Thursday, June 23, 2005

The New Minjung?

Here's something I just wrote for Korean Quarterly and which paints a more general picture of migrant rights in South Korea. It should be out next week in a better-edited version, but only in print I think.

Migrant Workers in South Korea: The New Minjung?
By Jamie Doucette

The Korean word minjung translates roughly into English as ‘the people’ or ‘masses.’ By adding a simple suffix (-chok), minjung also becomes the adjectives ‘popular’ or ‘democratic.’ In the phrase minjung undong, minjung retains both senses and means ‘popular’ or ‘peoples movement’ and has two common usages: as descriptive phrase for a popular social movement; and the proper name of a particular social movement that began in the 1970s and continued to the democratic uprising of June 1987.

For the movement that carried its name, the word minjung represented people as both the victims and agents of history. The minjung were the broad, popular masses who bore the brunt of rapid industrialization but remained excluded from its material benefits. Like the dwarf in Cho Se-hui’s celebrated novella A Dwarf Launches a Metal Ball, they were stunted by poverty, toil, and lack of civil rights but had the potential for heroic acts if only they could be recognized.

To be of the minjung was to wear a mark of exclusion. At times, the minjung would experience a culmination of feelings of han or resentment at their situation and speak out in whatever ways possible, ranging from the self-immolation of Jun Tae-Il in 1971 that kicked off the democratic trade union movement, to the democracy protests in June 1987 that brought down the dictatorship. Protests and demonstrations such as these were called hanpuli, outpourings of han, and helped form the mythology of the minjung movement.

Though Korean citizens now enjoy a broad range of civil, political, and labor rights and improved standards of living, I’d like to argue that the collective suffering that once defined the life of the minjung today seems to shape the lives of a new group of people in contemporary South Korea. These people are the undocumented foreign workers who now toil in those jobs done by the minjung of the past, in the 3-D (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) industries where, like the minjung, their toil seems endless and their struggles often go unrecognized.

Foreign labor in South Korea

Foreign labor is a relatively new import in South Korean, emerging shortly after the Seoul Olympics of 1988 and formally inaugerated with government’s Industrial Trainee System (ITS) established in 1992. Under the ITS, migrant workers were recruited overseas by a network of recruiting agencies assisted by the Korea Federation of Small and Mid-sized Businesses (KFSB) and entered the country to work as foreign trainees. Though not recognized as workers, these ‘trainees’ performed 3-D jobs under the ITS for only a fraction of what local workers were paid.

Many ‘trainees’ left their designated workplaces and began working illegally as undocumented workers in other factories, where, because of the demand, they could earn higher wages for the same work they did for ‘trainees’ rates. Many local workers were unwilling to perform these jobs and some had coined the term 3-D disease (3-D byeon) to describe the burden of overwork and stress they often suffered in these sectors. Thus, employers welcomed undocumented workers fleeing the trainee system with open arms.

Despite a runaway rate that reached as high as 60% of trainees per year, however, the trainee system was not reformed as one would expect but expanded to bring more and more workers into the country. Likewise, undocumented workers increased and soon became the clear majority of the migrant population while employers and government lawmakers remained reluctant to formally recognize their rights and the issues they faced.

Workplace accidents are common in 3-D jobs, and undocumented foreign workers in these sectors frequently suffered accidents for which they were rarely compensated. Whether or not workers were trainees, undocumented workers, or women trafiked into the country under the E-6 entertainer visa program, they had little recourse to the law because in all cases they were not considered to be legal ‘workers’ for the tasks which they were nevertheless performing.

By 1998, a number of NGO’s, church groups, and labor activists had banded together to form an umbrella organization, the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea (JCMK), to advocate on behalf of migrant workers. These groups, and, later, other migrant groups such as the Equality Trade Union Migrant’s Branch (ETU-MB), pressured the government to introduce a proper work-permit system, which it finally did in July 2003 when it passed the bill for a 3-year Employment Permit System (EPS).

