Hyung-A Kim on “Korean Skilled Workers”

The Korean case of national development is an outstanding one. South Korea rose from one of the poorest countries in the world to the twelfth largest economy in terms of gross domestic product with innovative technology (innotech) development, which ranks globally in the top three countries. Although not entirely without its flaws and idiosyncrasies, Korea has indeed succeeded in a dual industrial and democratic revolution together with innotech development within just six decades since the mid-1960s, surviving several traumatic global financial crises, including the Asian financial crises in 1997 and 2008.

Some of Korea’s large family-owned conglomerates, or chaebŏls, in particular, have become the world’s preeminent manufacturing brands. Samsung Electronics’ smartphones, Hyundai Motors’ automobiles, Hyundai Heavy Industries’ shipbuilding, LG’s electronic home appliances, and various Korean telecommunication brands, not to mention K-pop and cosmetics, all boast global reputations and associated market power. Chaebŏls thus quite rightly feature in developmental literature on Korea.

Unlike the prominent chaebŏls, Korea’s highly disciplined and technologically savvy skilled workers are little known, other than for their union militancy that has branded them a “labor aristocracy” and an object of social criticism for their collective “selfishness.” Affiliated with the radical Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, king of unions in the country, the Korean skilled workers’ unions have in fact become one of the most powerful forces. They, in the eyes of the Korean public, pursue only power and vested-interests in the name of “progress” in Korea’s highly polarized society today.

Herein lies a new narrative that I tell in Korean Skilled Workers: Toward a Labor Aristocracy, a story that recounts not only their critical contribution to South Korea’s rapid development but also their controversial roles in Korea’s democratic working class movement and its current economic status in the world.

My book is the first comprehensive study of Korea’s first generation of skilled workers in the heavy and chemical industries (HCI) sector, tracing the intriguing transformation of the skilled workers’ collective image and character, which have dramatically changed over more than four decades since the early 1970s. This story involves their socio-political trajectory of dramatic transformation, tracking how they initially became patriotic and obedient “industrial warriors” of the Korean state-led HCI program since the 1970s, and then changed into self-proclaimed “Goliat warriors” during South Korea’s democratic transition from 1987 to the early 1990s.

During this period, the first generation of Korean skilled workers in the HCI sector represented the democratic labor union movement and the solidarity movement of the Korean working class in their partnership with radical university students and intellectuals. The book then shows how they finally became a “labor aristocracy” by consolidating their collective status in Korea’s dual labor market as regular workers at large HCI firms. Since the 2000s, they have become a distinct class of a labor aristocracy in Korean society.

In this book I have challenged hitherto prevalent approaches to the study of the Korean case of development by analyzing the lived experience of Korea’s first generation of skilled workers, speaking directly to several dozens of skilled workers and many prominent leaders of the various skilled workers’ labor movements and unions, and corporate CEOs, among others, including academics, journalists, and labor experts. I analyzed newly declassified sources from Korea’s presidential and national archives, among other internal documents, as well as data on Korean workers’ views on the role of unions taken from surveys conducted in 1978, 1987, and 2005. I also conducted in-depth interviews during 2014 and 2015 to obtain up-to-date information on the individual situations and perspectives of HCI workers. This book alerts us to the need to rethink the conventional understanding of the East Asian model of development espoused by elite development theory (EDT) traditions.

This book is a must-read in coming to understand not only how necessary skilled workers are to enabling a nation’s development, but also how they as a newly emerged “labor aristocracy” need to move beyond collective selfishness, especially in this global era of labor market polarization between precarious workers and highly-paid regular workers in many developing and advanced countries throughout the world.

Hyung-A Kim is associate professor of Korean history and politics at the Australian National University. She is author of Korea’s Development under Park Chung Hee: Rapid Industrialization, 1961–1979. Her new book Korean Skilled Workers: Toward a Labor Aristocracy is available now.