South Korean Presidential Election

Vote for the DLP!!
Oust its reformist leadership!!

South Korea’s sixteenth presidential election, due on December 19, comes amid great uncertainty and anxiety over the future of the nation and widespread disillusionment over the current government of Kim Dae-jung.

When Kim Dae-jung won the presidential election five years ago, edging out the then governing party candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, he had a measure of backing across the political spectrum. Part of the dominant section of the bourgeoisie represented by chaebols (business conglomerates) supported him with the hope that he would bring an end to economic collapse created by the financial crisis of late 1997. They also hoped that he would drastically reduce military tensions with the North Korean deformed workers’ state by initiating a policy of engagement and opening up of business opportunities there. And a considerable section of the left in the workers’ and so-called people’s movement supported him with hope that he would guarantee the democratic rights denied by his predecessors and allow political freedom and trade union rights.

Kim Dae-jung was the first-ever opposition leader to win the presidency, and touting this so-called historic accomplishment of a peaceful transition of government with a mandate based on democratic procedures, the new president declared the launching of a "National Unity Government" during his inauguration speech, promising to initiate reforms to guarantee true democracy, economic development and clean and effective government. He also promised that he would lay the groundwork for national reunification with the North by drastically reducing military tensions and bringing lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.

But five years later his administration has proved as bankrupt, incompetent and corruption-ridden as any in the history of the Republic of Korea. Due to humiliating losses in a series of by-elections and heavy defections of his party’s members of parliament, his Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) has become a minority in the 273-seat unicameral National Assembly, and in the June local body elections suffered the worst-ever landslide defeat to the opposition Grand National Party. His party’s official candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections, Noh Moo-hyon, a former human rights lawyer, seemed to have little chance of winning the election.

"Sunshine Policy" clouded over

One of the heaviest blows to his rosy dream of becoming the "Reunification President" and establishing a prosperous and peaceful Korea came when U.S. President Bush pronounced North Korea part of the "axis of evil" in January this year. This pronouncement numbed the country with shock and disbelief, raising the palpable threat of imminent war and the devastation of a country that had risen out of the ashes of the Korean War (1950-53), when the whole peninsula had been laid waste, four million Koreans killed and millions more left maimed and destitute. Even President Kim himself warned on 5 February: "We should be mindful of the fact that horrendous damage might be inflicted by another war on the Korean peninsula."

North Korea’s alleged admission on 17 October that it had been developing nuclear arms program in violation of 1994 Geneva Agreement with the U.S. did nothing to calm the heightened anxiety. With U.S. Army deploying strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in its bases in South Korea, a nuclear conflagration loomed as a real possibility. North Korea is one of seven countries for which the U.S. has contingency plans to attack with its nuclear arsenal, and any excuse by the U.S. might trigger missile exchanges over the cease-fire line and incinerate the nearby Seoul metropolitan area of about 24 million people.

This mood was in stark contrast to that of June 2000 when President Kim visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to hold the first-ever summit meeting between the leaders of two Koreas. Five decades of military tension seemed set to ease with a series of reconciliation measures and even the eventual reunification of the peninsula. The imperialist media heaped praises over the initiative of President Kim who received the Nobel Peace Prize that year. With EU imperialists establishing diplomatic relations with the North to exploit business opportunities and increase their influence in the region, the Clinton administration had not wanted to be left behind and sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang for talks with high ranking North Korean officials—also the first-ever visit by high-ranking American official since the end of the Korean War. President Kim’s "Sunshine" engagement policy seemed to shine brightly, leading to the general amelioration of overall military and diplomatic situation on the Korean peninsula.

The realization of the "Sunshine policy" would have removed a major justification for the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. It would have brought about economic advantage to the North Korean regime and closer relationships between it and South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and EU member nations.

The inauguration of George W. Bush in January 2001, however, signaled a change in orientation by the US bourgeoisie and a rejection of the prospect of reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas. The right wing of the U.S. Republican Party was going full-speed ahead to gain the upper hand on its imperialist rivals, reinforce American military dominance of the world, and isolate the Chinese deformed workers’ state.

On the Korean peninsula this required not the "Sunshine policy" but forcing North Korea to its knees—a return to the imperialists’ policy of isolation of North Korea and the destruction of the regime through famine and economic decline.

A short but bloody naval battle on June 29 between North and South Korean warships in the Yellow Sea left five South Korean sailors dead and scores wounded, with an unknown number of casualties on the North Korean side. This incident was used by the Bush administration to intensify the diplomatic and economic isolation of North Korea. Washington cancelled a diplomatic visit to Pyongyang.

Since its independence from the Japanese imperialist subjugation at the end of World War II, South Korea has been a virtual protectorate of the U.S., and has seen its successive governments parroting Washington’s foreign policy. Again this time, President Kim echoed Uncle Sam’s criticism of the North, threatening to terminate aid to its economically beleaguered neighbor.

