South Korean unions shout ‘red scare’ amid North Korean spying claims | News about labor rights

Seoul, South Korea – For the past six years, Kim Joo-hwan has worked as what is known in South Korea as a “substitute driver.”

He drives people home in their cars when they can’t because they’ve been drinking.

Using Kakao Mobility, an arm of one of South Korea’s largest technology companies, customers can request that a sober driver meet them and drive them and their car home safely, saving on the cost of overnight parking and the hassle of returning the car the next day.

Like the growing number of gig workers who rely on platform-based services like Kakao, Kim is involved in organizing for better working conditions and wages.

Last year, he helped form a union to negotiate with Kakao management for better terms, such as paying drivers for the time they spend meeting with a client.

But now Kim feels he is watching his government, led by conservative President Yoon Seok-yeol, resort to an old tactic he remembers from his days as a young worker in the 1980s: calling trade unionists communists working on behalf of North Korea.

This month, South Korea’s spy agency raided the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), a leading left-wing umbrella group representing workers in several industries, amid allegations that union officials had illegal contacts with North Korean agents.

Local media reported that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) suspected that a number of KTCU officials had met with North Korean spies in China, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The KCTU condemned the raids as an attempt to suppress the labor movement, vowing to “fight the violence of the Yoon Suk-yeol regime.”

“This current government is trying to divide workers, to widen the differences between different types of workers,” Kim told Al Jazeera.

“They know that if workers unionize, they can cause big losses for companies,” he added.

Under South Korean law, citizens are prohibited from contacting North Korean people or organizations unless they receive permission from the government.

The country’s controversial National Security Act bans a range of activities, including expressing sympathy or support for North Korea, which fought a bloody war with South Korea from 1950 to 1953. The conflict ended in a stalemate that remains unresolved to this day.

Critics have long argued that the law is vaguely worded and could be easily abused by South Korean prosecutors and intelligence agents to corner left-wing critics.

Military strongmen Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled South Korea during its rapid industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s, routinely cited the threat from North Korea as a pretext for suspending civil and political rights.

Park Chung-hee
Former South Korean President Park Chung-hee (center) cited North Korea’s threat to suspend civil and political rights [File: AP]

More recently, conservative presidents including Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, who ruled from 2008 to 2017, have used similar rhetoric to limit speech and activism deemed pro-North Korean.

Yoon, a former prosecutor general who had no political experience before taking office last May, has accused the labor movement of being a hotbed of corruption, singling out unions as one of three sources of “evil” hindering the country’s development.

To workers like Kim, recent raids by the NIS, whose director is appointed by the president, seem like the latest iteration of a well-worn tactic.

“Even if there were individual members who actually had contact or relations with the North Korean government, treating the entire union as a spy organization should be avoided,” Park Kyung-sin, a law professor at Korea University, told Al Jazeera.

“Until now, some right-wing politicians have been doing it, and I hope it won’t really affect the work of the Yoon administration,” Park said.

The labor movement of South Korea has long been known for the extremely left-wing tone of its activism.

Major organizations such as the KCTU and the Korea Metalworkers’ Union often hold rallies advocating typically leftist causes, including opposition to joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, which fought North Korea in the Korean War.

Unions oppose the drills on the grounds that they only serve to antagonize North Korea and could increase the risk of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula, while arguing that South Korea should seek dialogue with Pyongyang instead.

In 2012, the KCTU voted to sever its affiliation with the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a smaller leftist party, amid controversy over the pro-North Korean views of some of its members.

Critics of the KCTU argue that, as a union, it should only deal with workplace matters, such as wage negotiations and advocating for workers who have grievances with their employers.

South Korea’s pro-business media have also called union members selfish for pursuing collective action over the past year, as the country struggles to restart a sluggish economy after the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At a time of economic crisis, instead of sharing hardships, unions are waging an extreme struggle to meet the demands of their members,” the right-wing newspaper Donga Ilbo recently published in an editorial.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has accused the country’s trade union movement of being a significant source of corruption [Daewoung Kim/Reuters]

The unions claimed that the Yoon administration was trying to scapegoat them and distract from its own mistakes. The KCTU noted that the raids on its offices came shortly after Yoon caused controversy during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

During a meeting with South Korean soldiers stationed in the country, Yoon said the UAE has an “enemy” in Iran, analogous to South Korea’s antagonistic relationship with North Korea. Iran accused Yoon of interfering in Iran-UAE relations and summoned the South Korean ambassador to Tehran to protest Yoon’s ill-advised comment.

It wasn’t Yoon’s first mistake while on an official trip abroad. While in New York last year, Yoon was caught on camera appearing to use foul language when referring to American politicians after having a brief meeting with President Joe Biden.

South Korea’s presidential office denied that Yoon had used any foul language, claiming that a local broadcaster had misrepresented his words.

Kim, a gig worker, is now working to organize workers to lobby politicians for changes to state labor laws that would require companies to recognize contract workers as employees and prevent companies from holding workers legally liable for losses incurred during strikes.

“I and other platform workers are saying that we can no longer live under this system,” Kim said. “We have no choice but to fight for something better.”

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