How the hell South Korea has a history of radical left politics

Professor Kim is a well-respected progressive academic in one of the numerous Universities of Seoul (SungKongHoe University), where I have also spent several good years – for the first year as a scholar and later as a Research Professor. But I never had the opportunity to chat with Professor Kim about politics. He spoke only Korean and Russian; and I spoke only English and ‘unintelligible’ Korean.

But Professor Kim, was, and still is well known among students as the ‘nutty professor’ who, as a PhD student, went to Moscow to study in the early 1990s. As the rumour goes, study was just an excuse for him- in reality, he wanted to (un)confirm his worst nightmare: whether the Soviet Union has truly collapsed or was yet another western capitalist propaganda.

To anyone today it would appear that he was ‘crazy’. After all, why do you need to go to Moscow to see for yourself whether the Soviet Union has collapsed or not? The whole world read about it in newspapers and saw images of it on television. I would have also thought that this Prof. Kim guy is crazy if I had not become a student of the contemporary labour and student movements of Korea.

Students Protest March. Chonnam University, Gwangju 1980. Photo courtesy: May 18th Foundation, Gwangju, Korea.

It was not just “young” Mr. Kim who was shocked at the demise of the Soviet Union; there were thousands and thousands of other Korean student activists who could not believe it, and they felt as if the grounds beneath them had slipped away.

Starting in the late 1970s, in the East, China traversed the path toward market liberalism, followed by Uncle Ho’s revolutionary Vietnam; towards the West, the Berlin Wall said “good bye to Lenin”, ushering in many a multi-colored “revolutions” in various formerly communist republics of Eastern Europe.

In 1989 the rock band The Scorpions sang the now famous song “Winds of Change”, commemorating the fall of Berlin Wall and perhaps the demise of the then existing socialism.

And then, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart in 1992, adding to the trauma of young Mr. Kim and his comrades.

Why wouldn’t they have felt so? After all, the 1980s were the period when in South Korea the revolutionary fervor was at its height, especially among students and young industrial workers. Only few years ago, in June 1987, armed with the revolutionary ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, students and young workers marched on to the streets in what is now known as the “Great Labour Offensive”, bringing down a brutal authoritarian ‘fascist’ military regime of three decades to its knees.


Way back in 1945, soon after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), Korea was divided along the 38th parallel. It was not only a geographical division between the capitalist-oriented ‘right-wing’-‘south’ and a socialist-oriented ‘left-wing’-‘North’; it also led to extreme polarization of social forces along the ‘ring-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ lines. The United States Military Government (1945-48) in the South and subsequently Pro-US Syngman Rhee-led Government (1948-60) had systematically decimated the working class movement, popular political dissidents and anybody who was suspected of being sympathetic to left-wing ideas. The Korean Civil War (1950-53) between the North and South further facilitated the complete annihilation of even moderate political dissent and left-wing ideas in the South. Only pro-governmental right-wing organizations could exist without the threat of death or imprisonment. The tumultuous period from 1945 to 1960 had laid strong foundations for “Anti-Communist Regimentation” of South Korean society and an extremely repressive authoritarian state.

In April of 1960, students, mostly in Seoul, rose up against the oppressive and ‘corrupt’ Sygman Rhee Regime which led to the installation of a short-lived democratic government. However, in early 1961, General Park Chung Hee led a coup and established a military regime which was to stand out among all the dictatorships across the post-colonial world not only for its absolute control over the populace but also for the rapid industrialization it achieved.

Under the military regime of General Park Chung Hee, from 1961 onwards, the South Korean society and economy had embarked upon a very compressed and state-led top-down transformation. Since the early 1960s, the South Korean economy and society underwent a transformation which is no less significant than the “great transformation” that Karl Polanyi has described for nineteenth-century Europe. Rapid industrialization and subsequent proletarianization of a mammoth scale turned millions of farmers and their sons and daughters into wage workers in urban factories. The temporally compressed nature of the transformation of a whole society within a generation and the magnitude of the change produced by this in South Korea is comparable to what took a whole century in most European societies. Just to give you a sense of the magnitude: 1 out of 10 South Koreans were engaged in service sector or industries and the rest were engaged in agriculture in 1959; by 1985, only 1 out of 10 persons was engaged in agriculture and the rest were engaged in either the service sector or industry.

The war (1950-53) was not over, it remained suspended through an armistice. Under the pretext of ‘constant military threat’ from North Korea, the State was able to mobilize the entire populace and restructure social relations. Every aspect of social and economic life was disciplined along the militaristic lines. Schools and universities were run like military garrisons; military-like dresses, anti-raid drills, anti-communist song sessions were made an everyday part of school life, starting from elementary level.

