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.


“Enforce the labor code! We are not machines!”

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.

Being the Change We Want to See

By Taryn Assaf

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”­- David Foster Wallace

Helper #7 was a factory worker at age 13. In one of many dark, dusty, cramped attics of the Pyeonghwa factories in Seoul, she labored 14 hours a day sewing fabrics into clothing to be sold in the markets below. She spent most of her day as such, with 10 to 15 minutes to eat, and, if she was lucky, one bathroom break. She rarely had time to stretch her legs and almost never tasted a drop of water. About 20,000 people –mostly young women- worked in the same building, hunched over sewing machines, breathing in dust and chemicals, barely seeing sunlight, all for pennies a day with no hope of overtime pay. Such was the reality in 1960’s Korea.

Factory workers at the time suffered from tuberculosis, eye damage, digestive disorders, and exhaustion in order to support Korea’s booming economy and ownership class. Labor laws existed, but were rarely followed. Helper #7, who later went on to become Machinist #1, worked eight years in the factory before discovering that the conditions she experienced were illegal. She began learning more about the labor law and workers’ rights through participation in the “Work Classroom”, a class designed to raise workers’ consciousness about their rights. There, she became referred to as Ms. Shin Soon Ae, a name she was well familiar with. Ms. Shin was forever changed by what she was taught in the Work Classroom. She discovered that unionized workers enjoyed 8-hour workdays, one day off per week, and overtime pay. Before the Work Classroom, Ms. Shin didn’t know she was a fish swimming in water.

Ms. Shin soon joined the Cheonggye Clothing Workers Union, which was established immediately after the self-immolation of the now iconic Jeon Tae-Il. Tae-Il was a young factory worker who, in a last ditch effort, set himself on fire in protest of labor rights violations he saw and experienced. He died soon after, and asked his mother, Lee So-Seon, to continue to fight for labor rights in his honor. She, along with the help of her son’s closest friends and allies, set up the work classroom, which was a helpful tool in instigating people into the movement. Both Tae-Il and his mother have since become principal symbols of the labor movement in Korea for their unabated efforts in bringing rights to workers. Through her involvement in the union and a new consciousness about workers rights, Ms. Shin participated in many protests. One resulted in the achievement of a workday ending at 8pm, which was extended to thousands of workers in her factory. Others did not end so triumphantly- one protest landed her six months in prison, where she was regularly beaten and interrogated. Her story has rarely been heard.

So it usually goes. Those who dare defy the status quo in the name of workers’ rights are often met with violence or are else completely ignored. The thousands of people whose faith is tested, bodies beaten and hands cuffed in the battle to win their rights -those like Ms. Shin- are no less pivotal to the acquisition of those rights than the leaders who are at the heart of it. They, too, experience hardships that become inspirational to others or that spark others’ involvement in the movement. They are the veins through which revolution flows, bringing oxygen to a society struggling to survive.

When social transformation occurs, people fight, bleed, cry, hope, build and grow together. There are people who, undoubtedly, will be forgotten in certain struggles while others become immortalized in history. While idolizing certain individuals for their irreplaceable contributions to societal transformations, it becomes impossible to document, let alone acknowledge, the thousands or perhaps millions of people whose smaller yet no less critical roles inspired, guided and supported those revolutionaries. Who are the people who change history? How did they contribute to their struggle? And, perhaps most curiously, how are they like us?

When pondering the lives of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela, Chavez, King -those most highly regarded for possessing a keen sense of justice and unbreakable moral fibers- we undergo a process of  “othering”. However, unlike the traditional sense of the term, whereby a person or society “othersthose it wishes to subordinate, it becomes ourselves that we exclude from the ranks of the great revolutionaries. In this way, we construct roles for ourselves as the mere beneficiaries of their important historical contributions. They become the change that we witness.They make the history that happens to us. But history is cyclical, never really starting nor ending but rather emerging from a succession of events made possible by multiple actors. People change history. How can we begin to understand our role in that history and in the history to be?

