A Letter from South Korea (Summer ‘95):
...I’ve written about the cycle of working class struggles that began with a student/worker occupation of a whole city, Kwangju, in 1980. The cycle of struggles lasted nearly seven years and faded when the military government made concessions for reforms, like direct elections. The weakness of revolutionaries (or wannabes) here is that they begrudgingly acknowledge the irrelevance of the gains of the liberal “democracy” movement, but they fail to effectively critique them by putting forward an internationalist politics. They fall into the trap of anti-imperialism/nationalism and mimic the rest of the political spectrum here by calling for national reunification, with no critique of national/ethnic identity. Korea is ethnically homogenous, and their historical isolation seems to have conditioned them to never look beyond their own borders. Its unfortunate because the working class in South Korea has such a remarkable consciousness of itself as a class, although this is only within the scope of their own nation-state.
Even now, workers demonstrate an inspiring militancy. Last fall (in 1994) striking telecommunications workers stormed an executive board meeting by crawling through air conditioning ducts, then bursting out of the ceiling into the meeting and yelling their demands. The pigs arrested all the rampaging workers from this action and threatened to throw them in prison for several years. This in turn inspired wildcat actions from their co-workers who demanded that all charges be dropped. It’s exciting stuff, but the unions are here, as everywhere, a fetter to working class initiative, and the only relevant actions occur outside — and sometimes against — the unions.
Surprising as well is the rising student militancy. This spring (1995) saw the widespread use of Molotov cocktails in street actions for the first time this decade. Student protesters also come to events equipped with iron pipes for hand-to-hand combat with the riot pigs. From news reports I thought that the students’ pro-worker rhetoric might mean that the student were about to really break things open again, but after witnessing my first demo here I realized that it’s all a “set piece” with the pigs tactically defining where, when and how the confrontations take place. Also, after I got my first ever whiff of tear gas, its effects bringing me to my knees, I felt how much control the pigs really have over these confrontations. It was like a football scrimmage where the stronger team (the cops) always maintains the upper hand with its superior control over territory. Sadly, these ritualized demos appear to have been the same for decades. The students’ politics stink, and this is matched by their lack of imaginative tactics. I’d hoped that at least some of them had read Sun Tzu...