Factories were also structured along the lines of military garrisons. Workers had to wear gray uniforms. Their hair had to be cut short. Their ranks were revealed by the shape of their name tags which were pinned on the left breast pocket. They came to the factory before 8:00 A.M, accompanied by marching music blaring from loud speakers. The factory cafeteria which provided lunch was divided into sections for different ranks of workers. Sections of workers were referred to by numbers like 2nd squad, 3rd platoon, 4th column and so on, instead of their functions or production lines.

The pervasive influence of the military did not stop at the level of outward forms but penetrated more deeply to shape the dominant pattern of authority relations and institutional culture. “Do as you are told to do with no questions asked and no excuse allowed” became the dominant institutional norm that pervaded industrial firms, schools and universities.

The rapid industrialization and the internationally applauded economic growth rate (which came to be known as the Miracle on River Han) relied heavily on the “Anti-Communist Regimentation” of the society and the possibility it opened up for mobilization of a docile and disciplined labor force.

During this ‘great transformation’, young women and men were becoming wage laborer and entering the factories without any political and cultural resources of the pre-existing working class movement or consciousness (remember; the organized working class movement and any political dissent was completely annihilated). Like in all other sectors of the society, these young women and men entered the factories as atomized workers. In a very perverse way, it was like what Marx said in a different context that, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Devoid of any political and cultural resources of resistance, these young workers worked under terrible conditions. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the wages of South Korean workers were lower than in any other Asian countries and South Korea had the longest working hours (55 hours per week) and the highest industrial accident rate in the world (these are of course official data).

Any industrial conflicts were identified as tantamount to communist politics and no institutional channels were allowed for resolving the grievances of the work force. These were the labour laws backed by brute force like lynching, executions, abductions, torture, intimidation, and the rape of anyone who tried to organize workers. The police, the army, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), special units of police in civilian dress called the ‘White Skeleton Brigade’ (Baekgoldan), and special company hired mercenaries called the “Save-the-Company-Squads” (Gusadae) were used to monitor and identify any “trouble maker”.


On the afternoon of 13 November 1970, a dozen workers in the sweatshop district of Pyunghwa Market in western Seoul came together for a protest. The protest was organized by a young 22 year old worker called Chun Tae Il. Soon the police and market security came in to break up the protest; while the protesters refused to budge, Chun Tae Il disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned he was holding in one hand a can of kerosene and in the other hand a copy of the ‘Labour Standards Law’. He set himself on fire while shouting from within the flames that engulfed him: “We are not machines!”, “Let us rest on Sunday!”, “Don’t exploit workers!”, “Abide by the Labor Standards Law”.

Chun Tae Il had stumbled upon the booklet called “Labour Standards Law” a few years before this in a second-hand book shop, much to his delight; to his surprise, he learnt from this booklet that workers are entitled to certain rights like ‘rest on Sunday’. He pinned great hope on the law and petitioned different authorities, until he was fed up and thought it necessary to undertake the extreme step of self-immolation. While he was being carried to the hospital, he begged his fellow workers: “Please don’t waste my life”. His dying words were addressed to his mother-“Mom, please accomplish the work which I haven’t succeeded in accomplishing”.

This was the phase of export-oriented industrialization in South Korea where a majority of the factory workers were young women. Even Chun Tae Il embarked upon labour activism out of deep humanist concern with the plight of all the young female apprentices under him. Once he wrote to his friend; “how can these young apprentice bear such long hours of work? … At this age of 14, they are only children, and then they often get scolded by the tailor for not finishing their job on time, and during lunch time, they eat from their tiny packed lunch box they brought from home, just like an elephant eating biscuits”.

After Chun Tae Il’s self-immolation, several other workers attempted it and self-immolation became a recurring theme of the Korean working class struggle throughout 1970s. However, this great individual sacrifice only generated short-lived public sympathy. It was still quite early for a development of an organized working class movement. Most of the workers were predominantly neophyte industrial workers from the rural setting, busy adapting to their new environment and industrial disciple. But the period did see some efforts of unionizing among the workers who were predominantly young women.

Chun Tae Il’s sacrifice did send ripples across different sections of the society and came as a brute reminder to the rest of the society that the high rate of economic development came at a great price paid by the members of a nascent working class.