We can start by understanding that social transformation is made from more than the leaders who encourage it. The heart cannot keep the body alive on its own- it needs the help of supporting systems. Likewise, a single individual cannot facilitate change without the support of a collective. That collective is made up of like minded individuals, perhaps from all walks of life, who may not necessarily know what the right answer is or what the outcome will be but know, and know very deeply, what is wrong. We become a part of something transformative the moment we accept the idea that we can no longer accept the ideal. Is that different from what eventually propelled those figures into positions of authority in their struggle? Not entirely- and that is what makes us every bit as important as them. We may not understand how, but we are the change we want to see. That is what makes our contributions to history- however insignificant they may seem- more important than we may ever know.

The facts in this article are based on an interview conducted with Ms. Shin Soon Ae, an inspiring woman and important actor in the Korean labor movement.

2,202 Days

By ISC Media Team

Contributors: Ben Cooper, Dae-Han Song, Kellyn Gross, Taryn Assaf

We are all leaders, not just as a collection of individuals, but as persons embedded in different kinds of institutions and communities of struggle. – Staughton Lynd

On November 9th, the ISC media team met with two women from the JEI workers union, Oh Suyeong and Yeo Minhee. They are union leaders in a six-and-a-half-year struggle against their employer, Jaeneung Educational Institution (JEI). The women’s recent struggle is a symbol of self-sacrifice for the special workers movement—one that is in the spirit of the venerable Jeon Taeil who self-immolated in 1970 on behalf of garment workers.

Speaking with Suyoung and Minhee

ISC media team speaking with Oh Suyoung and Yeo Minhee

Suyeong and Minhee are teachers who were hired by JEI to tutor students at home in a range of subjects. Yet JEI doesn’t guarantee teachers their worker rights. The company considers them franchise owners, citing Korean labor law’s classification of “special workers.” Despite this identification, the teachers had organized and won collective-bargaining rights after a month-long protest in 1999.

However, that momentous victory was short-lived. JEI hired a CEO in 2001 who specialized in breaking trade unions. The company pressured members to quit the union in exchange for regular-worker status: those who left the union would be considered employees and not franchise owners. Office workers also pressured union members to quit by telling them that their actions were hurting the company.

The JEI Workers Union had 3,800 members at its height in 2001. Only 100 members remained six years later. In 2007, union leaders agreed to salary cuts proposed by JEI. Rank and file members like Suyeong and Minhee opposed the union’s decision to cut salaries and began organizing. Union leadership who agreed to the salary cuts stepped down, and Suyeong was elected secretary general. She demanded renegotiated wages, but JEI refused and threatened to scrap the union members’ contracts. It was at this juncture that union members began an occupation to gain public attention for their struggle. A makeshift vinyl tent was erected at the foot of JEI headquarters in the Hyehwa District of Seoul in December of that year.

Violence against the occupation started as soon as the tent was set up on the side walk. JEI office workers would attack the occupiers while they were eating dinner. Staff would also dismantle their tent and destroy their belongings. Later, JEI hired a private security company to send people to sexually harass, stalk, and threaten the occupying union members. The union van’s engine was even sabotaged, and Minhee’s car tire had a tiny hole poked in it—nearly resulting in an accident.

Under mounting harassment from company goons, the union sought safer ground and moved their tent to the Seoul City Hall Plaza in November 2010. While the greater public presence ensured their safety for more than two years at the new site, they were no longer visible to JEI’s CEO. They knew that to succeed their struggle needed to be seen by the most powerful in JEI. Suyeong and Minhee subsequently decided to occupy a church bell tower facing JEI headquarters in Hyehwa District this last winter.

kim jinsook

Kim Jinsuk atop the crane during her occupation, Busan

Aerial occupations had been a successful tactic for the Korean workers’ movement in the past. In January 2010, the first woman shipyard union representative, Kim Jinsuk, occupied a crane control room at the Hanjin Heavy Industries shipyard in Busan. Hanjin had laid off 170 workers and were planning to lay off 400 more. The former welder knew that an occupation coupled with social media such as Twitter would bring public attention to the layoffs. Her protest even caught the attention of international media, with Al Jazeera covering her story and interviewing a protester at the shipyard. A group called the Hope Bus Riders began street demonstrations in Busan and Seoul in solidarity with Jinsuk’s struggle as well. Hope Bus Riders rallies often involved ordinary citizens, and 15,000 people gathered in Busan during their largest one.