Reforms deformed

Domestic politics has not been kind to Kim’s government, either. A series of so-called reform policies have turned into disastrous failures, embarrassing "progressive" academia and those political interests that have argued that Kim is the most liberal, most competent and most "progressive" president yet. The most glaring revelation of this unrequited love for Kim by these left fakers involved reform in the health care system. Korean hospitals used to run lucrative businesses by selling prescription drugs as well as by attracting bribes from the drug companies. The reform of the health care system, under the rubric of "separation of medical treatment from drug prescription", stopped hospitals from selling drugs and, with it, getting bribes—allowing pharmacy businesses to intercept the profits enjoyed by doctors and hospital owners, putting them under financial strain.

In June 2000 doctors held the first of five strike actions. This unprecedented collective action by doctors resulted in chaotic disruption of medical services, patient deaths and the arrest of striking doctors. The government argued that the reform would drastically reduce people’s medical bill, the government health budget and drug overuse, all of which had been induced by doctors’ over-prescription of medication, which, in turn, had been motivated by their desire for profit. But later on the government surrendered to striking doctors and allowed the increase of medical fees by 70%. As a result, according to a researcher of the Korean Institute of Medical and Social Studies, since the introduction of the measure insurance payouts have increased by $4 billion and national insurance subscribers have had to shoulder increased medical expense of $2 billion per year. Next year alone medical insurance subscription fees will increase a further 9 percent. While "progressive" academics and political groups first proposed and later defended the government measures, they never took into account three important facts. First, most South Korean hospitals are privately owned, thus subjecting them to ruthless logic of "either make money or go bust". Second, doctors will fight against any attempt to undermine their social and economic position. Third, for several years the government had reneged on its legal obligation to contribute to the medical insurance fund, thus threatening to bankrupt it. "Progressive" doctors and medical experts vainly hoped that with the introduction of the reform, the South Korean medical system would emulate the more efficient and more humane systems established in the Western "welfare states". The fiasco surrounding the reform dealt a fatal body blow to the credibility of government policy in general.

Reforms repulsed

Rebelling against the Kim government’s utter incompetence in "reform", there have been massive protests by oppressed layers ever since his inauguration.

On 25 October 2000, 50,000 farmers occupied major highways around the country, demanding that the government underwrite the debts they had incurred as a result of government agricultural policies, and that it guarantee reasonable prices for farm products. Since the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations the Korean government has urged farmers to move from rice and other staples to more lucrative crops and assisted them with low-interest credits. But with the glut of these government-recommended crops and wholesale opening of the agricultural market to large-scale international agricultural producers, a large proportion of the farming population have been ruined. On 13 November this year 150,000 farmers from across the country held a rally in Seoul protesting against the government’s failed policy, which has put farming into a massive economic decline. According to the government’s own statistics published in 1999, 40 percent of farms couldn’t make ends meet and 50 percent of them were unable to pay debts. Currently, on average every farm has debt burden amounting to $20,000. And this year the government announced that its subsidy for rice would be scrapped in line with WTO regulations. The farmers saw this as an end to domestic agriculture in favor of foreign imports, and took up opposition to the government with whatever means they had.

Despite the long-cherished hopes of Kim’s "critical supporters" on the left and in the workers’ movement, his policy of deregulation, labor flexibility, privatization of state-owned firms and stepped-up repression has fueled workers’ resistance against his government. Most recently, the police stormed Kyong-Hee Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital in Seoul on 11 September to arrest more than 500 trade unionists and university student activists supporting their 112-day-long strike over wages and conditions. Despite his supporters’ claim that Kim is all for workers’ rights, there have actually been more police raids on striking workers and mass arrests during his term of office than his predecessor’s. According to the KCTU, one of the two national trade union federations, the number of workers who have been imprisoned over the last five years stands at over 800.

Only three sons and too many scandals

Corruption has been a feature of this presidency. Kim has been plagued throughout his term by all sorts of "gates". On 11 November Kim Hong-gul, the president’s third and youngest son, was fined and sentenced to two years in jail for bribery and influence-peddling. His sentence was suspended for three years. He had gone on trial in July this year on charges that he received about 3.5 billion won ($2.92 million) in illegal funds from a businessman in exchange for favors. Just ten days earlier, the president’s second son, Kim Hong-up, received a three and a half year jail sentence and was fined 1.6 billion won ($1.34 million) for bribery and tax evasion after receiving 4.8 billion won in illegal payments.

One of the most significant "gates", however, came on 27 October 2000, when Jeong Hyon-joon, president of the venture capital firm Korea Digital Line, was arrested and indicted on charges that he had paid bribes to Jang Rae-chan, a former top official with the government’s Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC), following Jeong’s large losses on the stock market. In return, Jang kept quiet about illegal loans Jeong had received, amounting to an estimated 63.7 billion won ($58 million) from three mutual savings and finance companies. Jeong had been a major shareholder of three financial companies and used the loans from these companies to prop up Korea Digital Line, his bankrupt business. The prosecution alleged that Jeong used political connections to influence the FSC’s decisions. This financial scandal also implicated four leading members of Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party, including Kim’s first son Kim Hong-il and his right-hand man Kim Ok-doo.