The first to plunge into organizing workers were the church group. Two church organizations played the most significant role in the efforts to organize democratic and independent workers union: the Catholic “Jeunesse Ouvnere Chretienne” (JOC) and the Protestant “Urban Industrial Mission” (UIM). JOC and UIM recruited a significant number of Christian students and youths who would go to shanty towns and working class neighbourhoods to run clandestine educational programs and night schools to educate the workers and helped them in forming unions.

Schools and university campuses became fertile grounds for anti-government activism. To dodge surveillance and anti-communist witch hunts, these students operated through small reading groups on campuses and through campus educational programs provided by religious organizations. Whenever vacation and semester breaks allowed for it, students started going to shanty towns and working class ghettos to work amidst workers to uplift them from their plight.

They were vilified as pro-communist and were often imprisoned along with workers. But they didn’t necessarily think of their activities as part of the labour movement, nor did the issue of labour called for a fundamental re-thinking of their lives and privilege – when the time arrived to return to their schools and jobs, they went back without any hesitation, and so did the members of National Democratic Federation of Youth, an organization accused of planning to overthrow the South Korean Government in the mid 1970s.

There was ample discontent among the student community when their hair, skirt length and what they read, wrote and sang were the subject matter of state censorship. There was a complete strangulation of popular and youth culture; in 1975 alone, 45 pop songs were banned for their supposedly “negative influence on national security and citizen’s unity”.

However, it was not state censorship on youth culture that was the driving force behind students plunging into working class shanties to educate and help organize workers. It was out of a deep sense of Christian humanitarian concern and due to Confucian moral and ethical discourse embedded in Korean society. Korean Confucianism emphasizes that an educated elite should provide leadership for society by setting a moral example in wisdom and virtue. Traditionally Korean intellectuals have regarded their role to be that of ‘the conscience of society’ or as the ‘watchman in the darkness’. This gets beautifully reflected in the popular traditional phrase – “conscience without action is useless’.


Entering the 1980s, the landscape of student movement changed dramatically. Students no longer looked at industrial labour as only the object of humanitarian concerns. Involvement in labour (‘Labour Praxis’ or nodong hyonjang) was privileged as the most important form of praxis. Not only were the workers hailed as the true revolutionary subject, but labour also acquired the aura of the inevitability of a revolution.

This fundamental re-orientation came about because of the Gwangju People’s Uprising of 18 May 1980 and the subsequent massacre by the Korean Army.

The Gwangju People’s Uprising, initially an ordinary students’ protest organized by the Chonnam University Students’ Association demanding the lifting of martial law, turned into a citywide rebellion. The citizens of Gwangju city organized a city wide commune that lasted for 9 days until the South Korean Army crushed the rebellion and recaptured the city killing over 1000 people. With arms looted from provincial police armory, a People’s Militia (Mobile Strike Task Force) was organized to repeal and resist the regular para-troopers of South Korean Army. When the regular para-troopers made their final assault on the night of 26 May, the last battle was fought by the Mobile Strike Task Force till the wee hours of 27 May in the Provincial building of Gwangju city.

People Militia formed during Gwangju Uprising, 1980. Photo Courtesy: May 18th Foundation, Gwangju.

During the Gwangju People’s Uprising, 59.9 percent of the injured, 59.2 percent of the dead, 58 percent of the arrested, and 80 percent of the People’s Militia were workers, peasants and lumpen proletariat. The disproportionate sacrifice made by the working class and lumpen proletariat during an uprising started by students became a metaphor for the intellectuals’ “inherent weakness” and workers’ “inherent revolutionary qualities”. A metaphor that immediately became the central theme of popular literature as a popular short story after the uprising puts it: “remember those who remained in the provincial building. You have to remember who participated, who fought, and who died … then you will know what kind of people make history … that knowledge will become your strength”.

The shame of fleeing the provincial building drove the former President of Chonnam University Students’ Association to his death after a prolonged hunger strike in prison. The “truth” of the Gwangju Uprising turned out to be immense source of guilt for the students and intellectuals. Students started using self-deprecatory words like “weakling intellectual” (hakppiri) and “watered down ink” (mongmul) to refer to their “inherent weakness”.

The post-Gwangju guilt and despair along with other socio-political developments had irrevocably changed the student movement – it had to be “REVOLUTIONARY”.

The irrevocable changes did not happen only at the level of praxis. The intellectual atmosphere within the student movement also underwent iconoclastic changes. The atmosphere was perhaps very similar to the May 4th Movement of 1919 in China. Students started smuggling in Marxist, Anarcho-Marxist and North Korean Jucheist literature from Japan; suddenly they were trying to grapple with a century of development of Marxist philosophy in couple of years and at times in couple of months.

