades I could have kept my beliefs for so long.” Kwon Nak-gi relates how, in winter, younger prisoners would pad their underwear and in the exercise yard would exchange it with the worn-out ones of the older prisoners. Or of when someone had diarrhea, he would save his food and pass it on to hungry comrades despite punishment if caught.

His voice recalls a past moment, “One day after getting tortured, I returned to my cell. I was bloodied; my energy was drained. As the sun set and night fell upon me, my eyes welled up with tears. I wondered to myself, ‘Do I really need to keep getting beat up like this?’ My thoughts wandered off to a woman back in Busan. ‘Why did I listen to my father? Why don’t I just give up and live comfortably outside?’”

“The next morning, through the food slot, I saw a senior comrade in his 50s – his skin down to his bones – raising his fist motioning me to stay strong. At seeing that, there was no way I could sign the renunciation document. How could I leave behind all these elders and comrades to live comfortably outside? I stuck it out to the end not because I was smarter, or tougher, or better. It was these relationships. It was these moments, once, twice, thrice, ten times, one year, ten years, twenty, as time flowed…that is how I was made. No one is born good or bad. Our education, our actions – that is what make us.”

Releasing the Han
Anastasia asks, “What are your goals now?” The question stirs a reflection. Kwon Nak-gi pauses then responds, “When you say goal, there is that which forms in our rational self, from our knowledge, which we plan and then try to execute, and there is that which forms within our hearts and releases our unresolved feelings, our Han. The goal which resides in my rational self and in my heart, are one and the same: reunification.”

His “rational” reasons for reunification are many: an independent country; military spending used for social welfare instead; and the freedom to hear, read, learn what one wants and to choose freely. Then, a profundity permeates his voice, “Reunification is also an ardent wish that resides in my heart. We all make promises, like today, we made a promise to meet here. But, a promise between living people, can be changed, postponed, or even canceled if both acquiesce. A promise with those who’ve died cannot be canceled, postponed, or altered. That is the han that resides in the hearts of those that survived. I made a promise to my elders that I would struggle on until the reunification of our homeland. They died in prison. Even my juniors, who I loved and cared for, that were released but passed away, we promised to fight for reunification.”

Advice for the next generation
As our meeting comes to a close, Anastasia asks, “Do you have any advice for the next generation?” Kwon Nak-gi’s voice mingles with delight, expectation, and respect as he answers, “Dialectical materialism states that the new will replace the old, and that the new becomes old. Nothing remains fixed. I see myself as the old: I am 69. You are young; you are in your twenties, in your thirties. I can’t tell you how to live your lives. But, I can tell you that while I spent my twenties and thirties in prison, I never lived in shame. I didn’t accomplish anything great, but I never betrayed my beliefs. I did not live in fear; I did not live in shame. Because you are young, your dreams, your directions, they will all be varied. But, live your life free of fear and shame. To do that, you must preserve your confidence and maintain your self-respect.”

70s Women Workers

by Dae-Han Song

Among the key worker struggles during the Yushin Regime of Park Chung Hee were those waged by women at the Cheonggye, Dongil, and YH Unions. After watching the play 70 Women Workers by the Arts Collective for a New Era, we spent a weekend meeting up with its three protagonists. Our first day, we got a tour of Pyounghwa Market (the primary textile district in Korea) by one of its then-organizers Shin Soon Ae. Our second day, we sat down at a Gwanghwamun café to talk with Lee Cheong Gak and Choi Soon Young presidents of Dongil and YH Union during its most intense and fierceest struggles.

70여공 group photo

Photo with Choi Soon Young, Lee Cheong Gak, and Shin Soon Ae
after the play “70 Women Workers”

Shin Soon Ae: A Born Again Worker

Walking into Café Myongbo (Treasure) is like walking into the 70s. The walls and upholstery are stained with the past, and its
customers are now aged. Shin Soon Ae, a movement elder and once unionist at Pyounghwa (Peace) Market, suggested the café; Korean labor martyr Jeon Tae Il and his Samdong Friendship Association held their meetings here. It was a hip place where young people chatted, dated, or politicked over 50 won coffee (paid with 14 hours of work).Café Myongbo (Treasure)

“I couldn’t come here. It was too expensive,” remarks Shin Soon Ae, a sewing machinist at the time. In our 20s and 30s, we – a 3rd/2nd generation Korean-American, a 1.5 one, an adoptee, a 1.5 generation Russian-American, a Lebanese-Canadian, and a Canadian – are the youngest by decades. We planned to meet Shin Soon Ae to hear her story working at Pyounghwa Market and fighting in the Cheonggye Clothing Workers Union.