Contrary to his election promises of clean and efficient government, president Kim’s administration has been beset with the nepotism, cronyism and outright swindles endemic to Third World business and politics.

Collapse of "communism" and the chaebols’ lost paradise

However, Kim Dae-jung’s political fiasco stems mainly from the objective factors—ultimately the successes of the major imperialist powers against the non-capitalist bloc of nations. Since the beginning of 1990’s, South Korea has lost a very important asset: favors from imperialism as a bulwark against communism. (See "Korea: Workers Resurgent", 1917 No.15, 1995) With the collapse of the former Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, the menace of "communism" is no more, and therefore neither is imperialism’s strategic need for an economically strong South Korea. The imperialist bourgeoisies don’t need the South Korean government directly supporting the chaebols, some of which have become strong competitors on the world market, and they have put economic and political pressure on the South Korean government to stop its "unfair" support to the chaebols.

The U.S. subjected Seoul to a trade offensive much tougher than the one directed at Japan, undoubtedly because of Korea’s lack of retaliatory capacity. It hit Korean manufacturers with anti-dumping suits, and forced them to adopt "voluntary export restraints" on a number of products such as textiles, garments and steel. Finally the U.S. knocked Korea off the list of countries eligible for inclusion in the General System of Preferences (GSP), which grants preferential tariffs to products from Third World countries in order to assist indigenous producers. Hemmed in on all fronts, Korea saw its 1987 trade surplus of $9.6 billion with the U.S. turn into a deficit of $159 million in 1992. By 1996, the deficit with the U.S. had grown to over $10 billion, and its overall trade deficit hit $21 billion, contributing to the financial crisis and the ensuing $58 billion IMF bailout program in late 1997. There’s not so much talk of South Korea as one of the four "tiger" economies of Asia any more.

And as elsewhere the IMF has demanded that the Kim government drastically reduce deficits and cut social programs to squeeze the already deprived masses of working people. Considering this small densely populated country’s dearth of natural resources and dependence on foreign trade, and the total destruction of its meager industrial capacity during the Korean War, it doesn’t require much imagination to understand its dependence on foreign capital and direct state intervention in its economic life. Basically Korea’s infrastructure such as electricity, gas, water, railways and roading are all built with foreign money. And the development of capitalism in this context has required the state to play an interventionist coordinating role. Thus its budget was in chronic deficit, swelling the ledgers of state-owned companies. When it served the interests of the major imperialist bourgeoisies, this was encouraged. Now they don’t want any of it.

There has been a massive privatization of state-owned corporations, and in the context of the Korean financial crisis and economic meltdown in late 1997, it was the foreign capitalists who grabbed the assets at bargain prices. Nationalist political groups set up a hue and cry against the Kim government’s privatization policy, but their slogan of "no sellout to foreign capitalists" is reactionary drivel, which chains working-class resistance to South Korean bourgeois interests. Workers must concentrate their fighting power on winning job security and better conditions in order to sustain the struggle and fight back the onslaught of neo-liberal government policies as well as stop any privatizations. Enduring benefits for the masses can be achieved only through struggle against all capitalists, whether Korean or foreign, and can be secured only through socialization of the economy under the rule of the proletariat.

At the same time the chaebols lost their privileges of direct and interest-free financial backing from the state-owned banks, a protected domestic market and seemingly limitless access to the world market. The second largest chaebol, Daewoo, collapsed in October 1999 under the weight of a $57 billion debt. Starting as a small textile company in 1967, by the time of its demise it had under its wing 33 domestic companies and 372 overseas subsidiaries, with an international workforce of 320,000. Its fate epitomizes the end of heyday of the Korean chaebols and also the end of state-corporate collusion in pro-U.S. Third World nations.

The spin-off is a massive influx of foreign capital, which is increasingly taking control of the South Korean economy. Big chunks of major businesses and about 70 percent of banking capital belong to foreign capitalists. Samsung Motor is now a subsidiary of Renault; Daewoo Motors is a subsidiary of General Motors.

Under these objective conditions, Kim Dae-jung haven’t had much room to maneuver, implementing one unpopular policy after another under the rubric of "reforms", eventually losing even the support of his regional power base, Cholla Province, where he came from.

Indeed the future of the South Korean economy is bleak, with agricultural products priced out by the world market, labor-intensive industrial products priced out by Chinese and Southeast Asian rivals, and the traditional big businesses (chaebols), without their accustomed state support, losing ground to U.S. and other Western competitors. And the context is a general world recession and sluggish export volumes.