Jinsuk’s occupation was still strong by November, so Hanjin agreed to rehire 94 laid-off workers and give them back-pay. Four hundred workers had made concessions with the company prior to her victory, yet Jinsuk’s efforts demonstrated how individual direct action and persistence could inspire entire movements to fight for worker rights. Emboldened by Jinsuk’s aerial occupation, a second wave of occupations by Ssangyong Motor and Hyundai workers took to the skies. Suyeong and Minhee had been following these aerial occupations closely, and they joined this constellation of struggles by occupying the bell tower in February.

The “sky friends” encouraged and supported each other in spite of their ever-present anxiety of waning public interest. At times, Suyeong and Minhee would face slanderous personal attacks on Internet bulletin boards from JEI employees. Such attacks disheartened them so much that they each contemplated suicide. Despite these hardships, they knew that their struggle was important. They had experienced crimes and violence perpetrated against them by the company. They had seen their union gutted and their friends attacked. These indignities and injustices fueled them during their most trying days.

Jeon Tae-Il

Jeon Tae-Il


Self-sacrifice by a few individuals or a single person has often sparked and propelled the Korean social movement. Jeon Taeil’s self-immolation on November 13th, 1970 sparked the Korean labor movement. Taeil was a worker, an organizer, and a martyr. His self-immolation smashed the wall of silence imposed by the Park Chung Hee dictatorship. People who had been inactive or silent about workers’ rights were sparked into action. His own mother, Lee Soseon, would carry on his spirit, organizing workers until her death to earn the moniker “mother of workers.” The two continue to inspire generations of Korean workers.

Likewise, Suyeong’s and Minhee’s aerial occupation has sparked solidarity from others. Artists organized cultural nights, and activists organized the public to participate in solidarity rallies. On August 25, after 2,202 days of occupation and 202 of them in the bell tower, the JEI Workers Union won legal rights as workers and recognition as a trade union with collective bargaining rights. JEI agreed to reinstate the 11 laid off workers who had struggled for six-and-a-half-years—including one woman who had passed away during the struggle. The company also agreed to rewrite the rules concerning penalties for late payments from students and teacher wages being linked to their earnings. This victory lays the foundation for 2.8 million other special workers in Korea to also be recognized as workers. Suyeong and Minhee continue to push for the rights of other temporary special workers, dispatch workers and anyone else who falls through the cracks of Korea’s legal framework. They, like all the occupiers, are driven by justice and workers rights. They are motivated by a need to lead workers to work together, to live and to keep fighting.

Don’t die any more, instead, live and fight. And we will make the world where workers can live as human beings. – Lee Soseon


lee seoseon

Lee Seoseon, the “mother of workers”


Duipuri- A Short Story

 by Kellyn Gross


“Bottoms up.”

He raises his shot glass in the air, striking hers as she does the same. Soju spills, dripping onto a stained blue checkered tablecloth. A sudden laugh escapes her pursed lips. She downcasts her eyes and smooths her pants. Her pale make-up no longer conceals her flushed face.

“To us!” The young man brings the glass to his lips, and tilts his head back as he gulps the clear liquor. His plastic stool wobbles, and he clasps the round table to brace himself. Unsuccessful, he falls against the orange tent wall. A broad smile forms on his round face, and he gingerly places his glass down.

“To us.” A loose bun at the nape of her neck unfurls. She pats it with her left hand. The young woman sips down her drink and smirks.

