Reflections from the Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reframing Reunification

By Stephanie Park

I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Korea’s division into North and South; but I do remember the immediate conviction I felt that the two should be reunified. I didn’t know much about the South, and even less about the North, but my childhood self was convinced it needed to happen. Perhaps, I perceived a desire, unspoken but felt, of my grandparents to return to the provinces where they were born. Perhaps I was simply parroting the idea that Koreans were one people, and should therefore be one nation as well[1]. Or perhaps I just liked the idea of a happy ending. Regardless, before I became serious about critically examining Korean politics, reunification was the one topic I had any opinion on.

It was thus disorienting when after the ISC’s June program on reunification, I found myself more confused about the issue of reunification than I had ever felt before. Addressing reunification is impossible without addressing the matter of “the world’s most isolated country[2].” While I’m no expert on North Korea, like countless others I had always assumed that there were certain things I could simply take for granted: for example, that the North was responsible for the Korean War, that it brainwashed its citizens into worshipping Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and that the country was hell-bent on building up its nuclear weapons program to threaten the US and South Korea. Volunteering with North Korean defectors gave me an additional perspective, one that focused on the scarcity of food and resources and painted the situation in North Korea as a human rights issue. I was therefore taken aback by the attitudes of the South Korean activists that we met and their attitude towards the North, which was more nuanced and challenged me to critically examine everything I’d ever thought about the country. As I investigated the issue further, I began to realize how little I knew of the forces that shaped the North Korea that we (think we) know, how deeply and completely my and others’ understanding of North Korea has been shaped by American neoliberalist motives, and above all, that a paradigm shift is necessary to achieving a reunification that truly achieves peace and justice on the peninsula.

As I delved into Korean history to seek answers, I found that to discuss reunification necessitates discussion not only of North Korea, or even the Korean War, but of Japanese colonialism. In a way, the conflict between North and South reflects the still-unresolved conflict between Koreans themselves during the occupation between those who resisted and those who collaborated. The current power hierarchies of both countries reflect that, with the Kim family and other guerilla fighters at the helm in the North, and collaborators who stayed in power through US intervention in charge the South. The unresolved trauma of Japanese colonialism was so central to Korean politics at the time that, in the opinion of historian Bruce Cumings, “a civil conflict purely among Koreans [emphasis added] might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division and foreign intervention. [3]” Yet, such a resolution was never to be, as Korea was divided arbitrarily by the American military and summarily offered to the USSR as a preemptive compromise in the Cold War conflict. Korea’s division was something I had simply accepted as a child, but revisiting it now, I am struck by the arrogance of dividing another people’s country without any thought to those that inhabit. Yet, this act shows that, from the very beginning, America’s treatment of Korea’s was never that of equals, but as a pawn to be sacrificed to further US interests. Similarly, I had always thought of the Korean War as the fault of a blood-thirsty North; yet if we contextualize the war as a civil conflict in the wake of division by more powerful countries compounded by the lack of resolution of the injustices from Japanese colonialism, it becomes clear that civil wars do not start, they come. [4] If we examine history, it is clear that both Kim Il Sung and Synghman Rhee desired war to reunify the country. Yet, despite its civil origins, once the war began there were just as many atrocities committed by the US against Koreans than between Koreans themselves, including the massive use of chemical weapons, systematic burning of villages, and destruction of dams affecting 75% of North Korea’s food supply[5]. Perhaps most tragically, the bloodshed proved to be for nothing, as the war ended in an armistice, leaving both Koreas in a state of war to this day. As a kid, I’d grown up with the narrative of MacArthur sailing into Incheon to “save” the Korean peninsula, but given his support (and even advocation) of bombing the North in the name of procuring military victory, it’s clear that the US’ presence brought more death and destruction than it ever brought peace.