“There were three important periods in Korea’s modern history: Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and industrialization. My family suffered through each one. During Japanese colonization, the collaborators took my father’s land because of his involvement in the independence movement. He had to hide in the mountains where hunger would take a life-long toll on his stomach. During the Korean War, one of my brothers was the sole survivor in a helicopter crash, but not without injury. The other one was injured when a bomb exploded near him. They were all debilitated by various ailments. So, to supplement our income, I went to work. The only place that would hire a kid was Pyounghwa Market. I was thirteen.”

Pyounghwa Market 2013

Pyounghwa Market 2013

Pyounghwa Market 1960

Pyounghwa Market 1960

During the 1960s and 70s, Pyounghwa Market was the center of textile production in Korea. Merchants from all over the country would arrive to purchase clothes for retail or wholesale. There was unceasing demand, so factory owners would squeeze as many sewing machines and workers in their factories as possible. Female workers, as young as thirteen would work 14-15 hours a day with poor ventilation and few breaks.

After several attempts to improve working conditions, on November 13, 1970, during a protest rally, Jeon Tae Il, a twenty two year old cutter doused himself with gasoline and burned himself. As flames engulfed his body, he held a copy of the Labor Standard Laws and yelled, “We are not machines! Obey the Labor Standard Laws!” As he lay dying in the hospital, he pleaded that his death not be in vain. He was the worker movement’s first martyr and its spark. Two weeks later, his mother Lee So Seon and the Samdong Friendship Association organized the creation of the Cheonggye Union on the rooftop of Pyounghwa Market.

“I had already been at Pyounghwa Market 9 years when I joined the Choeonggye Union in 1974. Workers didn’t know what it was. They just knew that if you weren’t getting paid, you could go to the rooftop and get paid. As for me, I never graduated elementary school. I couldn’t afford it. So, when they were offering free middle school education, I decided to go.  In the process, I was re-born a dignified and proud worker. People treated me differently at the union. At the factory, I was just “helper # 7”; at the union, people called me Miss Shin Soon Ae. At the factory, my eyes were constantly fixed on the machine needle to avoid getting punctured. I couldn’t look around me. Even when others suffered, my eyes remained fixed on the needle. But, when I came to class, people would treat me with dignity. I would look around and see friends. When I helped, people thanked me. I saw how things could be, and I learned that we were being exploited.”

Singing at the Work Classroom

Singing at the Work Classroom

The Cheonggye Union represented workers in Pyounghwa Market. Its goal was the enforcement of the National Labor Standard. It organized and politicized workers through their Work Classroom which provided various after-work programs such as middle and high school level education, skills training, and cultural programs. This was a space of exchange where organizers (sometimes college students and faith based organizations) could raise workers’ consciousness around worker’s rights and demands while raising their own awareness around worker conditions and struggles.

“Before, the finish time wasn’t set. 12 a.m. was the start of the military curfew, so we would leave so as to get home before then. Some of us would leave at 11:00, others, at 10:30. It all depended on how long it took to get home, but if you worked until 10 p.m., you wouldn’t be able to attend the Work Classroom. This was because the classes were at 8:30 to 9:20 and 9:20 to 10:30. So, the union waged a struggle demanding that workers be let out by 8 p.m.. Our occupation started with 180 people, but as curfew approached, people left one by one. Despite the gun toting police, the threats of arrest, and red-baiting, 30 of us remained. The next day at 3 p.m., the factory owners accepted our demands. We were so exhilarated! We stood our ground and accomplished victory not just for ourselves, but for everyone.”

The Work Classroom’s activities educating workers and fighting for their rights made it a constant target of government attack. Only active worker struggles kept it open. In 1977, when the government attempted to close the Work Classroom, the workers waged a struggle against the police. As a result the solidarity between intellectuals and workers strengthened, and Bishop Ham Seok Heon, Ji Hak Soon, and 20 leaders would announce the establishment of the Pyounghwa Market Human Rights Association and the preparation for the Korean Charter for Human Rights.In 1981, the Cheonggye Union was disbanded by the government, but the workers fought to restore it.