The so-called downsizing by companies to survive the difficult times has resulted in massive job cuts since the 1997 financial crisis, and the resulting mass unemployment has produced a social crisis that reaches every corner of society. Every year 450,000 new university graduates face a bleak employment picture. According to one survey, only one in 67 new job applicants will be employed at the end of this recruiting season.

Pot calling kettle black

All the candidates from the bourgeois parties clamor that it’s the Kim Dae-jung government that is responsible for ills of society and that they are the ones who will be able to put things on the right track. But none is able to put forward a political program fundamentally different from that of the current government. Hence the mass indifference to bourgeois politics. At the local body elections of June this year, only 49 percent of constituents bothered to vote, and in National Assembly by-elections for thirteen electoral districts in August this year a paltry 27 percent of the voters cast a ballot. Of course, presidential elections are held only once in every five years and the office of president is the very center of the bourgeois political process. But none of the bourgeois contenders for presidency inspires popular enthusiasm.

Lee Hoi-chang, the front-runner at the time of writing, and president of the main opposition Grand National Party, enjoys a measure of support from the conservative wing of business, the military and the middle class. But his career in the service of military dictatorships of Park Jong-hee, Jon Doo-whan and Noh Tae-woo as Supreme Court Justice and most recently as Prime Minister under President Kim Young-sam have won him a reputation as a political hack abhorred by the common people. His pro-U.S., pro-business and anti-working class policies will only intensify the crisis and fuel the anger of the masses.

Noh Moo-hyon, the candidate from governing Millennium Democratic Party, has criticized current government policies and posed as a "new generation" political leader. Representing the liberal wing of the South Korean bourgeoisie, he enjoys the support of a section of the workers’ and popular movements. But his election platform is little different from that of Kim Dae-jung five years ago, and in fact fundamentally no different from Lee’s. With much reduced mass support for the Millennium Democratic Party and having to distance himself from the Kim government, Noh has the support of only about half of his own party, where his critics claim that he should be replaced by someone who has better chance of reclaiming presidential power. Some of these critics recently bolted from the party and joined a new political force called "National Unity 21st Century" under the leadership of an alternative candidate, Jeong Mong-joon. The split was healed partially at the eleventh hour by a unity deal, but it’s yet to be seen if this gimmick will convince working people to support Noh, the so-called "unity candidate chosen by the people".

Inevitably there are those such as the Labor Alliance, a group of former leaders of the "democratic and independent" trade unions, who would mislead the working class into support for the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, and call for a vote to the Noh/Jeong candidacy. This betrayal of the working-class need for political independence from the parties of the bourgeoisie is particularly gross in view of Jeong’s background. His father, Jeong Joo-young, as chairman of Hyundai empire, was infamous for his brutal crackdown on union struggles. Just a thought for those who were killed and maimed by Jeong senior’s goon squads should be enough to make it clear that this campaign offers nothing to the working class.

The pretender of the working class

Of course, there are candidates claiming to represent working people in general. Most significant is Kwon Young-gil, president of the Democratic Labor Party, the bureaucratized political expression of the more militant wing of trade unionism in South Korea. With a reformist social-democratic leadership, the DLP has strong ties to the most combative layer of the working class and among its activists is a concentration of subjective revolutionaries.

Buoyed by DLP’s 8 percent showing in June local body elections, Kwon portrays himself as a real champion of "progressive" politics capable of eradicating conservative bourgeois politics. On 7 October the DLP launched a program typical of the reformist social democracy Lenin gave critical support to in the 1920’s, which would certainly be betrayed by Kwon if he were to take government office. It called for: the eradication of political corruption; the elimination of all forms of discrimination based on region, gender and class; a welfare state providing housing, education and healthcare funded by taxing the rich and reducing military expenditure; a peace treaty between North and South Korea, the U.S., and Japan; and reunification of the fatherland.

Capitalist reunification, with the destruction of collectivized property in the North, would be a defeat for the proletariat internationally. Workers in the South would suffer higher unemployment and suppression of wages, while at the same time bearing the social costs of capitalist reconstruction of the North (See "The collapse of the DDR", 1917, No.8, 1990). The working class should defend North Korea against the designs of the South Korean and international bourgeoisies to plunder the deformed workers’ state. Reunification is in the interests of workers and the oppressed masses only through a socialist revolution spreading throughout the peninsula—a workers’ political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy headed by Kim Jong-il in the North, and a social revolution to overthrow capitalism in the South.

But even those aims of the DLP that are in themselves supportable are unrealizable under capitalism and the imperialist world order, with the U.S. exerting its might at every corner of the world. For example, unless the chaebols, the conglomerations of monopoly capital that dominate political and economic life, are expropriated, shady deals between business and politicians will continue. And in this period of neo-liberal attacks on the working class around the world, in countries like South Korea, the social benefits associated with a welfare state are possible only when the means of production are in the hands of working class and utilized in the interests of the majority of working people.