Of course, when we think about North Korea today, it is usually with regards to its nuclearization. The imagery of North Korea as a crazed weapons-stockpiling nation that could go berserk at any moment is one that dominates both mainstream media and my family; yet, a critical examination reveals that North Korea’s developments have largely aligned with the desire to either a) exercise self-sovereignty, or b) react defensively to US actions. For example, much was made in 1993 of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – but how many people knew that it was due to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s demands to carry out “‘special inspections’” in North Korea, ones which could be utilized to gather intelligence for the United States (a violation of the IAEA’s own mandates)? Similarly, while I had always agreed with the US’ mandate that North Korea de-nuclearize, upon further investigation, I realized how the US has utilized a denuclearized North Korea as a tool to push for unrestricted access to North Korean information, essentially holding peace in the peninsula hostage[6]. Aside from being hypocritical,[7] it’s also a clear violation of any country’s basic right to sovereignty and attempt to subordinate North Korea.

Of course, the fact that such information rarely comes to light is indicative of just how successful American media has been at naturalizing its own stance, and delegitimizing the North Korean perspective, to the point that even those interested in international solidarity continue to see North Korea as simply “that crazy country.” Yet, for all the focus on North Korean propaganda, we fail to see how deeply ensnared we are in our own. We call North Korea “ ‘crazy’ ” – but is it any crazier than a nation that claims to value justice and equality for all, while actively punishing a country whose actions are in the name of self-determination?  Is it any crazier than a country that decries the human rights violations in North Korea, yet implements sanctions and refuses to provide aide and is thus directly responsible for these problems in the first place?

I am still struggling to develop my own understanding of reunification and North Korea while holding the contradictions that have developed and that sometimes seem to pull me in opposing directions. How do I honor my grandparents’ history (and thus, my own) while also challenging it? How can I have admiration for the North Korean defectors I have met for their courage, and respect the hardships they have endured, while also not falling into the trap of praising them simply because they defected and contributing to their use as political tools of the US and South Korea? And how can I have an understanding of North Korea and reunification that is critical yet hopeful? I confess that I don’t have an answer to these questions yet. However, one thing I do know is that, as an American, I recognize the burden we bear as citizens of a country who has wronged the Korean people, North and South, and promise to do what I can to contribute towards restoring peace and unity on the peninsula in a way that has the Korean people at heart.

[1] See: Minjok ideology. According to Luc Walhain in “Transcending Minjok: How Redefining Nation Paved the Way to Korean Democratization,” “while the original meaning of “jok” in minjok was “tribe” sharing a common ancestor, “jok” is now more generally used to designate a race, or ethnic group, e.g. “mong-jok,” meaning Mongolian race. When “jok” is combined with “min.” (people), as in “minjok,” the word becomes loaded with a heavily racial character. It refers to the Korean “nation,” but puts a strong emphasis on the Korean people’s sharing of common blood and a common ancestor, Tan’gun. It is an emotionally loaded term which has been used with great effect to call for the Korean people’s absolute and unconditional love and loyalty for the nation.” (http://studiesonasia.illinoisstate.edu/seriesIII/Vol%204%20No%202/s3v4n2_Walheim.pdf)

[2] http://www.worldpolicy.org/sites/default/files/uploaded/image/Spring13_22-23_Anatomy(1)_1.pdf

[3] Bruce Cumings, “The Korean War.” (http://books.google.co.kr/books?id=lY5-7ZirsmgC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=a+civil+conflict+purely+among+Koreans++might+have+resolved+the+extraordinary+tensions+generated+by+colonialism,+national+division+and+foreign+intervention&source=bl&ots=7GcXcT3n2n&sig=HGA7wUHvb_ogbldGv3taXJGFvLs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=v_ASVIn_AcK58gWy3ICQDw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=a%20civil%20conflict%20purely%20among%20Koreans%20%20might%20have%20resolved%20the%20extraordinary%20tensions%20generated%20by%20colonialism%2C%20national%20division%20and%20foreign%20intervention&f=false)

[4] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[5] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[6] See: Korea Policy Institute’s “The Case for a Peace Treaty to End the Korean War” (https://solidaritystorieskr.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/caseforapeacetreaty.pdf).

