Female Workers’ Struggles in South Korea: 1970’s

Informal Life Politics in the Female Workers’ Struggles in South Korea: 1970–1979

Yonjae Paik

Background and Research Questions

The status of the 1970s’ generation of female factory workers in South Korea’s labour history is somewhat perplexing. On the one hand, they are regarded as the torchbearers of Korea’s democratic labour union movement, constituting as they did the great majority of participants in the labour struggles during the darkest period of the military regime’s political repression.[i] The female factory workers’ involvement in the labour movement was extraordinary, especially considering that they were mostly very young, unmarried women away from home for the first time. Their active struggles contrasted strongly with the male workers’ corruption, lethargy, and collaboration with the government during the same period. Furthermore, they freed themselves from the traditional image of the docile Asian woman[ii] and laid the foundation of the 1980s’ labour union movement.[iii]

 j1Figure 1. The police arrest the female workers of YH Trading from the office of Shin-Min Party where 187 workers protested against the sudden shut-down of the factory.[iv]

In spite of the prominence of the female factory workers in union activities in the 1970s, their struggles were also criticised for “lacking ideology”[v] and being focused upon economic concerns within individual workplaces.[vi] In fact, the labour movement led by male workers in the 1980s emerged in reaction against this very criticism of the movement of the 1970s, and activists in the 1980s were at pains to declare the discontinuity of the two periods. Such attitudes originated from the differences between the two decades’ labour movements. In the 1980s, in contrast to the 1970s, male workers in the large chaebol-affiliated[vii] factories came to the forefront of the labour movement. More importantly, these male workers were led by elite workers[viii] in the heavy and chemical industries, where a high level of skills was required. In addition, former intellectuals who devoted themselves to the labour movement played an important role in the creation of the student-worker alliance which characterised the 1980s’ union movement. From the perspective of these elite male workers, the female workers’ struggles, which were rooted in the workers’ everyday lives, were considered beneath notice, unless they involved militant union struggles that directly defied state power.

Behind these conflicting assessments of the female factory workers’ struggles, as the foundation of the 1980s’ labour movement or as the regrettable past with only limited achievements, lies the multifaceted nature of the female factory workers’ struggles. The complexity of their struggle partly originates from the multiple repressions experienced by these women, stemming from both the authoritarian state and patriarchal society. The state’s active mobilisation of female workers’ labour relied on the creation of a modern identity of pillars of exports and dutiful daughters who performed their roles in the nation’s modernisation project. The reinvention of patriarchal tradition as well as the Cold War situation facilitated the state’s monopolisation of the representation of female factory workers. Militarism combined with familialism to shape the image of the female factory workers as soldiers as well as daughters, while the state became the chief commander and chief patriarch of a ‘barracks nation’.

  j2Figure 2. Park Geun-Hye, then the daughter of the president Park Chung Hee encourages a female worker.[ix]

 The official reality of pillars of exports and dutiful daughters invented by the state was intended to control the female workers’ public and private lives and discipline them as a docile and diligent workforce. On the one hand, the government’s praise of the workers’ sacrifice was used to control their mind-set by describing workers as voluntarily undergoing hardship for the prosperity of the nation. At the same time, any deviation from that official reality was penalised as threatening national security. Considering the conditions in which these female workers lived and worked, with little space to make their own voices heard, my first question is this: ‘What was the nature of the female factory workers’ everyday struggle?’ More specifically, I ask, ‘In what context did the 1970s’ female factory workers’ everyday lives inside and outside of the workplace become political?’

 j5 j4 j3

Figure 3. Female factor workers in minjung art.[x]

The second source of the conflicting assessments of the female workers’ struggles was the multiplicity of the female workers’ identity, which was reflected in their struggles. For these women, their identity as ‘worker’ was not the only one realised in their everyday lives. In the struggles that emerged in their everyday life activities, they realised diverse identities as daughters, sisters, friends, and sometimes students at night schools. Their approach to addressing the difficult conditions of their lives contrasted with the organised labour union movement of the late 1970s, which emphasised the role of female factory workers as militant union members above all else. As such, while later praise of the female workers’ struggles would emphasise the individual female worker’s resistance in situations far more disadvantageous than those of male workers, the criticism tends to judge their achievements from the perspective of the 1980s’ well-organised political union movement.