The completely reformist and social democratic nature of Kwon’s platform, however, is not the invention of his own brain. His is the model of generations of reformists infesting the workers’ movement, originating in Korea with Jo Bong-arm, who founded the Progressive Party on the heels of the devastation of the Korean War in the 1956 presidential election. Under the acute social crisis engendered by the total destruction of productive resources, he got massive support from the oppressed and won 2.2 million votes, second only to Sung Man Rhee, the head of the U.S. puppet regime. Less than two years later, this Korean prototype of social democracy was court-martialed and executed after being charged with acting as an agent of the North Korean regime.

Recent attempts by social democrats to win political respectability in this land of anti-communist hysteria and virulent state repression of all working class politics shows that reformists never learn anything from history. In the vain hope that they could have the impact that their Western European co-thinkers had—in an earlier era and on the back of a strong trade union bureaucracy—Korean reformists regrouped in 1990 to found the People’s Party. That party in turn joined forces with reformists of the Korean Labor Party, a combination of the three biggest Stalinist underground groups, which had reoriented toward open, mass activity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Declaring that they would represent the mass workers’ movement, newly resurgent since the Great Workers’ Struggle of 1987, these social democrats stood in the National Assembly elections of April 1992, but their hopes were quickly dashed when they got a meager one percent of the vote and won not a single electoral district. The party was disbanded summarily under the Political Party Law. The leaders of this party are now National Assembly members of the bourgeois Grand National Party, and they adamantly oppose the workers’ movement’s long struggle to abolish draconian National Security Law, which had killed their ill-fated political forefather Jo Bong-arm.

The DLP’s presidential candidate Kwon is only the latest product of this pitiful history of Korean social democracy. Formerly the international correspondent of a state-owned newspaper, he was the president of National Journalists’ Union in 1989 and subsequently assumed the leadership of the "democratic and independent" trade union movement. When the Korean Council of Trade Unions (KCTU) was launched in 1995 with Kwon as its founding president, it declared itself the rightful and proud heir of the militant workers’ movement. Already, however, the first generation leaders of the Great Workers Struggle were showing signs of their accommodation to the bourgeois order by the limits they sought to place on militancy. The leaders of the KCTU sought to win legal recognition from the state and to portray themselves as "responsible and respectable" under the slogan of "the workers’ movement aiming at social reform in the interests of the whole nation". They preferred negotiation and compromise to the intransigent militancy that the movement needed for survival under the onslaught of neo-liberalism.

When Kim Dae-jung’s predecessor Kim Young-sam passed a series of laws to facilitate layoffs and maximize labor "flexibility" at the end of 1996, the KCTU leadership called the first-ever general strike since the end of the Korean War (See, "South Korea to the Brink", 1917, No.19, 1997). But Kwon and his ilk made sure the struggle was kept within the bounds of moderation and "responsibility". Instead of occupying the workplaces, the usual form of militant union struggle in Korea, the leadership orchestrated peaceful marches of protest and even barred public sector unions from participation in the struggle. In the upshot the struggle failed to wrest any concessions from the government and there were mass sackings of militants, resulting in management gaining control of the big unions. Since then, even where rank and file members of the big unions get a majority for a militant leadership, there are often a greater number of delegates bought off by the management, making normal trade union functioning almost impossible.

The cowardice of the KCTU leadership and big union leaders was highlighted during the recent strike struggle by electricity workers. Five thousand members of the Union of Electricity Industry (UEI) struck on 25 February this year against government plans to privatize five Korea Electrical Power Corporation (KEPCO) thermal generating plants. During a thirty-eight-day struggle, the government sent the police into workplaces to make arrests. Workers fled, gathered at locations secretly relayed to members by cellular phone, and continued the struggle. The government threatened mass dismissals but the workers were determined to continue until the government backed down.

Then on 2 April the union leaders suddenly endorsed a deal brokered between the KCTU leaders and the government, and ordered striking workers to go back to work. The KCTU leadership called off a 120,000 nationwide solidarity strike minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Union leader Lee Ho-dong, admitted that the struggle had "failed to prevent the privatization of public enterprises", but pretended that the power workers had succeeded in "drawing public interest to the importance of protecting infrastructure companies".

In fact the agreement was a total capitulation and a major blow against the working class. It cleared the way for the privatization of the KEPCO plants and left the government free to take punitive action against the strikers. Under the agreement, the union accepted an 8 March National Labor Relations Commission ruling that "privatization is not an issue for collective bargaining" and referred other issues, including demands for a reduction in working hours, to the National Labor Relations Commission for arbitration.

The government had declared the power strike illegal under legislation prohibiting industrial action in essential services, and commenced legal action to force power workers to compensate KEPCO for about 25 billion won ($18.99 million). Union negotiators only asked that the government "minimize" criminal charges and other punitive action against strikers. Over 340 workers had already been sacked and in a move they tried to pass off as ensuring "fairness in determining civil and criminal responsibility" and the penalization of an "appropriate" number of workers, the KEPCO management announced that a further 600 workers would be dismissed for their roles in the strike.