[7] The last time the US divulged that kind of information was due to Edward Snowden, and there’s a reason he’s still in Russia.

Locating Resistance, Commemorating Struggle

by Stephanie Park

In any political movement, the act of raising political consciousness among new members is a crucial aspect of spreading awareness and building the movement. “Work classrooms” held for young female workers served this purpose for Korea’s labor movement in the ‘70s, as does the ISC’s own “Korean History, Economics, and Politics Program” for the international solidarity movement today. My first such experience occurred during college with the Asian American Student Union, through which I learned about the historical context and political meaning to the term “Asian American” [1]. Although small, the moment I became exposed to the term’s original radical aims was the beginning of understanding my life and experiences as political and part of a greater story of struggle – in other words, a tipping point.

May 18th, 1980, the start of a ten-day political struggle between the citizens of Gwangju and Korea’s militarized government, held (and continues to hold) a similar function for politicized Koreans. Many attribute the events that transpired there, from the shocking violence that military paratroopers enacted upon innocent people to the city’s revolutionary response and four-day peaceful self-governance before being put down by the government, as a major milestone in the nation’s struggle for democratization. Although the government labeled the event a “rebellion” instigated by activist Kim Dae-Jung and instituted a media blackout to prevent the truth from surfacing, news of the atrocity nevertheless spread, ultimately playing a key role in President Chun Doo Hwan’s downfall and helping to end military dictatorship in Korea. Every year, the city commemorates the date to remember the thousands of lives lost, educate new generations about the heavy price paid for Korean democracy, and to remind those who understand its significance never to forget.

The weekend of May 18th, the ISC group traveled to Gwangju to participate in the city’s commemoration events. We toured the military complex where citizens were detained after the military reestablished dominance, attended a candlelight vigil held in the same spot where citizen-mobilized militia pushed back military forces 34 years ago, spoke with activist Lee Shin, who experienced 5.18 as a child and attributes it to his politicization, and finally paid homage to those who gave their lives at Gwangju (or in the struggles that followed to reveal the truth) at a commemoration service held in the public cemetery. Throughout it all, I found myself continually returning to the same question: “What caused something like this to happen?”

Many scholars have attempted to answer this question, locating 5.18 within various sociopolitical origins. One is the military coup d’etat Chun carried out on May 17th, which enforced martial law across Korea and included the closing of universities and banning of oppositional political activity. Another is the US’ role in setting the stage for and enabling the initial massacre and subsequent government retaliation; such actions contradicted the US’ “commitment to human rights” and exposed its prioritization of neoliberalism and foreign investment over the lives of everyday Koreans, many of whom at first believed the US would intervene to protect them. Yet another is the Jeolla region’s history of underdevelopment and neglect, as well as inter-provincial rivalry’s impact on the underdevelopment of the Jeolla region; in a way, Gwangju became a rallying point for people who “had been alienated politically and economically for a long time” [2].

Such factors undoubtedly played a crucial role. However, as we marched through the gates of the detention complex pretending to be detainees and listened to tour guides that had been its detainees, and as we walked through the old and new cemeteries hearing of the brutal, heroic, and tragic ways citizens had died, I felt captivated by the amazing display of bravery, selflessness, and solidarity collectively and spontaneously demonstrated by the citizens of Gwangju. Not only did they organize and overcome the military special forces sent to brutalize them, but they effectively self-governed for four days.

What made the difference for the citizens of Gwangju? It was outrage against the government’s injustice that first caused students to protest the morning of May 18th. Firsthand video footage at the 5.18 museum showed masses of students shouting, carrying banners, and defiantly protesting the coup. It was a similar anger which provided the first spark in the mind of activist Lee Shin, nine years later, that caused him to reject his original path towards civil service and to instead become an activist. When asked what caused his political transformation, he described learning of the death of a Chosun University student, who had written an article criticizing the US’ role in the massacre and asked the US to take responsibility. Like many who dared to do so at the time, he was arrested and subsequently tortured to death. However, his death had a profound effect on Lee.