In fact, most of the research on the 1970s’ female workers’ struggles has focused on union organisation, such as the efforts to protect unions from the state’s repression or to reinstate former union activists who lost their jobs.[xi] Otherwise, the female workers’ struggles in their everyday lives have not been considered as political, nor have they drawn significant attention from those who record the female workers’ stories. There seems to have been a crossroads when the movement departed from the workers’ everyday lives, and thus there is a disjuncture where labour history departs from labour movement history. Hence, in this research, I also ask: ‘How different was the politics of the female workers’ everyday lives from organised union politics, and how did they interact?’

By addressing these questions, I contribute to a revaluation of the 1970s’ female factory workers’ struggles. While the previous literature has mainly concentrated on the organised union movement, I shed light on the stories of ordinary workers by investigating the political nature of the struggles in their everyday lives. As such, my emphasis on the significance of the female workers’ informal life politics supplements the existing research that has mainly maintained male and elitist perspectives. I provide a theoretical framework to understand the differences between informal life politics and an organised social movement to highlight the distinction between labour history and labour movement history. Realising such a difference is also important in the contemporary context, given that female workers are still marginalised in both state welfare and the mainstream union movement in Korea.

The Politics of Everyday Life in the South Korean Context: Informal Life Politics

The concept of the politics of everyday life in the East Asian context, or more specifically in the South Korean context, is not fully interchangeable with existing concepts of survival politics,[xii] everyday politics,[xiii] or nonmovement.[xiv] In particular, networks among female factory workers under a patriarchal society where women were excluded from certain public spheres, the active use of state-led identity politics to mobilise workers, and the role of intellectuals in building a worker-student alliance in the process of democratisation contributed to creating a unique situation. Most of all, the characteristics of the ‘Total Cold War’ in East Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s, such as ideological confrontation, military threat, mass education, and heavy industrialisation, were formative in the South Korean context.[xv]

First, women’s societies in general are often suggested to have different relationship patterns among members than men’s societies.[xvi] For instance, Hardy-Fanta (1993) suggests that women’s social relationships are more horizontal, personal, and involved in the private sphere of life, while men’s social relationships are more hierarchical and official, and differentiate more between private and public lives. Such relationships among women are often understood as gender-specific and therefore called sisterhood. Jiemeihui, as described by Honig (1986), are one example of such a horizontal female society that became central to workers’ everyday lives. In the Korean case, the female factory workers created somoim (‘small group’ in Korean), which were spaces of autonomy as well as resistance.

Second, as in the Japanese case, the Korean state played an active role in mobilising the female workforce. Unlike in the Chinese situation (Honig, 1986) where the state’s role in the mobilisation was not significant, in Meiji-era Japan and in South Korea in the post-Korean War period, the modern nation and its citizenship were established (or re-established) by the state. Rapid industrialisation was critical in the nation-building process, and familialism was reconstructed and incorporated into a newly invented citizenship. As shown by Tsurumi (1990) and Kondo (1990), patriarchal familialism and patriotism were combined to create a hierarchical system to facilitate state-led economic development.

This is where the formation of collective identity comes into play in the context of female workers’ everyday lives in Korea and Japan, because the state aimed to direct what to do by defining what to be. Moreover, the influence of the state in people’s everyday lives was even greater in the Korean case, because the military regime intervened in people’s lives in the process of post-war nation building. The establishment of a militarised social order justified by a belief in the imminent threat from the north gave the state in South Korea extraordinary power. Therefore, in the Korean context, the state’s mobilising force in the female factory workers’ everyday lives makes the nature of their struggles more complex, because in Korea, the female workers’ lives were as much influenced by the state’s mobilisation as they were by patriarchal culture, which they themselves were mobilised to shore up.