The EPS bill was certainly a improvement from the trainee system, including provisions that granted migrant workers access to health insurance, minimum wage and formal protection under the Labor Standards Act for a period of three years. However, it was only offered to those workers whom had been residing in Korea for less than four years in order to discourage permanent settlements of migrant workers in the country.

The migrant’s rights movement saw this as the biggest betrayal. Half of the existing migrant population at the time was left without a deal and with no choice but to remain illegal if they hoped to remain in the country in order to work and save up money to send to their families back home or to repay the onerous recruitment costs that were associated with their induction into the trainee system to begin with. These were the workers whom been in the country the longest, who were more likely to have good relations with their employers, speak Korean, and feel a sense of belonging to the communities where they lived and worked were to be excluded.

Crackdown and protest

After passing the EPS bill, the government announced its largest crackdown effort to date, which began on November 16th 2003 and has continued on periodically since then. The original crackdown targeted some 150,000 undocumented workers, and in its first two months over 40,000 migrants either left voluntarily or were deported; at least nine migrants committed suicide in the first two weeks alone.

The crackdown was an unnecessarily violent process including physical assault by police and immigration officials on protests and rallies by migrants and raids on the public spaces where migrants often congregate in their host communities, provoking public outrage at the government’s heavy handed measures. Prominent migrant organizars -- Kabir Uddin, Samar Thapa, Anwar Hussain -- who established the Equality Trade Union and the Migrant’s Trade Union have all also been deported as the crackdown has continued into recent months.

During the recent crackdown, indefinite detention also became a serious issue for undocumented workers. Migrants are held in a jail or detention center before they are deported, and if they cannot raise enough money for a ticket home they are frequently held even longer. Migrants often languish in these jails waiting for employers to pay wages owed to them or for their friends and family to raise enough money to send them home.

In addition to garnering human rights complaints, the government’s crackdown was also largely ineffective in controlling the number of undocumented migrant workers, which has continued to increase over time -- today there are estimated to be some 200,000 undocumented workers in Korea. The increase in these numbers is largely due to constraints within the EPS bill that make it difficult for workers to renew their visas or change workplaces.

The new minjung?

In response to the November 2003 crackdown, the migrants’ rights movement began a nationwide sit-in on November 15th 2003. The longest (380 days) and most visible of which was the Equality Trade Union’s sit-in in front of downtown Seoul’s MyeongDong Cathedral, a historical site of refuge for dissidents in South Korea, and, coincidentally, a key site for the minjung movement of the eighties.

As an observer, this protest is what made me, personally, start to think about the comparision between the historic meaning of the minjung and today’s migrant workers. I have to admit that at first glance it seemed slighty ill-fitting as, historically, the minjung movement remained within the confines of Korean national identity, but gradually I warmed up to the comparision as I began to learn more about the minjung movment and its own particular understanding of poverty and oppression.

For example, in his famous poem Letter to the Tuman River, Ko Un directs his resentment at the national division of the country between North and South, as a contributing factor to the anonymous suffering of the minjung:

My sister dear, one hundred times dear, ever dear sister, suppose that you die up there one day and I down here? But that’s our people’s life, age after age, that kind of hidden, nameless death.

The feelings expressed here, though used for nationalist purposes, are largely concerned with fears and frustrations of anonymous suffering, of being a victim of violence and oppression without recognition or redress. Similar emotions are mobilized by Choe Se Hui in his novella A Dwarf Launches a Metal Ball to describe the sufferings of one family during the period of military dictatorship and rapid industrialization in the seventies.

Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell. But since the five of us lived in the hell, we dreamed of heaven: not a day passed without thoughts of heaven. Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost the battle.

These feelings of abandonment and anonymous suffering experienced by the minjung explain, in part, the selection of church sanctuary as a key site of engagement by both the minjung movment and contemporary migrant workers. Church sanctuary was the last site where they felt they could be defended as human beings. Their own lives had ceased to remain ‘sacred’ in the sense of a protection from harm and they felt that somehow the taboo against violating church sanctuary would protect them instead.

Better days to come?