“I felt the greatest hopelessness when the government forced the closure of our union in 1981. I became a fugitive for 2 years. Even afterwards, I was constantly under investigation and surveillance. People like Kim Dae Jung [who would become the first opposition leader elected president] were under surveillance, but people knew their suffering. I was just a simple worker, so no one knew about my persecution. The government offered me a job as an anti-North Korean propagandist. Even though I couldn’t get a job anywhere else, I refused. Then, they started sending me bags of rice. You got to know this was when it was hard. I still threw it out.”

In 1998, after continuing struggle, the union was re-established as the Seoul Regional Textile Manufacturing Union.

One of us teaching in a conservative region of Busan asks, “Some in Korea view the sacrifices during Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship as a necessary evil for Korea’s industrialization. What’s your response?”

Above the retail stall is a small attic

Above the retail stall is a small attic

“I ask you, ‘Who was sacrificed?’ If you owned a factory, you got rich. What about those that sacrificed? Where is their compensation? If sacrifice was necessary, alright. But, what about compensating and acknowledging our sacrifices now? Those that went to fight in the Vietnam War got something, they got acknowledged. But, we never got acknowledged. We never got compensated. The owners of the Pyounghwa Market and Park Chung Hee benefitted. Even if a little percentage of Korea’s GDP went to compensate those that had sacrificed, it would mean something. Some of my friends are ashamed of their past in Pyounghwa Market. They have hid their pasts from their families.”

As we finish our drinks and conversation at Myongbo Café, we start our tour of the Peace Market. We go to the 2nd floor of the Peace Market. While the original structures remain, the partitions that divided factories now divide retail stalls. We walk down the long narrow aisle between them. Shin Soon Ae points at a small attic above one of the sales stalls. “That’s where the sewing machinists would work. No matter how short you were, you couldn’t stand upright because the ceiling was so low. The cutters worked below.”

Pyounghwa Market runs the length of a long city block. It is partitioned into three areas with bathrooms in between. After we walk the whole length of the section and get to the bathrooms, Shin Soon Ae turns around to tell us, “These were the bathrooms for our whole section. All of us in our section had to use these bathrooms. So you can imagine when we needed to go to the bathroom we had to wait 20 to 30 minutes. We would go to the bathroom during lunch and then we’d only have 15 minutes to finish our food. That was one of the hardest things.”

immolation site marker As we exit Pyounghwa Market and cross toward Jeon Tae Il’s bridge, she motions across the main entrance towards the second floor. “Kookmin Bank was there. That’s where Jeon Tae Il doused himself with gasoline.” On the street below lies an inscription: “Here is the place where Chun Tae-Il shouted while his body burst into flames, ‘We are not machines. Abide by the Labor Laws!’ November 13, 1970.”

Group with Shin Soon AeWe cross to the Jeon Tae Il bridge. She points at the brass inscriptions on the ground. “Mine is somewhere over there. We helped pay for this bridge with workers’ donations. Each brick cost 100,000 won.” As we stand in front of the statue of Jeon Tae Il, I ask, “What was Jeon Tae Il’s impact in your life?”

“Whenever I was beaten up, or when I was suffering, I would think of him. ‘I am not dead like Jeon Tae Il.’ It put things into perspective, and it placed in us a sense of responsibility and guilt. After all, he had died for us.”

fishWe finish our evening over grilled fish at “Restaurant of the Masses.” (Dongdaemun Market is known for its grilled fish.)

As she concludes our evening, I catch a glint in her eye, “Back when I was a textile worker here, I always wanted to eat at these grilled fish places, but I couldn’t afford it. Later, when I could afford it, I didn’t have the opportunity. Thanks to you, I get to eat grilled fish here for the first time and share my story.”


Lee Cheong Gak: “The Shit Water Baptism”

Dongil workers pose for photos  after being splashed with human excrement by pro-company  male workers

Dongil workers pose for photos
after being splashed with human excrement by pro-company
male workers

“I am the third daughter. My name means “bachelor.” It was so that I’d be the third and last daughter, and the next one would be a son. My father just drank at home, so my mother and sister worked, but even then we couldn’t manage three meals a day. When I was 18, I went to work for the first time. I worked in factories for 12 years until I was fired. “

“My sister went to work for Dongil first, then I went there. Dongil was bigger and better than other factories at that time. You could work in textile or lighter factories. Dongil was better than the lighter factory. It was really competitive getting a job there, so when I got hired, I was happy and proud. I could make money now and live like a human being, so I worked very hard. I was eighteen at the time. Dongil was a large factory so they had to obey the law. Still, people lied about their age using their sisters’ IDs, and the company just turned a blind eye.”