With the deal wrapped up, union leaders joined the government to issue a joint statement asking "the general public’s forgiveness over the protracted labor strike" and promising that "labor, management and government will work together in the future to ensure that such a dispute is not repeated by honoring the laws and principles concerned".

The epoch of a growing militant social-democratic labor movement was the epoch of progressive capitalism, when having broken the obstacle of feudal relations it presided over the spectacular development of productive forces and created the conditions for systematic reforms. In the reactionary stage of capitalism, the stage of decaying imperialism, a mass trade union movement in countries like Korea cannot achieve a stable foundation short of socialist revolution.

The paralysis of the KCTU leadership in the face of neo-liberal attacks is to be expected. But Kwon is still banking on this faltering trade union movement to earn a niche in the bourgeois political world, eager to win membership of the Socialist International and rub shoulders with Blair, Schroeder and the other labor lieutenants of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Of the DLP’s 20,000 members about 50 percent are KCTU members, so it is sometimes called the KCTU party, and the party wants to claim the 600,000 members of the KCTU union members as its own in the near future, attempting to duplicate Western social democracy on the soil of a society polluted with virulent anti-communism. But the KCTU unions are losing members and disintegrating under the hammer blows of neo-liberalism. According to statistics compiled by the KCTU, currently 54 percent of the 14 million paid jobs are temporary and the unionization rate has declined to less than 12 percent with the KCTU claiming 600,000 members and FKTU 950,000. The KCTU bureaucrats stand on a shaky base—their mode of existence is precarious, reflecting the status of the South Korean economy in the imperialist world order. Unlike their brothers in the imperialist metropolis, who wield massive union apparatuses and enjoy annual salaries comparable to corporate executives, even quite senior South Korean union functionaries cope on something a little above the average wage, and they are under the constant threat of state repression. Dan Byong-ho, the current president of the KCTU, is right now sitting in a jail cell on account of industrial actions led by his union body.

In Korean conditions the step from labor bureaucrat to successful bourgeois politician is a big one. Kwon has always sought the additional support of "progressive" academics, lawyers and other professional layers, and constantly proclaimed his readiness to unite with "progressive and reform-minded elements" of bourgeois parties, giving up the pretence that his strategy is for a worker-centered party. Such bourgeois elements have as yet been unwilling to respond, but Kwon would be only too happy to sacrifice working class interests for the "progressive" agendas of petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces.

Of course this popular frontist program is by no means unique to him. Since its inception South Korean social democracy has sought a "progressive" political alliance with petty bourgeois and "liberal" bourgeois forces to bolster its chances against apparently overwhelming obstacles.

The popular front, a political alliance between a working class party and bourgeois political forces, has been used throughout last century by labor fakers around the world to defuse working class resistance to capitalism. It has resulted repeatedly in either a complete annihilation or demoralization of the workers’ movement for a whole generation. In South Korea, it has taken the form of a considerable section of workers movement supporting supposedly liberal bourgeois forces. For example, in the 1987 presidential election, the first free and direct election in 17 years of electoral manipulations by military dictatorships, popular front forces in the workers’ and popular movements backed either Kim Young-sam or Kim Dae-jung, and induced the so-called workers and people’s choice Paik Ki-wan to resign at the last moment in favor of one of the liberal bourgeois candidates. And it has been one of the common features of Korean politics that working class leaders have been chosen by bourgeois parties as their left cover in parliamentary elections. This is one of the reasons why this once militant workers movement has been in decline.

While socialist revolutionaries expose Kwon’s reformism, they are mindful not only that militant sections of the working class see the DLP as their own party, but also that, precisely because Kwon’s popular front appetites have not yet been fulfilled and it is standing against all the open parties of the bourgeoisie, it remains possible to fight within this party for politics which transcend reformism. Thus subjectively revolutionary elements see the DLP as the vehicle for working class political advancement, and several self-proclaimed revolutionary groups are active within it, vying with the blatantly reformist leadership. Political clarification and struggle among oppositional elements of the DLP might represent a real prospect for the development of a vanguard based on a genuinely revolutionary program.

The International Socialists (IS), whose politics are similar to the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, dissolved their independent organization at the founding of the DLP in order to take control of several branches in Seoul as well as the Student Committee of the party. They also have a group inside the party, All Together, to lead the peacenik anti-war movement against US military aggression around the world. Only international solidarity of the revolutionary working class can defeat imperialism and bring lasting peace on earth. But the IS ignores this elementary truth and propagates illusions in the imperialist bourgeoisie’s peace-loving benevolence. Inside the party, rather than posing a revolutionary program against the reformists, they have kept quiet and mobilized their members to be the shock troops for every DLP mass rally, shamefully capitulating to backward elements in the movement. In its December magazine the group renders full political support to Kwon Young-gil, saying "The DLP’s election participation is one of the effective struggles against Lee Hoi-chang. It can be a stepping-stone to bury the Lee Hoi-chang nightmare", by which they mean his election victory.