My comparision between the migrant and the minjung is not meant to be absolute, but I think it is important to make the point that there is something particular in the minjung understanding of suffering that resonates with the way migrant workers are treated and I hope that this similar history or sensibility can be useful in forging a common basis for solidarity between Koreans and migrant workers. Just as the outpourings of han by the minjung brought down the military dictatorship, it is possible that the protests of Korean citizens and migrants themselves will change Korean policies toward undocumented workers.

There several reasons why I’m optomistic that this may be so. The first is that in recent years, the government has been more willing than in the past to respond progressively to the public protest it has garnered over the plight of migrant workers. The 200,000 or so migrants who are, temporarily, protected under the EPS have a handful of significant rights that allow them some access to the law, minumum wage, health insurance, and employment benefits. Migrant workers under the EPS experience oppression in many ways, such as long-term exclusion from settlement in Korea and everyday forms of cultural stigmatization and/or discrimination, but these workers do not share a similar fate as the minjung or undocument migrants for the time that their status is valid. For undocumented workers, however, their fate remains similar to the minjung in as much as they lack civil rights, are subject to the arbitrary excesses of the immigration police, and toil anonymously in their workplaces without legal recourse for abuses when they do occur.

Yet even for undocumented workers, there are a number of recent initiatives that look promising. Progressive lawmakers have been trying to introduce legislation that would see all migrants have access to a minimum level of health insurance regardless of their status. Other lawmakers are fighting for better recognition of undocumented workers’ civil rights so that if they do make a complaint to government institutions they will not be immediately deported or indefinitely detained while awaiting recourse; however, progress on these issues has been painstakingly slow.

In the absence of national policies recognizing the rights of undocumented residents, city and regional governments are increasingly trying to play a role. Many communities where migrants live and work have begun to organize cultural festivals aimed at fostering better integration of foreign workers into their communities. These festivals have gotten bigger over the years and on June 5th, 2005, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism held the largest to date, the “Migrants’ Arirang” at Seoul Plaza, in front of City Hall. Other alternatives to national policy have included doctors, lawyers, and educators devising their own ad hoc initiatives aimed at serving and integrating the undocumented into public institutions and host communities.

In conclusion, it seems that whether or not my comparison of undocumented workers with the minjung will continue to resonate in the future depends very much on whether these developments succeed or fail. As Korea continues to require foreign workers for its economy, the plight of undocumented migrant workers is bound to continue unless steps are taken to recognize their human rights. Only then will it be able to begin to tackle the other issues that are bound to arise with the sustained use of migrant labour, such as pressures for permanent settlement and the demand for citizenship. If these issues are not dealt with, feelings of han, or resentment, are bound to be left to accumulate, and to burst forth as protest and displays of hanpuli, seeking to restore to the anonymous victim of suffering the justice which they have been denied.


  1. Nicely done. You've dealt with some of these Korean concepts in regards to the migrant workers in past articles, though I hadn't realized the location of the protest (Myeongdong Cathedral) was what had sparked the idea in the first place. Nice to see you put it all together here.

  2. yeah, there are some good books on the history of the minjung movment, and a film that looks at the United Minjung Movement's occupation of that site. I forget how long it lasted. Actually some other minjung group (there were many) put out a good movie Kwangju, maybe in 1989, that I saw the other year.

  3. This is an older but good book on the subject.

    There is also a book that analyses Jun Tae Il's diary from the perspective of minjung theology that you might by interested in. It's even older. Then there are some other ones on historical antecedants of minjung identity, from donghak back to the Silla era.
    I wonder if kotaji studies this kinda stuff?


  4. Enjoyed the article a lot. The linking of the minjung movement with the contemporary migrant workers' movement is interesting. Although you have to be careful, I think, not to give the impression that the struggles of Korean workers are over and they're all now living the life of Riley (it would clearly be wrong to give this impression about Britain or Canada too). Obviously, though, some sites of struggle are more acute or urgent than others.