“We got paid by the piece, so we would try to work as much as possible. We would start at 8 a.m., eat lunch for 15 minutes, and then dinner at 10 p.m. Sometimes, when we had to meet a deadline, we would work 24 hours straight. The company ran three shifts: 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. You couldn’t eat when you worked, so you ate before and after. So people’s stomach would be ruined and because of the heat; we would develop athlete’s foot. To stay up, people would take stimulants.”

“There’s a song by Kim Min Ki about how when the boss’ dog gets sick, an ambulance takes it to the hospital while in the factories the workers toil away. Kim Min Ki went to work in the factories for a year to write that song. He wrote a song about a worker with six fingers. He received 50,000 won (about $50) for each of the four cut fingers, but because he was saddened, he drank it all away. At the end, not even the money was left.” Lee Cheong Gak starts to sing. There is no timidity in her voice, just emotion at singing the fighting songs of her youth. Cho Soon Young joins her. After the song ends, both laugh.

While 90% of its workforce was women, the leadership at the Dongil Union was dominated by pro-company men with little interest in the working conditions and wages of female workers. In 1972, women who had been involved in small group activities organized by the Urban Industrial Mission successfully organized to elect the first female president. Soon after, the company had male workers and the police to harass the women’s organizing efforts. In 1976, after male workers locked in the female delegates in their dormitories and elected a new male union president, the women staged a sit-in strike. On the third day, after the women resisted management’s efforts to draw them out by cutting the electricity and water, police were brought in to drag the women out. As they saw the police approaching, the women undressed thinking that “men cannot touch undressed women.” 500-800 naked women held each other tightly and sang union songs. In 1978, when an election was held for the union’s executive committee, pro-company male (and two female) workers splashed human excrement upon the women coming to vote. Its leaders, including Lee Cheong Gak, rushed with their stained clothes to a neighborhood studio to document the indignities they had suffered. It became the infamous “shit water baptism.” They would lose their struggle as the National Textile Union collaborated with the company to neutralize the women led union. Although 124 of its leaders were fired and blacklisted from taking jobs in other factories, their fierce fight inspired and fueled struggles such as the one at YH Trading Company.

We ask her what she thinks about the worker movement today.

“There is division among workers today – a division between regular and irregular workers. The workers of large corporations care only about their own wages. They need to support and struggle alongside the irregular workers also. Maybe the US and Northern Europe are different where there is not such a large gap between regular and irregular workers. But in Korea there is a big difference. Sometimes the regular workers negotiate contracts so that they can pass their regular worker job to their children. But the regular workers should be helping the irregular ones financially in their struggles. For example, in Incheon, there are two GM Daewoo factories a small and medium one. The KCTU has members in both the big corporations and the small and medium companies. However, when the workers in the small and medium enterprises wage a struggle, the ones in the big corporations don’t come out to support.”

Choi Soon Young: “Women Workers Brought Down Yushin”

Reenactment of the New People's Party Occupation  from the play 70 Women Workers

Reenactment of the New People’s Party Occupation
from the play 70 Women Workers

“To understand Korean society you need to understand the Korean War and the industrialization that began at the end of 1960s. At that time we were a very different and poor country from the one we are now. Because our country was so poor, we sent people to Germany as workers and babies overseas for adoption. People had to come from the rural areas to the factories in order to make money. In Korean culture, they would send the son to school and the girls to the factories to help financially by working.”

Being carried out from the New People's Party Conference by police commandos

Being carried out from the New People’s Party Conference by police commandos

“During that time Park Chung Hee made the lives of farmers very difficult. This was to create more workers and lower wages. During that time Korean workers, in particular women, were unskilled, so their advantage was their cheap labor. So, we see that during the 60s and 70s women were the majority of the workers in the large corporations. Back then Samsung and LG were clothing producers. During Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship Labor Standard Laws existed, but were not enforced. The worker’s union movement during the 70s was hard. The Christian groups, such as Christian Academy, did a lot. They worked to raise consciousness around religious reform, farmers, workers, and students. The idea was to train the leadership, and then when the leadership went back, they would educate others. At that time, the education that they received was considered radical and even shocking. Under Chun Doo Hwan we got red-baited. We would meet in small groups based on sectors, and learn theory through plays that we were one.”