Even within academia, owing to alleged American involvement in the massacre of Gwangju Uprising, intellectuals shunned Pro-US developmentalists and neoclassical approaches in favour of various strands of Marxism, resulting in a Marxist intellectual movement which engulfed disciplines like economics, history, sociology, journalism, geography etc. Various Marxist research institutes like Women’s Society for the Study of Korean Society, Korean Association for the Study of Industrial Society, Korean Institute on Farming and Fishing Community, Social Philosophy Study Room, Historical Research Institute and so on also sprung up. Several critical journals also made appearances in the intellectual horizon.

There was also a great hurry to publish contemporary Marxist works. For example, Yi-Tae-bok, the leader of National league of Democratic Workers (Jeonmin Noryeon), ran Gwangmin Publishing House and published the works of Herbert Marcuse, Christopher Hill and Maurice Doob, for which he was charged with the violation of the National Security Law for encouraging “anti-state class struggle”.

Ideologically, the radical student movement consisted of three distinct camps: NL (National Liberation) who adhered to Kim Il Sung’s Jucheism; NDR (National Democratic Revolution) and PDR (People’s Democratic Revolution), both of which adhered to Marxism-Leninism.

At the level of praxis there were two distinct opposing camps. The first was the “small-group movement” camp which stressed the importance of fostering class consciousness among rank and file workers and producing a nucleus of worker-activists with advanced class consciousness (sonjin nodongja) that would be capable of leading the working class movement in the future. This camp was of the opinion that any large scale political mobilization of workers at that period was impractical and immature, considering the political circumstances under which even legitimate unions could not operate.

The opposing camp was the “area-based labour movement” who criticized the former camp for putting too much emphasis on education and preparatory work while neglecting the immediate importance of the “Revolution”. This camp insisted that the task at hand was to mobilize the “explosive energy of the masses of workers” at the level of industrial area rather than individual factories, and develop political organization that would be capable of coordinating revolutionary insurrection at the regional and national level.

Student activists who adhered to the “small group movement” entered factories as hakchul nodongja or student-turned-workers (hakchul henceforth) and worked diligently at the lowest level of Labour Praxis (nodong hyonjang), raising consciousness among workers. On the other hand, adherents of the “area-based movement” engaged in political struggle to form regional labour organization in open defiance. However, the “area-based” camp also considered it a prerequisite for student activists to have experience of being a factory worker for their regional political struggle. In hindsight, it’s easy to comprehend that the divergence between the two camps were not as great as they believed it to be at the time. There were conflicting aspirations: the neo-Gramscian aspiration for an organic fusion with the workers versus the Leninist one to lead them. While across camps most organizations operated in clandestine fashion, some like the Sonoryon openly defined itself as a revolutionary organization – a revolutionary act in itself in the sociopolitical context of South Korea at that time.

Students becoming factory worker was the core emphasis of Labour Praxis. Labour Praxis was not something that was just restricted to the radical students’ movement, but was almost a prerequisite for even the members of religion-inspired students’ organization. In fact it was a Christian students’ organization – Korean Student Christian Federation – who brought out the first extensive manual for would-be Hakchul entitled “Guideline for Factory Activism”.

However, becoming a Hakchul was a great challenge for the students at an individual level. They had to adjust to the harsh life of a factory worker, which even in 1980s evoked the Dickensian image of a “blighted patch of humanity” and “murderous” low wages, harsh working conditions and crammed ‘chicken coop’ housing. Students also had to forge their identity papers to become workers, true identities divulged meant languishing in prison or “purification camps” run by the military owing to the infamous “third party intervention” clause in the labour laws of 1980. But the biggest challenge, as can be gathered from accounts of former hakchul, was to confront their parents. Many student activists underwent immense trauma in being pulled between their parents’ expectation out of them and their own sense of obligation to bring about revolutionary changes.

Despite these challenges thousands and thousands of students did become hakchul. According to one estimate there were around 3000 hakchul in early 1980s and 10,000 by late 1980s only in metropolitan Seoul. There were so many in factory towns of metropolitan Seoul that they would unknowingly bump into each other. In the mid 1980s, when Kim Seung-Kyung left her prestigious university to become a hakchul, she recalls: “I went to at a small electronic factory with 140 workers in Inchon. And guess what? Of those 140 workers, there were about 10 disguised workers. Immediately, I could tell which activists were hakchul. That small factory was over-flowing with hakchul“.