    Although I haven't looked at the history of the minjung movement closely, I have seen 'minjungism' from the perspective of Korean historiography. To me it represents an attempt to 'fudge' class relations that comes from a number of factors. Perhaps the most obvious are the influence of Stalinism on the Korean left and the perceived need to form a popular front against the military dictatorships; the strong nationalist tinge to the Korean left, dating back to the colonial period and reinforced by division; and the relatively large peasantry. All this led to the creation of an amorphous social category - not a social class in the sense of a Marxist analytical category, but rather an ideological concept that could be used in opposition to the ruling class's 'minjok'. I know that's a bit of a dry theoretical view - there's much more to it than that - minjung theology etc. One interesting thing I do know is that one of the originators of the concept was the anarchist Sin Ch'ae-ho (there's something on this in the book 'Colonial Modernity in Korea').

    I must admit that contemporary Korea is not my area of research at all. Hence the need to blog about it really. My 'real' work is on 19th century Korean economic history.

    I wonder if you're familiar with Kevin Gray's research? He's at Newcastle University and he's working on migrant workers' unions and the Korean labour movement in general. He made a very interesting presentation at the recent Korean Studies conference we held at SOAS.

  5. I enjoyed the article as well. It surely makes sense to apply minjung to the emerging migrant workers' movement and consciousness. For I've always seen the consciousness of one's position in history and potentiality for change as the defining characteristic of minjung, as opposed to seomin, the term for "people" that I've been dealing with more in my own research (on keepers of small businesses in a Seoul neighborhood) and which I also discuss in it at length and compare the two concepts a bit. Partly also due to the sphere of my own interest in Korea, I've for a longer time been of the opinion that the importance of minjung (as a concept) has been a bit overemphasized, and especially now it doesn't have the power it once had in certain circles. Actually, Kim Dae-jung who's been said to have used the minjung rhetoric earlier in his political career is I think mainly responsible for the current popularity of seomin as a political term...
    (I just read an entry at the Jinbonuri board which told that books with minjung in its title were strictly censored by jail authorities in the 1980s while "philosophy" (ch'ôrhak) books with a much more subversive contents easily passed.)

    By the way, it makes an interesting case to compare the Korean minjung to the same word in Japan (minchô); the social and political connotations of the word are similar, and its relation to the "sister concept" of sômin (Jap. shomin) as well – not surprising in the light of the Korean contemporary history. I've seen only English-language work on that though, Monumentalizing the Everyday: The Edo-Tokyo Museum by Jordan Sand in Critical Asian Studies 33:3 (2001). (I have it as pdf, in case.)

  6. Here’s a relatively long reply to the above comments that I’ll probably add more about later, I think I’ll post all these as a story in themselves to it is easier for readers to access without so much scrolling, so just refer to the main page from here. Jamie

    I agree with Kotaji in exercising caution in what one considers to be minjung or not. Hagen Koo considers it something as a proto-class identity used to unite disparate segments faciing similar oppressions during the military period and this kind of works because, in my view, legally speaking, these groups did form something of 'multitude' or a coherent groups of disparate actors in that they were excluded from proper legal recourse and where often easily killed or injured by the authorities in an anonymous kind of way. Beyond that, and after the military period, I think that more class specific language and identities as well as the language of rights and citizenship (simin) has replaced it as a better understanding of oppression, nonetheless when I think of the plight of irregular workers, migrant workers, sex workers, and other marginalized people, the minjung comparision still seems to unite them in that they are often excluded from both rights as labourers or citizens.

    Coincidentally, what I find in some interpretations of the minjung, and I may be going out on shaky ground here, is something similar to Giogio Agamben's Homo Sacer -- a difficult but usefull notion. Homo Sacer is a form of 'bare life' basically a living thing that can be 'killed but not murdered' as there ceases to be a form of taboo or law prohibiting it. Homo Sacer is 'sacred' in the sense of being simultaeniously outside and inside the law in the form of being an exception to the law. Agamben uses this for his own purposes to advance some thoughts on modern sovereign power but I won't go into that except to say that this 'sacredness' of homo sacer confuses some of our everyday associations with the word sacred. In my essay I actually get it wrong when I say that migrants and the minjung took refuge in the church because they ceased to be 'sacred' but what I really should have said was that they took refuge because they were 'sacred' in the sense of being easily subjected to arbitrary force without any form of recourse to the law. Sacred in that they were given over to be able to be sacrificed, killed but not murdered in the sense of it being a legal act of murder.

