The Specter of Past Authoritarianism in East Asia and Global Conditions of Labor

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Jirangmoon/WikiCommons/CC

SOUTH KOREA would be in the throes of a political crisis at present. The weekend before last saw demonstrations of tens of thousands, after demonstrations in mid-November which brought over 60,000 onto the streets of Seoul. These demonstrations demand attention to a host of issues. The primary issues are planned revisions to history textbooks which would whitewash South Korea’s past history of authoritarianism and planned changes to labor laws which would cut wages, strengthen the ability of corporations to fire workers, and break down worker’s rights to stable, long-term employment.

If it was the issue of textbooks which took center-stage in November’s protests, it is labor issues which take center stage at present. In South Korea and other East Asian countries, large conglomerates with close ties to the state are able to influence labor policy in South Korea. Like in Japan with the breakdown of “regular work”, with the turn towards neoliberal economic policies, the traditional guarantee of lifetime employment in companies is being broken down in favor of “temporary work,” as a way of limiting worker’s rights. More generally, it is that stable work conditions worldwide are breaking down, with the rise of the “Gig economy” and the “Freelance Generation.” But in the cases of countries in which a system of stable lifetime employment existed such as Japan or South Korea, we see the deterioration of traditional job securities and the turn towards precarious forms of labor.

Nevertheless, one suspects that with present protests, the issues of textbooks or planned changes to labor laws, these are issues which reflect broader social dissatisfaction. The issues at stake are hardly limited to textbooks and planned labor reforms. What also seems to be at stake is broader concerns of past authoritarianism rearing up again under the rule of President Park Geun-hye. Park is the daughter of former dictator Park Chun-hee and her presidency has seen restrictions on freedoms and crackdowns on dissent in the name of anti-Communism, for example, with the dissolution of the United Progressive Party in late 2014 or the ramping up of Internet censorship.

Ultimately, it may be that the perceived threat of a return to authoritarianism of the government is what leads to protest in the present. We might draw parallel to Taiwan in this light, given that the actions of recurrent KMT authoritarianism has led to protest in the past years in Taiwan. Between Taiwan and South Korea, what is shared is the traces of past authoritarianism which has never exactly faded away, whether in government or state-corporate connections. Attempts to whitewash past history by authoritarian elites occurs in order downplay their past crimes, in order that they may maintain power in the present, as we also saw with textbook protests in Taiwan this summer.

As with many of the protests which have occurred in Asia in the past year, protests have seen little reporting in international media. International responses are few in number. The US government has offered a few platitudes on how the US values democracy in South Korea, never mind that there is some degree to which the US is culpable for present circumstances, seeing as it backed dictatorships in Asia as the Park dictatorship in South Korea or Chiang regime in Taiwan in order to counterbalance China under Mao. Moreover, in the case of South Korea, the breakdown of a guarantee to lifetime employment came with the bailout loan issued to South Korea by the US-led IMF, which set economic conditions for South Korea that began to erode the system of permanent job security.

The resurgence of right-wing governments in South Korea and Japan at a time of rising fears about China seems connected to the US’s Rebalance Towards Asia and attempts to step up actions to check growing Chinese power, as indicative of broader trends in regional politics. The past year of youth-led protests in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan are arguably direct or indirect results of responses to China by national governments.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which has had a leading role in demonstrations thus far, has called for a general strike on December 16th. But between mid-November protests and present protests, we do see a decline in numbers, at least as far as we can gather from the numbers reported on in international reporting. Present protests appear to be largely labor-led, a testament to the relatively strong position of labor in South Korea relative to other East Asian counties as Taiwan or Japan. The labor-led nature of protests may also be why the central issue of present protests is about the breakdown of stable employment, but mid-November protests seem to have focused more on textbook revisions. It may be that the Park government is generally hoping to wait this one out, until exhaustion sets in and resistance dies out.

As with demonstrations this past year in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, there have been few who have attempted to understand to protests within a shared framework. The issue of textbook revisions as an issue which led to substantial protest as the spark of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and the Ministry of Education occupation which took place in Taiwan in August. But now with South Korea, we also see where authoritarian governments attempt to ideologically indoctrinate the young.

There is also the economic element of that within all these locations, we see growing economic inequality and the breakdown or elimination of traditional job securities in the name of neoliberal cost-cutting. However, although we see declarations of solidarity from Taiwan, Japan, or elsewhere, it remains to be seen what would be needed to develop the kind of transnational organization that address the resurgence of authoritarian governments or neoliberal economic conditions as a problem regional and global in scope.

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