“At that time, I was a student that only knew about studying; I was preparing to become a public servant. I only knew about home and school. But that night was a fateful day. As I was passing the funeral procession at the Provincial Government building, I asked myself why he was killed. I read the book that he wrote. In it he talked about how the US helped massacre Gwangju citizens. I was enraged when I learned the truth. I was 23 at that time. From that time on, I joined the student movement to fulfill the meaning of that student. I worked to expose US atrocities in Korea. I toured 20 American cities to talk about this. November 1st, 1989 was a fateful day for me.”

Similar sentiments fuelled the citizens of Gwangju to come together and expel the military forces from the city. Yet, at the same time, that anger existed alongside something far deeper: compassion, a deep-seated commitment to one’s community, and deeply political love to sustain it all. It was this sense that I felt most drawn to throughout the weekend. How deep did such feelings run? As the death of a student who stayed to participate in the citizen militia’s last stand despite his mother’s pleas to return home shows, these feelings ran deeper than love for one’s family.

As the death of student Kim Bu Yeol, a high school student killed and beheaded for defending a woman being raped by soldiers shows, this feeling ran even deeper than the value for one’s own life. And as the four-day peaceful citizen’s occupation showed, this feeling ran deep enough to overcome the terror and violence created by military brutality, and replace it with an environment where people queued for hours to give blood, prepared humble riceball meals for others, and left bank reserves untouched. Above all, it was a force that inspired Gwangju’s citizens to create and build the society they wanted, in contrast to the police state they had been living under since Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship 20 years earlier.

Emotions play an interesting role in discussions of politics, which is at its core a fundamentally emotionally charged subject. However, we often quantify and objectify it, turning it into an object of study and ignoring its immediate, human impact. In commemorating 5.18, I came away awed by the immense, yet unquantifiable political power of such emotions, which defy such restrictions. Gwangju citizens may have been more dissatisfied than their counterparts in other provinces, but in many ways they were no different. Yet something came into place that fateful day that mobilized an entire city into drastic, defiant action. It wasn’t a cool, removed analysis of the forces at work that drove them to do so; rather, it was seeing those who could have been (and quite possibly were) their children, neighbors, and elders indiscriminately beaten, bayonetted, and shot.

In the same way that last month taught me to reexamine our systematic dehumanization in the face of industrialization, 5.18 taught me the overwhelming potential that can be unleashed when a community refuses to bow to the pressures of neoliberalism, and even the much more immediate threat of violence and death, and instead posits its own humanity and human relations as the value of central importance. Seeing how much the people of Gwangju freely gave to their fellow citizens puts my own privileged yet isolated situation in perspective, and has inspired me to reexamine my own position. What would I be willing to risk, to sacrifice, to commit to building? For or with whom? And for what purpose? To the people of 5.18, I would like to say – thank you for the courage and love you showed in that time. As everyday citizens with simple everyday acts, you have and will continue to serve as a tipping point for those looking to better understand history and ourselves.

Footnotes:
1. “The term ‘Asian American’ was first coined by activists in the 1960s. Their intent was to create a pan-ethnic community encompassing a variety of different Asian ethnicities that would come together to address issues such as stereotypes and racial discrimination. To a large extent, this goal of stirring political and social activism within the Asian American community was achieved, as demonstrated by the formation of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) in 1968 by Berkeley graduate student Yuji Ichioka. Along with the Third World Liberation Front, the AAPA and other organizations pushed for the formation of an Ethnic Studies program on the Berkeley campus.”
http://hardboiled.berkeley.edu/archived-issues/year-13/issue-13-1/when-asian-american-doesnt-mean-asian-american/

2. Korea Democracy Foundation, History of the Democratization Movement in Korea; 2010. 108.

“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.