Korea: Hunger strikes, head-shavings and global solidarity

This article appears on Stronger Unions, a news and comment blog about the UK trade union movement, managed by the TUC.

South Korea’s progress from dictatorship to democracy has not been an easy or straightforward one, as the recent Presidential election has shown. The good news was that for the first time in history, the Koreans had elected a woman, Park Guenhye, to lead their country. The bad news is that she’s the daughter of the former dictator, Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1963 to 1979.

Another indication of the uneven character of the transition to democracy as been the ongoing fight by trade unions for recognition and rights. One of the Korean unions still fighting for the most basic kind of recognition is the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU).

The government has refused to recognize the KGEU, and has sacked 137 of its members, including its president and general secretary, charging them with being members of an “illegal organisation” (the union). The union is demanding that all those workers be re-hired and the union recognised. They’re demanding that President-elect Park make real her campaign commitment to genuine social dialogue.

On 15 January this year, KGEU president Kim Jungnam announced his intention to go on indefinite hunger strike. He began the strike on the street opposite the offices of the transition team for the new president-elect.

A little bit more than two weeks into the strike, Kim collapsed and an ambulance was called. He was taken to hospital and is still recovering.

Other union leaders immediately stepped in, and all the KGEU vice presidents themselves went on unlimited hunger strike.

This was followed by a uniquely Korean form of protest – union leaders publicly shaved their heads in protest.

The struggle by the KGEU has attracted considerable interest internationally, and has won the support of Public Services International (PSI), the global union federation representing 20 million government workers in 150 countries. PSI general secretary Rosa Pavanelli has released a video statement of support for the workers.

In Britain, UNISON has spoken out strongly in support of Kim and the KGEU.

Meanwhile, over 10,000 rank-and-file trade unionists have signed up to support the campaign on LabourStart which appears in more than twenty languages.

The KGEU has been strengthened by all the international support and has just released a video by Kim thanking all those outside the country who expressed their solidarity.

The struggle continues.

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