It’s four o’clock in the morning and cold. Yellow traffic lights flash through the tent’s clear, plastic windows, and smells of frying oil, cigarettes and booze linger. The man sets two empty soju bottles upright and pushes them across the table to join another three. They clang and fall over again. The woman picks up each of the four charred skewer sticks and tosses them into the small garbage tin by their feet. They are the only diners in this street food stall.

“More side dishes and another soju. Oh, and four more fish cake skewers, please.” He waves at the old woman sitting behind steaming vats of broth and skewered meats. The squat proprietor slides her blanket off her lap, slowly stands up and limps past the counter to a fridge lined with bottles of soda, soju, rice wine and beer. He looks at her stooped frame and dashes to her with the empty dishes. Their eyes scarcely meet.

“Thank you.” The man bows earnestly as he takes the bottle from her.

“Yes.” She returns to her station to refill the dishes, occasionally stopping to listen to the radio drama droning on behind her.

“I’m glad you asked me to join you.” She sighs and hugs her coat lapels close to her chest as he sits back down. “You saved me from drinking alone.”

“I’m glad you said yes. So, do you think we have drank enough to forget our problems?” He twists the soju cap off with a quick motion and tips the bottle toward her. She holds her glass with two hands and accepts his pour.

“No, but maybe after this one.” They both laugh, and she pours a drink for him as well. She looks at his scuffed fingernails and the dirt smudges on his hands. “You said that your family is from Taegu, right?” Her hands are smooth and clean.

“Yes, Taegu. But I moved to Seoul about six years ago. My mom was working here first.”

“Tell me more about Peace Market. Do you like your job?” His wide-set eyes steady on her in silence before he looks down. He doesn’t wait for a toast and drinks the entire shot.

“No, I don’t.” The old woman returns, placing dishes of dried squid, chili pepper sauce, peanuts and a plate of four fish cake skewers on the table. He pours himself another shot and knocks it back.

“I usually have to work 14 hours a day, and I even work on Sundays. Work starts in a few hours, really. But we aren’t paid overtime. The seamstresses operate the sewing machines until late at night. They all have health problems. They’re only middle-school girls, working 15 hours a day.”

“Middle-school girls?”

“Yes. I don’t know how they can stand it. There is no ventilation, and the fumes are horrible. They can’t afford to eat more than a bowl of ramen a day. Hell, neither can I most days.” She wrings her hands, and her eyes search his face for answers to these troubling stories.

“You look cold. Here. Take my jacket.”

“No, I’m okay. I’m just shocked by this information.”

“Please. I insist.” He removes his brown jacket and drapes it over her shoulders.

“Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

“So, do you operate the sewing machines, too?”

“No, I’m a fabric cutter. I get extra money for the job, but it’s very little.” He stuffs a skewer in his mouth and rakes off the fish cake with his front teeth. “The shop I work in is no bigger than this pojangmacha.” He gestures toward the tent walls with the skewer, then sees she isn’t eating. “Please, help yourself.” She takes the skewer from his outstretched hands and spins it between her fingers before eating the fish cake.

“Thanks. Have you tried telling labor inspectors?”

“I’ve tried, but they just say they’ll inspect shops and never do. I say to them, we’re not machines! But they don’t listen. Why should they? Even our president ignores labor regulations. Which reminds me, I bought a copy of the Korean Labor Standards Act.”

“What’s that?” She takes another skewer and nibbles the sides of the fish cake.

“The act is supposed to protect workers and their rights. I’m teaching myself hanja to read the document, but it’s difficult and slow. I wish I had a university friend to help me. Do you know how to read hanja?” She is not only studying at Sogang University, but she studied hanja throughout primary and secondary school.

“N-no I don’t. I-I-I’m really sorry I can’t help you.” Her lips barely move, and she is almost inaudible.

“That’s okay. It’s all in the act, though. Workers are guaranteed proper wages and eight-hour workdays by law, as well as Sundays off and regular health exams. But I’m learning that the law is nothing but a piece of paper.”