Finally, the alliance between workers and intellectuals played a central role in the struggles of Korean workers. Korean intellectuals and students, especially those from the most prestigious universities, began to engage in the labour movement starting in the early 1970s. Either individually or through missionary organisations, they focused on social justice and industrial democracy.

Female factory workers, who for a time led the workers’ struggles in the 1970s, became relatively invisible during the rise of the organised labour union movement in the 1980s, which was dominated by male workers in the large heavy and chemical industries. The disappearance of female workers in the discourse of the labour movement raises the question of whether such a disappearance was driven by the differences between the nature of struggle based on informal life politics and the nature of struggle based on contentious politics. In other words, the labour movement in the 1980s may have neglected the informal life politics of the 1970s’ female workers because their informal life politics lacked the elitist characteristics of mobilisation.

Overall, the politics of everyday life lies in an ambiguous area where people’s activities cannot be clearly interpreted as expressing resistance.[xvii] Such ambiguity can be a strength for those who cannot form an organised social movement, while it spurs researchers to search for more subtle and complex answers. The politics of everyday life needs to take account of historical, cultural, and economic contexts. For example, Bayat’s (1997, 2010) concept of ‘atomised individuals’ as one of the conditions for nonmovement is not relevant to Korea, because it neglects existing informal networks and historical subcultures. At the same time, the process of individuals coming to share a common position is not mentioned by Bayat (1997, 2010).

Informal life politics requires in-depth analyses of everyday lives woven by individuals’ rational and emotional actions in response to external forces. Informal life politics does not always lead to collective social movements, not only due to the presence of state repression, but also due to the inherent heterogeneity of people’s responses. The persistence of such heterogeneity in resisting external forces – whether the state’s or a social movement’s – that aligns everyday activities with a collective orientation, is the essence of the nature of an individual’s autonomous space and informal life politics. Lastly, informal life politics becomes visible only when the local context is understood. In this project, the specificities of the Korean context will be explained through an analysis of the contest over the identity of the female factory workers as defined by the state, the union movement, and the female workers.



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Chun, Soon-Ok. (2004). Kkŭnnaji Anhŭn Sidaŭi Norae: 1970yŏndae Han’guk Yŏsŏngundonge Taehan Saeroun Charimaegim. Seoul, Korea: Han’gyŏresinmunsa.

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[i] Hagen Koo (2001, p. 92).

[ii] Soon-Ok Chun (2004, p. 18).

[iii] G. E. Ogle (1990, p. 86).

[iv] Dong-A Ilbo 11 August 1979

[v] Geum-Su Kim and Hyŏn-Ch’ae Pak (1985, p. 19).

[vi] In Chŏng (1991, p. xiii).

[vii] Chaebol refers to family-owned business conglomerates in Korean.

[viii] I use the term ‘elite’ to indicate the approach of the 1980s’ union movement, not to describe the leaders or the male workers as elites. Specifically, I relate this term to the process of mobilisation in the organised movement. The union leaders in the 1980s had a superior capacity to organise and sustain the union movement because they were highly skilled and male workers in large factories where they could mobilise the support of a good number of workers. In addition, some of the leaders were intellectuals or white-collar workers who regarded the labour movement as a political or ideological struggle.

[ix] ‘Sweat of female workers builds the nation’, Kyunghyang Shinmun (2 June 1978).

[x] Minjungmunhwaundongyŏbŭihoe (1985).

[xi] For example, see Ok-Ji Lee (2001) and Kyŏng-Sun Yu (2011), among others.

[xii] Hardy-Fanta (1993).

[xiii] Kerkvliet (2002, 2005).

[xiv] Bayat (2010).

[xv] Morris-Suzuki, ‘Thoughts from First Workshop’, Survival Politics blog (July 2013, https://survivalpolitics.wordpress.com/news/workshop/).

[xvi] Hardy-Fanta (1993, p. 188).

[xvii] McAdam et al. (2009, p. 271).

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