CKS Logo
Menu Bar

The fight for workers' rights in South Korea

Photo for The fight for workers

A promotional poster for the South Korean documentary film, "The Island of Shadows" (2014).

Famed South Korean labor rights activist Jinsook Kim attended a screening of “The Island of Shadows,” a film that documents her 309-day protest of an unlawful mass layoff of shipyard workers.

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, May 2, 2017 — Jinsook Kim gained fame in South Korea in the 1990s for her ability to rally militant popular support for democratic workers’ unions and has been a vocal labor rights activist ever since. For 309 long, lonely days in 2011, she sat perched atop a crane in a shipyard in Busan, South Korea to protest the unlawful mass layoff of manual laborers by Hanjin Heavy Industries. During the course of her protest, the company organized a new union to counter the democratic union to which Kim and her peers belonged. The sit-in was also a show of solidarity with fellow activist Ju-Ik Kim, who hung himself out of desperation 129 days into a similar protest in 2003.

The film “The Island of Shadows” documents the history of the fight for democratic workers’ unions in South Korea through interviews with union leaders and former employees of Hanjin Heavy Industries, using Jinsook Kim’s sit-in as a starting point. Kim, along with director Jeongkeun Kim (no relation) and fellow activist Yira Hwang, visited UCLA on April 20 to attend a screening of the film and discuss workers’ rights in South Korea. The event was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Moving beyond the factory walls

Jinsook Kim’s journey to activism began in 1981, when she was hired as a welder in the Busan shipyard. “They were open to accepting women, but I still had to apply three times and be extremely persistent,” Kim explained. “I was the only single woman in the shipyard. The culture of manual labor in Korea was and is extremely rough and male oriented,” she explained.

Despite the scarcity of women in the workforce, Kim didn’t see her gender as a disadvantage. “The fact that I, a female, was running for the leadership of the workers’ union drew a lot of attention; I think it ultimately helped our movement,” she explained.

The movement to form a democratic workers’ union quickly gained traction among Kim’s coworkers. The activist remembered explaining to her peers the protections that such a union could offer them, and “[seeing their] eyes start to sparkle, like they went from being slaves to being human beings,” she remarked.


Namhee Lee, co-director of the Center for Korean Studies and a professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, explained that democratic unions had existed during the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea, despite being ruthlessly suppressed by the authoritarian regime. In the 1980s, workers also began fighting to change company-friendly unions (referred to as "yellow unions") into democratic unions. As of 1987-88, close to 2,000 newly organized democratic unions had been established in South Korea. Workers also won a considerable wage increase after a months-long protest called "The Great Labor Struggle" (1987).

One audience member asked Kim Jinsook how her activism had changed after collaborating with celebrities and non-labor groups on the Hope Bus project. That initiative bused protesters and supporters to the site of sit-ins like Kim’s in a show of solidarity.

“What I learned from them is that even though our situation was grave, radiating positive energy and having the ability to make activism seem fun and exciting makes people want to help and join the movement,” said Kim. “We realize now that the movement had to go beyond walls of the factory.

“The Hope Bus made us realize how important it is to build coalitions with disadvantaged citizens, sexual minorities and any other people who are also oppressed and marginalized,” she continued. During Kim’s 309-day protest atop the crane, more than 10,000 people visited the Hanjin shipyard on the Hope Bus to stand with her in solidarity.


South Korean activist Jinsook Kim discusses the ongoing fight for workers' rights. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

Changing attitudes towards workers’ unions

Still, support is far from universal for democratic workers’ unions in South Korea. “In a country that has a deep fear of communist elements, we must note the political context of anti-union sentiment,” said Kim.

“In Korea, you can be critical of the state, but not of capital [i.e., private enterprise],” she said “The conglomerates were untouchable. [But] the owner of Samsung has been jailed and we are now seeing unions organizing within Samsung,” she continued. “The ideology used to be that if Samsung was hurt, all Koreans were hurt, but that narrative is changing. There is hope.”

Looking forward, Jinsook Kim was optimistic that the results of the upcoming South Korean presidential election would benefit the workers’ rights movement. The impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-Hye on corruption charges at the end 2016 has pushed progressive, democratic leader Moon Jae-in to the top of the polls.

“The Korean people did something wonderful with their prolonged candlelight vigil [to protest President Park],” said Kim. “I know in America, the election went the other way and the results were not very progressive, but we are very much hopeful for the future in Korea,” she remarked.

“We learned to be skeptical of all politics”

Yira Hwang, who handled the logistics of Ms. Kim’s 309-day protest on the crane and led her on-the-ground support throughout the sit-in, spoke about the "yellow unions" which Kim and her peers deride throughout the film. Hwang explained that 2012 legislation allowed for a multiple union system in workplaces [i.e., more than one union was permitted in the same workplace, even when members did the same kind of work]. The outcome was to greatly reduce the leverage of Kim and other democratic union leaders.

“Companies now only have to negotiate with one workers’ union, so pro-company unions are instated,” she commented. “The company puts all workers on unpaid leave and then only negotiates with the laborers who are in these corporate-friendly unions,” she continued.

Hwang explained that political roadblocks such as the multiple union system were not new to workers’ rights activists in South Korea. “Throughout many years of organizing, we learned to be skeptical of all politics,” she said. “Under Korea’s most progressive president [Roh Moo-hyun, 2004-08]… a lot of shipyard workers were laid off or died in horrible conditions.” Hwang insisted, “We have to be vigilant about any government, even those who claim to be liberal or progressive.”

The activist noted that “socially marginalized groups like sexual minorities and contingent workers still have to deal with social pressures and issues, even if government policy changes.” As a result, said Hwang, such groups aim to create change outside of government institutions as well within them.


"The Island of Shadows" director Jeongkeun Kim. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.)

A director’s unanticipated message

Looking back at the film production, director Jeongkeun Kim said that he had not anticipated that he would feel so deeply and personally tied to the struggle for workers’ rights. The director also explained that the documentary’s message had changed over the course of its production. “I thought I was filming a story of victory and that my movie would end on a high note when Kim Jinsook came down,” he said.

“However, you see after the protest that all of these lives are still being destroyed and these workers still do not have protections. People are dying for and because of this movement, and many don't fully realize that lives are being lost,” he added.

“One final thing that I wanted to do with this film was challenge people’s negative perceptions of the [democratic union] movement,” continued Kim. “Many people think of the workers’ movement and they think of militancy. I wanted to show them why this militancy from union leaders was necessary.”

In conclusion, Jinsook Kim expressed her hope that the film would help those unfamiliar with the cause become sympathetic to the conditions faced by workers in South Korea and join them in solidarity. Regardless of who supports her activism, Kim did not anticipate that the fight for workers’ rights would lose traction in the country.

“We fight because it is a matter of dignity. And we will fight as long as the current capitalist system is in place,” she affirmed.




Published: Monday, May 1, 2017