“It’s not right.”

“No, no it’s not. And it keeps me up at night. What about you? You still haven’t said why you were drinking alone on a Saturday night.”

“Nevermind. It’s nothing, really.”

“No, I want to know. I’m listening.” He peers at her as she fiddles with her skewer.

“First, let’s toast.” She quickly chews the last bite of fish cake.

“Oh, of course. Cheers! To workers!” The fabric cutter pours himself another shot, and together with the university student, they raise their shot glasses in the air. Soju spills again onto the stained tablecloth before the glasses reach their mouths.

“So? What’s worrying you?” She hesitates to respond and then peeks at her silver wristwatch.

“You know, it’s almost 5am. I should go home. Can we talk about this another time?”

“Uhh. Of course. Do you live nearby? I can walk you home.”

“I’d rather walk alone if that’s okay. Not that I haven’t appreciated my time with you, but it’s more proper this way.”

“Okay, I understand. So, I guess this is good night? Or good morning?” He chuckles.

“Either way, I guess it is. First, I should give you some m—”

“No, I’ll pay.”

“But I drank and ate just as much as y—”

“No, I’m your older brother. I was born in 1948, remember?”

“I remember, I just thought—”

“Really, it’s okay.”

“Well, thank you so much for your kindness.”

“You’re welcome.” He pulls out a handful of coins from his front pocket and approaches the old woman at the counter. Their eyes still scarcely meet.

“Here you are. We ate well. Thank you.”

“Yes. Come again.” The young man and young woman exit through the front door and face each other on the sidewalk.

“Let’s meet again.” He shoves his hands in his pockets.

“Okay. When and where?”

“How about here next Saturday? But let’s meet in the afternoon instead.”

“Yes, good thinking.” She teeters back and forth on her heels to stay warm in the chilly November air.

“Well, nice to meet you, and I’ll see you in a week. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.” She smiles and bows. He smiles in return and hurries down the sidewalk toward the orange glow of sunrise at the street’s horizon.

Good-bye. Wait.

“Hey! I don’t know your name! I still have your jacket!” She starts to run after him.

“Aaeesh! Yelling won’t help. He’s gone. Besides, you’ll see him again.” The old lady clucks her tongue, arms akimbo. She limps past the plastic doorway to sit once again behind vats of broth and fried food.

The young woman stops. She places her hand above her heart, tracing the edges of a name tag with her finger. She looks down and reads the white letters set against the black background.

“Jeon Tae Il.” Smoke from the tented restaurant wafts in the air. The old woman turns up the volume on her radio. The red sun rises over the cemetery, and the sweltering midday heat is my hardship. Now, I leave to the wilderness. Leaving all sorrow behind, now I go.

Park Geun Hye is startled awake. She’s in her arm chair on the second floor of the Blue House.

Am I smelling smoke? Her cellphone rests on a table next to her. She picks it up and speed dials her assistant.

“Tomorrow morning is a national labor rally in memory of Jeon Tae Il, no?

“Yes, Madam President, that’s correct. Unions will be mobilizing tomorrow at City Hall, although the exact date of his memorial is November 13th. Forgive me, but if you were considering trying to visit the Jeon foundation again, I think that given what happened last y–”

“No, I won’t be attempting to visit the foundation. But I did promise last year at his monument to make a country where laborers are happy.”

“I see, Madam President. I’m not sure w–”

“What time are protesters gathering tomorrow?”

“I believe at ten o’clock. Approximately 200 combat police and riot control personnel will be on stand by surrounding the US embassy per protocol. Would you like to speak with Mayor Park Won Soon and suggest a stronger police presence?”

“No, I most assuredly do not. But do arrange a car pick up for me at eight o’clock en route to City Hall.”

“But, Madam President, I don’t think that’s possible. Tomorrow is Sunday, and you have your weekly security meeting with advisor Chun Yung Woo.”