Another grouping involving subjectively revolutionary elements is the Praxis Alliance of Workers and the People toward Equal Society (AE), which calls itself an "opinion group" intending to be the left-wing pole of attraction in the party against the class collaborationist leadership. It opines in its founding statement: "The main reason the workers’ movement in general and the DLP in particular is in crisis is that the leadership is incapable of dealing with the onslaught of capital and the state, and thereby unable to recognize and solve tasks of the day." And it proposes to all the healthy elements in the movement and the party that the key is organizing the suffering, anger and yearning of the shop floor into an effective militant struggle to revitalize the movement and to change the society. But it never says how this mission can be accomplished. It relies on the growth of militant industrial struggle rather than on a revolutionary program. To the extent it advocates policies, those policies are within the bourgeois order. All in all, AE is an economist, left reformist and nationalist tendency incapable of counterposing itself to the blatant reformism of the party leadership.

At the critical moment the DLP leadership will doubtless betray the working class in ways that require splitting from it, probably by subjugating itself to an alliance with openly bourgeois interests. However, revolutionaries seek to stand alongside the most militant workers as they experience for themselves that the DLP leadership’s policies are against their class interests. While the DLP remains an (admittedly inadequate) expression of the political independence of the working class, we give it critical support, calling for a vote for it against the open parties of the bourgeoisie.

Opponents to the pretender

In the run up to the election several incidents seemed to complicate Kwon’s ambition to be the sole champion of "progressive" forces. On 9 November top bureaucrats of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), the labor control arm of the state since late 1940’s, set up the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) and declared themselves to be another champion of the working people and oppressed masses, with an election platform almost identical to the DLP’s. The FKTU is 50 percent larger than the KCTU, and the leaders of this bigger but more pro-capitalist union center seemed confident of their chances of winning at least substantial concessions from Kwon. At its founding conference the DSP proclaimed its willingness to work with the DLP to field one "progressive" unity candidate. While Kwon took this as an opportunity to increase his vote base, the majority of KCTU and DLP activists must have regarded his willingness to unite with DSP as embarrassing, given the fact that they have been fighting against the FKTU to create a trade union movement independent of the bourgeois state for almost two decades. At the last moment, however, the DSP decided to withdraw its candidacy. The rumor is that the party leaders demanded Kwon that he guarantee them parliamentary seats in the 2004 elections for their party’s merger with the DLP and support to Kwon. Revolutionaries should condemn and expose the cynical maneuvering of the union misleaders, calling for the building of a revolutionary workers’ party that would mobilize the best working class militants and secure their political independence from alien class forces.

On the other hand, the mood of reconciliation and cooperation among the leadership of the DLP and DSP seemed to vindicate the legitimacy of standing an "intransigent and principled" candidate of the working class and oppressed strata. With a program almost identical to that of the DLP but claiming to be anti-electoralist, anti-class collaborationist, and against the regime of the North, the Socialist Party (SP)—an amalgamation of rump groups arising out of the breakup of Stalinism—entered the race with its own candidate, Professor Kim Young-gyoo, president of the SP. But the SP, with its own brand of reformism and without any mass base, hardly represents the interests of the working class and does not pose itself as a political representative of the working class against the open bourgeois political forces, thus excluding critical support from the revolutionaries. The SP’s opposition to the ruling North Korean bureaucracy is certainly necessary. But its program overlooks an important element: unconditional military defense of the North Korean deformed workers state not only against imperialism but also against "Sunshine policies" which aim to exploit Pyongyang’s endemic difficulties with the object of capitalist reunification.

The Power of the Working Class (PWC) is another group opposed to the DLP’s legalism, electoralism and reformism, proclaiming its mission to be that of setting up a genuine working class combat party. It claims to stand for a program truly representing the historic interests of the working class and proposes that the genuine forces of the workers’ movement should work together to draw up such a program. It seeks to model itself on the Australian Democratic Socialist Party and the German Democratic Socialist Party–outright reformist outfits. Composed mostly of "progressive" professors with Stalinist and nationalist past records at the top and workerist trade union activists at the bottom, the PWC has tried to create its own mass base counterposing itself to the KCTU and DLP. However, it proved unable to play an electoral role. Sensing that it could not create its base in time for the approaching election, it decided at its emergency conference on 14 September to set up a "National Committee for Joint Struggle", which would pick a unity candidate for the movement and, at the same time lead the workers’ and oppressed masses’ struggle based on their felt needs. But it disbanded the committee soon after its creation fearing that it would only help Kwon’s claim to be the sole candidate of the working class.

While perhaps quantitatively to the left, neither the SP and the PWC have in the slightest degree transcended a minimum/maximum program. While posing the socialist revolution as an ultimate goal, in their actual practice they justify confining the struggle to the level of economist issues of workplace rights and conditions. Ultimately they have the same programmatic defect as the DLP, but none of its virtue as the embodiment of real (if deformed) mass working-class struggle against the bourgeoisie.