    Agamben uses the concept with examples from the holocaust to contemporary brain death (the schiavo case may be a good example here), as a similar legal form of exception -- deciding what is bare life and what isn't -- governs them both. This may raise some eyebrows here, but the same form of exception could be expanded to our understandings of any kind of life, from fetuses to kidneys, to animals, in that there is a threshold where force against them as a form of life is prohibitied or subject to conditions and where these forms of life are made political in terms of being subject to rights with a threshold established where force is allowed without the threat someone being charged with a violation. This exception has operated in the law and is a defining feature of sovereignty, who or what has rights and what doesn't ---the really 'political' aspect of it though is a what point the threshold is drawn, to mark a living, thinking, breathing being as bare life instead of a subject of rights is what really is at stake here when we look at victims of massacre, war, and overwhelming oppression. The fact that due to racism, xenophobia, or otherwise, in history someone can kill a whole person and not think of it as a 'person' in the sense of a murder but as bare life in the sense of the removal of a kidney or a toenail is, well, freaky. Nonetheless, in the case of brain death, abortion, assisted suicide, some form of exception is considered legitimate, but the threshold of which the exception is applied is something that still causes a great deal of controversy and rightfully so.

    The only example of this idea of homo sacer being applied to Korean history that I know is by Sonia Ryang when she describes the murder of Koreans after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Japan where some 10,000 koreans where killed afterwords by the police and other citizens, and she gets into some grisely comparisions in the manner that this happened as compared to the 5000 leftists that were actually 'murdered,' not simply killed as were the Koreans. I can't do the article justice here, so you look for it for further reference. Nonetheless, it may be the case that the Korean Paekjeong (outcastes) faced similar conditions as outsiders in Korean history, and some of the minjung at various moments in Korean history as well.

    For me, there are some correspondences that make migrants and the minjung almost like the homo sacer's in that they have no labor or civil rights, and it is very easy for them be abused, exploited, and sometimes killed without it appearing as such, they are kind of de facto homo sacer's but maybe not complete ones, so I may be guilty of exaggerating a bit, in that I don’t think that the above description of homo sacer can completely double with minjung, but definitely the fear and anxiety of an utterly nameless death, of becoming homo sacer, is a factor that seems to unite various descriptions of the minjung throughout Korean history, coupled, of course, with an understanding of the physical toil and oppression from overwork and other pressures of external force. This description of the minjung, once again, is very general, and I think that is why is has had so much currency in those periods when indeed these conditions approached the general experience of the popular masses: backwards from Kwangju, to the Yushin period of rapid industrialization, division, occupation, Dong Hak, and back even further if you consult some of the historical scholary sources.

  7. Oh, kotaji, I've seen some of Kevin Gray's work online, well just one paper on social unionism. I didn't know he was working on something about migrant worker's unions. Definitely someone to check out some more.

    Oh, as for influence of stalinism and popular fronts. I'd say that that minjungism predates stalinism and other forms of class understanding as an indeginous understanding of oppression and I still agree with Koo's analysis that it helped form some early understanding of class oppression by industrial workers and became an influential part of protest culture and tactics, however, its use as a protest tactic, especially in the eighties and even now if you think of the ubiquitous use peasant dance at rallies and demos, was certainly selected as a strategic tool by activists informed by a variety of political perspectives, from NL and PD (and they variant forms of marxism, marxist leninism, and maybe an occasional quasi-stalinism) to forms of populism, neo-populism, rightist anti-imperialism and so on...

    Thus, building on Antti's comment, the overemphasization of the category of the minjung may also be due to the influence of some of these perspectives in ways that may be a little out of date... who knows?

  8. Hello. I know this is an old post, but so I hope I can get a response. You mention that a version of the online article was published in Korean Quarterly. Do you have the citation info? I would like to cite your article and argument in a paper I'm currently working on and would prefer to use the print edition to the online blog.