“Well, call him to reschedule for Monday. I also want to contact labor organizers tonight. Can you help me do that? Can you get KTCU members or Ssangyong Motors people on the phone?”

“I can try, but Madam P–”

“Good. I want to speak with any labor representative whom I can. And I need to address the protesters tomorrow.”

“B-b-but Madam President, this is highly unorthodox.”

“I know. But I made a promise to workers. An-an-and I just haven’t done that. It’s time I did.”

“Madam President, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this. I mean, why?”

“Why? Because I want to be the friend to workers my father wasn’t before—that I wasn’t before. As you know, my memorial business has always been to my father.”

“Yes, Madam President, of c–”

“But my memorial business should include workers like Jeon Tae Il who have made great sacrifices.” She stared at her father’s solemn portrait on the far wall, then gazed out the window.

“It’s taken a single spark, and it can’t be put out.”

This fictional story was inspired by the workers’ rights activist Jeon Tae Il and by the Worker Day Gathering that the media team attended on November 9th. Jeon Tae Il committed suicide by self-immolated on November 13, 1970 to protest horrendous working conditions in garment factories under Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship. His struggle lives on in the labor movement’s fight against Park Geun Hye’s policies.



Ablaze with the Spirit of Jeon Tae Il: Stories from the Front-lines

By Dae Han Song

November 9-10 marked the largest annual worker mobilization in Korea, the Worker Day Gathering. It is held in the memory of the 1970 self-immolation of Jeon Tae Il whose actions smashed the wall of silence and exposed the horrid working conditions of Korea’s industrialization. His life of struggle and his self-immolation sparked the Korean labor movement and continues to inspire it. In commemoration of this Worker’s Weekend, the Media Team spent the weekend learning about current workers’ struggles and participating in the Worker Day Gathering and solidarity events.

JEI Dispatch Tutor Workers

1         JEI Workers Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh speak about their 2000 days of occupation
and 200 of aerial occupation

The JEI workers victory on August 26th, 2013 marked the first time that “Special Workers” [legally recognized as self-employed freelancers (e.g. golf caddies, insurance sales people)] were recognized as employees and given the right to collective bargaining. Despite legal, mental, and physical harassment by JEI corporate employees and hired thugs, the struggle of the dispatch tutors persisted through 6 winters, spanning 2202 days making it the longest occupation in Korea and possibly the world. In the last 202 days, two of the occupiers, Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh, elevated the struggle by occupying a 15 meter church bell tower facing the JEI headquarters. On August 26th, they finally came down after their union was recognized and the fired workers reinstated.

 Samsung Trade Union Struggle and Cho, Chong Beom

 2A Media Team member paying his respects to Choi, Chong Beom
in a shrine inside the KCTU building

Choi, Chong Beom took his life in protest on October 31, 2013. He was a Samsung Electronics Service technician for four years. He was targeted for harassment and his workload and pay cut after joining the Samsung Trade Union. The Samsung Trade Union is seeking union recognition and collective bargaining. Samsung is notorious as a union-hostile company and continues in its attempts to dismantle the union. The struggle for recognition and collective bargaining continues.

 The Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and the Catholic Priests Association for Justice

3 A shrine for the 24 people that died due to
stress related illness or by taking their own lives

On May 22nd, 2009, after 6 months of unpaid wages, planned mass layoffs, and the company’s unwillingness to negotiate, Ssangyong Motor Workers Union (a branch of the National Metal Workers Union) occupied a Ssanyong Motor Paint factory. Despite the brutal police and company hired thug repression, the occupation lasted 77 days and ended with a settlement in which 48% of the 974 “redundant” workers were promised unpaid leave (with the promise of future reinstatement) or be transferred to sales positions, and the remaining 52% would be given voluntary resignation or shifted to spin-off companies. However, the company has failed to honor its deal prompting the union to begin an aerial occupation of an electric pylon near the factory on November 20, 2012. The aerial occupation ended on May 9, 2013 due to severe health deterioration of the occupiers. The occupation continues in front of the Ssangyong Motor Company factory in Pyongtaek.