YH Trading Company was a major exporter of wigs to the United States. It had been established with government financial support, yet, its managers were investing their profits in other companies. The major struggle against the YH Trading Company took place in 1979 when management announced that they would shut down the wig making plant, even after they had laid off half the workforce.

“During the end of the 1970s the repression against workers and farmers intensified, so the workers and farmers also started to intensify their protests. After we saw how they had broken Dongil Union, we decided that we would hold a last struggle regardless of whether we could win or not. We went to the New People’s Party building so that we could carry out a long term occupation struggle.”

Kim Kyung Sook who died after falling from the fourth floor during the scuffle with police

Kim Kyung Sook who died after falling from the fourth floor during the scuffle with police

On the third day of their occupation, a thousand police entered the building to remove the hundred or so workers. In the ensuing struggle, one of the union delegates, Kim Kyung Sook, was killed after falling from the fourth floor. The leader of the New People’s Party who had permitted the occupation was arrested.

“Because of that struggle lots of other workers also gained strength and inspiration. There were many other solidarity protests. The struggle at the New People’s Party exposed the Park Chung Hee dictatorship to the rest of the world. After that struggle Kim Yong Sam was incarcerated. This was a big deal because he was the leader of the opposition party. For someone of that stature to be incarcerated was a big deal. When Kim Yong Sam went on hunger strike, this got even bigger. The people in Busan and Masan protested because their representative had been locked away. Ultimately, it was an argument about how to deal with the Busan-Masan uprising within Park Chung Hee’s cabinet that led to Park Chung Hee’s assassination and the end of the Yushin Regime. So, the YH struggle sparked the series of events and protests that led to the fall of the Yushin Regime. Women workers brought down Yushin.”

Ripple Effect
This visit was part of the International Strategy Center’s Korean History, Economy, and Politics program. While the program centers on Korea’s social movement struggles and its protagonists, its purpose is to deepen participants’ understanding of Korean society and have them re-examine their relationship to it. As such, the participants are the other half of the program. Below are their thoughts:

“A month after watching the 70여공 play to commemorate March 8 Women’s Day, we met with the three former women garment factory workers whose stories were represented and retold in the performance. Hearing of their family backgrounds, how they came to work in the factories and their courageous struggles for a strong union and workers’ solidarity made the so-called ‘miracle’ of Korean industrialization come alive. I was inspired by the strong sense of unity, sisterhood and pride in their work that these women maintained, despite experiencing deep injustice from their workplace and their government. The personal oral histories have given me a much deeper understanding of who made the real sacrifice to make Korea what it is today, and why it is so important for women and workers to continue the struggle for representation in society.”  – Ana Traynin

“Stepping back in time into a café with walls that have so much history was a unique experience. It was effective in connecting me to a past that I was not a part of. Touring the structure that once held the garment factories made the stories and history more tangible. It helped put the past into perspective. Listening to the three women talk about their lives and the struggles of the union was inspiring. Having the opportunity to ask questions in a more intimate setting gave us the chance to reflect on and clarify all the things we have learned so far. The dialogue the ISC is building between foreigners and Koreans is so important. It allows the stories and struggles of Koreans to reach and impact more people.  The first step towards action is always education and dialogue.”– Erica Sweett

“This month’s meeting felt like a natural continuation of last month’s, when we watched the performance of ’70여공.  At that time, I felt incredibly moved by the stories that each woman shared about her experience as a young factory worker and wanted to speak with them, but didn’t even know where to begin.  This time, I knew far more about both the general history of Korea’s labor movement and each woman’s background, and was able not only to ask more meaningful questions but to better appreciate their answers.  I had always thought of labor as being a male-oriented, male-dominated movement, but speaking with Shin Soon Ae, Lee Chung Gak, and Choi Soon Young opened my eyes to the central role women played in building Korea’s labor movement.  Furthermore, many of them were in their early-mid twenties when they first joined the movement which, as a twenty-two-year old myself, I found incredible.  I left at the end of the weekend feeling not only inspired by what they had shared, but with a sense of duty towards carrying on the spirit of their work in some way through my own.” – Stephanie Park

“Having the opportunity to meet and speak with these ladies was an incredibly humbling experience. The sacrifices they made and the passion they offered to their cause was -and continues to be- an inspiration to those who aspire to change their circumstances. I’ll never forget their stories, and I’ll carry their dedication with me into my future social justice work.” – Taryn Assaf