[Column] Knowing S. Korea social movements’ strength

Posted on : 2009-06-24 12:16 KST Modified on : 2009-06-24 12:16 KST
Hong Se-hwa, Planning Editor

There is an expression about futility in Korea that refers to “breaking a rock with an egg.” By focusing on the intended result and not the process, the saying suggests that a large rock has an inner strength that neither eggs nor small stones possess to break it. However, there is no stone that cannot be hollowed out by falling water, nor is there a rock that cannot be cracked open by a tree root. What we must realize is that the social changes desired by the disadvantaged in society have to be based in possibility rather than certainty. There is no way that capital and state authority invested with tremendous might will admit the certainty of social change. Too much emphasis on this certainty could easy bring about the danger of losing even the possibility that remains for us. When we act, we must note the possibility that the “rocks might break” rather than the certainty that “rocks must break.”

Possibility instead of certainty also means the possibility of a “less awful world” rather than a “better world.” Called the masters of all creation, humans still engage in war. This does not mean we must fall into despair, however, for although it may only be a small minority of people who live in search of a humane world, it is the result both of an unending search for and actions made towards a less awful society amid pessimistic conditions and prospects.

Let’s take the Samsung chaebol as it presents us with the ugly face of capitalism as an example. Even with the swift wealth and managerial transfer assisted by a tax loophole and an inheritance tax of only 1.6 billion Won, even with masses of workers contracting leukemia, even with the illegal real-time cell phone tracing of workers’ movements by an unidentified person at Samsung SDI, the Samsung chaebol remains unmoving like a vast rock. Even when the Samsung “X-file” surfaced suggesting Samsung has been bribing ranking officials at the Prosecutor’ Office and former chief legal affairs team director lawyer Kim Yong-chul made a confession about Samsung’s corruption and irregularities, there was not the tiniest crack to be seen in that rock.

The “business-friendliness” of the Lee Myung-bak administration has spawned the contradiction of “killing workers” through the “consecration of job positions,” and the scenes of the Yongsan tragedy and Ssangyong Motors testify to the state of public welfare that this is said to be preserving. This must not end with the words “power has gone over to the markets.” We cannot overlook the ugly reality of anti-social capital. For the powers that be to go on about “anti-business sentiments” while demanding accommodation to “anti-social capital” is nothing more than a confession of their anti-social nature.

Around ten years ago, an official from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU, Minju Nochong) visited France’s Solidaires Unitaires Democratiques (SUD) trade unions, and cited the Samsung chaebol’s adherence to a no-union policy while giving an account of the difficulties faced by South Korea’s labor movement. Upon hearing this, a woman activist with SUD asked, “So do the more than 600,000 members of the KCTU not boycott Samsung products?” We were unable to reply. Has our consciousness been so planned and ingrained into us that we are unaware that the possibility for social change lies with us? Or have we been too caught up in the logic of not trying to break a rock with an egg?

It has been 20 months since Samsung began its boycott of advertisements in the Hankyoreh and meanwhile, Hankyoreh readers do not boycott Samsung products. This asymmetry conjoins in a single root together with the asymmetry of organized workers who do not think twice about buying products from Samsung, which does not recognize a labor union. As powerful as capitalism may be, it cannot function if workers refuse to work, through a strike, or if consumers refuse to consume, through a boycott. This is why, instead of losing heart at the Supreme Court judgment we have waited 13 years for, we should instead strengthen the growth of our roots and lift up our small stones for a boycott.

We must not stop at pointing at the regression of democracy. Rather, we must engage in non-violent direct action. We cannot simply wait until election day. The National Campaign to Protect the Media Rights of Consumers has opened up a new horizon for South Korea’s civic and social movements. Even if it does not reap rewards in the short term, it is clear that it will be a stepping stone towards moving us beyond a great wall.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

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