[For an 18 minute documentary of the Ssangyong Motor Union occupation
part 1 and
part 2]

 4A Ssangyong Auto Worker bares the demands on his back:

Let’s return to the factory!
President Park, Keep Your Promise of a Parliamentary Investigation!
Re-instate laid-off Ssangyong Auto Workers!
Regularize Irregular Workers!

5 Priests of the Catholic Priest Association for Justice hold their 217th mass for the resolution
 of the Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and for Laid-off Workers

The Catholic Priests Association for Justice held a mass every day at 6:30 PM at Daehan Gateacross the street from the Seoul City Hall Plaza, for the Ssangyong Motor Workers and all laid-off workers. The Catholic Priest Association for Justice first started in protest of the Yushin Constitution during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship in the 1970s and continued on the democratization struggle. They are actively involved in various struggles including the Gangjeong Village struggle against the Naval Base. The CPAJ “takes to the streets, alongside the poor and the oppressed, for their liberation.” On November 18, 2013 amidst tears and reminiscing they concluded their final daily mass, their 225th one.

 Jeon Tae Il

6 Jeon Tae Il sacrificed himself in self-immolation            

7Chrysantheums, incense, and soju offerings
at Pyung Hwa (Peace) Market                     

Jeon Tae Il came from poverty. At the age of 16, he began work in the textile sweatshops of the Peace Market. As he experienced and witnessed the horrid working conditions, he fought to improve conditions in four ways: “First, he became a cutter [a type of de-facto manager] and used his position to try to take care of the young factory workers; a kind-hearted approach. Second, having investigated the conditions in the Peace Market he appealed to the Ministry of Labour, demanding that they ensure the Labour Standards Law was implemented. Third, he conceived the notion to establish a model business in which the Labour Standards Law would be observed. Fourth, he protested and struggled actively against the oppressive forces that opposed the reform of working conditions; this is the strategy he opted for in the autumn of 1970.” His self-immolation shattered the media blockade and sparked public outrage and protest. The Worker Day Gathering is held in the memory of Jeon Tae Il’s sacrifice. His biography “A Single Spark” can be downloaded at

 The Great Worker Gathering

     8    Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU)            

9  Jeon Tae Il watches over the workers
join in the Worker’s Day Gathering

On October 24th, the government outlawed the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU). The government accused the KTU of breaking the law because it refused to exclude, from its 60,000 membership, 22 teachers fired (by the previous conservative Lee Administration) for taking political stances: in Korea, government employees are not allowed to take political stances. Delegalization means that the union would not be able to negotiate with school authorities and that billions of won of government support would be lost: in Korea, the employer, in this case the government, is mandated to pay the costs of the union. After a fierce struggle by the KTU and supporters, the government has postponed delegalization until next year. The KTU is fighting to maintain its union recognition.

10 Fighting Against the Legal and Social Order Boundaries

 11“Do Not Cross this Legal and Social Order Line”

Since the 1997 IMF crisis, labor flexibilization has created a vulnerable irregular labor force (i.e. workers hired on an annual basis) and labor law amendments have divided worker power by allowing multiple unions, including false pro-company unions. This has dealt a grave blow to Korea’s labor movement. The central theme of this year’s Worker Day Gathering was breaking through the legal and social order boundaries that stifle, constrict, and debilitate the labor movement. For a full list of the translated demands:

12 Samsung Workers Marching Holding Choi, Cheong Beom portraits and pickets that read:
“Samsung Guarantee the Rights of Worker Unions to Organize”

Choi, Chong Beom, the Samsung Service worker, joined Jeon Tae Il and the countless martyrs – their spirits present in the gathering. Choi, Chong Beom’s final note read:

“I, Choi, Chong Beom have suffered greatly working at Samsung Service. I couldn’t live because I was so hungry. Seeing those around me suffering was hard. So, while I cannot do like Jeon Tae Il did, I too have chosen his path. I hope that it helps.”