What is needed to advance working class emancipation is a transitional program, that is, a system of demands that address the basic, felt needs of the working class while raising their level of political consciousness in opposition to capitalism. Without the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ government the realization of basic needs will be at best transitory.

A revolutionary transitional program would fight for a drastically shorter working week with no loss of pay, opening business books, workers’ control of production, workers’ self-defense guards and militia, and the creation of workers’ government. These demands, put forward systematically and tailored to the concrete conditions of struggle, can mobilize the working class masses in the struggle against mass unemployment and the degradation of workers’ living standards engendered by neo-liberal attacks initiated by the capitalists in Korea and abroad.

Such a program is necessary to promote the understanding that only a workers’ government is capable of tackling the problems facing the workers and oppressed masses around the world.

The demand for a shorter work week with no loss of pay and other related demands put forward to combat mass unemployment and union-busting by many of the workers’ organizations including the KCTU in recent years are not revolutionary in themselves. Putting forward these demands in a piecemeal and eclectic manner cannot raise workers’ consciousness beyond the limits of capitalist economic logic. The job of the revolutionaries is to tear workers away from their spontaneous tendency to limit their struggle to narrow confines of economism, in order to lift their field of vision to the big picture—to the understanding that only working class socialist revolution can fundamentally and lastingly solve the day-to-day problem of securing their rights to life.

The primary duty of revolutionaries is to build a party based on a program that can lead the working class through the transition from today’s consciousness and level of struggle to a revolutionary consciousness and level of struggle. To achieve that, and to assimilate the lessons of the world socialist movement, an earnest and comradely political debate is necessary among those who are sincere about the need for proletarian revolution.

Ultra-leftism of boycotters

There are several self-proclaimed Trotskyist grouplets, which produce occasional items of underground literature. They usually condemn the DLP and the SP for their reformist politics, and they call for workers and revolutionaries to boycott the election. One of them is a group calling itself the Forward March toward Workers Power. The 9 November issue of its press published an article entitled "Where is the reformist political movement heading?" It defines the DLP as a bourgeois reform party and argues that "Critical support to reformism takes various forms but its political conclusion is always the same: it strengthens reformist politics of the DLP in the workers movement." And it ends with the run-of-the-mill abstract argument that a socialist movement can fulfill its role only when it combines with advanced workers to create powerful revolutionary party.

Another is a group calling itself Class Vanguard. In an article "The 2002 Presidential Election and the Tactics of Revolutionary Militants", the group rightly argues that "No matter how narrow the field of intervention in the 2002 presidential election, revolutionary fighters should explore every possibility to raise working class consciousness, as is their task." But its conclusion is a prevarication: "If you think you should support Kwon, do so. But regardless of your position on Kwon, I urge you to work with us in order to organize working class propaganda, agitation, solidarity and struggle in the manner we are proposing, to utilize the election arena." Their objective of building a Leninist vanguard party for the overthrow of capitalism is commendable, and they make some good points against reformism, but their understanding of the relationship between the working class and mass reformism is one-sided.

Certainly the DLP leader Kwon and company are deeply compromised by social-democratic politics, and certainly there are petty bourgeois elements nesting in the party, but there is no doubt that as a whole this party in its crude way stands for working class political independence from bourgeois forces. Furthermore there are anti-leadership forces within the DLP, opposed to the leadership’s as yet unfulfilled popular front appetites. We seek to expose the political nature of DLP party leadership while facilitating the opportunity for these working class militants to see for themselves the anti-working class nature of their leadership. This is best achieved in the current election campaign within the framework of critical support to Kwon.

Of course, bourgeois electoral processes are designed to bolster bourgeois political rule, and there is a limit to the possibilities within such processes for socialist revolutionaries. But we must use the limited opportunities that do exist to put forward the program that embodies the historic interests of the working class, and to facilitate the development of workers’ political consciousness and unity against the bourgeoisie. Lenin talked of revolutionaries’ critical support to a bourgeois workers’ party in elections as a "hangman’s noose" that will eventually finish off the lieutenants of capital within the workers’ movement. Marxists must use every opportunity to this end, which is why we critically support the labor faker Kwon in this election.

Such a tactic has its only significance in the context of our primary goal of building a party based on program which meets the genuine needs of the working class, that is, the program of revolutionary Marxism, which has been developed over the last century and a half in such great revolutionary events as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the creation of the Third International, the struggle of the Russian Left Opposition against Stalinism and the launching of the Fourth International. We urge all revolutionary elements in Korea to participate in earnest political debate to jointly assimilate the historic lessons of the revolutionary working class movement and to create the foundations for the building of the revolutionary workers’ party, the vehicle for the great workers’ triumph in the future both in the Korean peninsula and internationally.

-- 18 December 2002

Posted: 22 December 2002