The Daewoo group was the fourth largest South Korean conglomerate in the mid 1980s. Daewoo witnessed two historic highly organized and aggressive strikes, unprecedented in any Korean conglomerate. In August 1984 in a Daewoo Auto Plant twenty miles west of Seoul, workers’ brewing resentment burst out in spontaneous protest over unfair bonuses and the failure of the pro-management union to uphold the workers interest. Song Kyung Pyung, a hakchul, took the leadership and skillfully channeled workers resentment to the larger issues of industrial relations and union representation. The management learnt that Song was a hakchul and fired him. Motivated by Song Kyung Pyung’s dedication to the cause, rank and file workers had formed a rebel union committee and prepared for major confrontation with the management.

Come April (the month of wage increase negotiations) 1985, the rebel union committee had asked for 18 percent wage increase. And they demanded that a young worker Hong Young-Pyo should lead the negotiation. Workers had already been on strike for six days and the strike was turning more aggressive and violent. Not seeing any easy resolution, the management called for a negotiation with the rebel representative. Two men were sitting across a table in a meeting room in the plant. On one side of the table was Kim Woo Jung, Chairperson of Daewoo Groups and on the other side was a young man of 28 wearing a red ribbon on his forehead, Hong Young-pyo, representative of the striking workers. Negotiation between Chairman Kim and Hong lasted through two nights and the workers won a ten percent wage increase with other benefits. Hong was neither a typical worker nor a union leader; he was an ex-student who majored in Philosophy but left university to become a hakchul in the early 1980s.

Students and workers protest demonstration in Seoul, 1986. Photo Source: Unknown

Soon enough the Daewoo strikes had spillover effects across heavy and chemical industries. But then two months later, an even more significant strike took place in Guro Industrial Park in suburban Seoul. In June, Daewoo Apparel, a medium size garment factory, fired two hakchul – Lee Sun-Ju and Shim Sang-Jung – for being involved in night school activities (yahak) leading to their arrest by police. On June 24 workers across factories in the industrial park went on a Solidarity Strike. Sadly, by June 29 the strike ended with massive police crackdown and mass dismissal of workers. But the Guro Solidarity Strike owing to its overtly political nature electrified the nascent working class movement by bringing about tremendous solidarity amongst workers across industries and factories; it also had a huge impact on the Democratization Movement.

By mid 1980s the working class movement was taking shape and class consciousness among workers was reaching historical heights in the post-civil war era in South Korea. There were, of course, socio-cultural and political factors for this, as well as structural changes in the Korean economy, such as a move towards heavy industries from late 1970s onwards. But as the historic Daewoo strikes and Guro solidarity strike demonstrated, hakchul constituted a critical element in labour activism and within the working class movement. The post-Gwangju student movement did play a major role in radicalizing and organizing workers and leading various strikes. And all of it culminated into the “Great Labour Offensive” of 1987, which along with the general civil and students’ uprising brought down the brutal “military-conglomerate” dictatorship.

Here it is worth keeping in mind that when the student movement in South Korea got radicalized with revolutionary zeal and Marxist-Leninist ideas, revolutionary politics was in a world historical retreat. While post-war South Korean students had their first encounter with Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, radical students and intellectuals across the world were shunning Marxism and moving towards Post-Marxism and postmodernism.

The reality of fall of Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a brutal shock to students in South Korea. It was in this contradictory context that the likes of “Young” Mr. Kim had to find ways of going to Moscow to see for themselves whether the “Socialist Paradise” had collapsed or not.

Soon, ideological disillusionment prevailed. Some went back to their pre hakchul days and resumed their studies; some jumped onto the bandwagon of “Post-Marxism and Postmodernism” and gradually moved towards NGOs. But some remained within the working class movement which grew more and more militant and radical throughout the 1990s and, to slightly lesser degree, throughout the 2000s.

Now in the second decade of 21st century, South Korean working class movement like elsewhere is at a crossroad as a result of intense offensive from the State and capital. But still it remains the most organized, most militant and radical working-class movement across the post-colonial world.


This article was published in the 2017 edition of the annual journal brought out by Post Graduate Students’ Union, Gauhati University


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Bonojit Hussain Written by:

Bonojit Hussain is an independent researcher, and an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative (NSI). Since late 1990’s he has been associated with various movements working on issues related to informal sector workers’ rights, university democratization, communalism, racism etc. He was a Research Professor at SungKongHoe University, Seoul. Concurrently, he was also a Program Officer at the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA), Seoul. Currently, he is an Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) fellow.

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