Massive railway strike ends as Park administration faces new challenges

By Daniele Pestilli on December 30, 2013
Protests at Seoul Plaza. Image credit:

Starting on December 9th, about 8,700 workers from the Korea Railroad Corp. union went on strike to protest the government’s recent plan to establish a subsidiary for KORAIL’s new bullet train, in the Suseo district of Seoul.

The plan was widely believed to be the precursor to train service privatization and large-scale lay offs.

Several weeks later, by December 28th, the continuing protests conflagrated to massive proportions, as citizens gathered in the cities of Seoul, Busan, Changwon, Daejeon among others.

According to the Korean daily, Hankyoreh, some 100,000 people including students, lawyers and regular citizens partook in the strike, which had by then acquired a broader meaning: not only to oppose railway privatization, but also to put and end to labor oppression, protest against Park Geun-hye’s election manipulations and call for true democracy to be restored.

Many groups joined throughout the day, including the MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society and the Korea Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union.

According to a report by Global Voices Online, around 13,000 police were stationed to control the protests.

Today, South Korea’s largest news agency, Yonhap News, released an article stating that unionized rail workers agreed to end the strike upon the government’s decision to form a subcommittee that will prevent the privatization of rail services.

The subcommittee is set to be composed of “the same numbers of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri and the main opposition” and it will have the potential to form an advisory panel with KORAIL as well as other experts. However, union leaders remain skeptical of said assurance after this head-on collision with its management as well as the government.

The Korea Herald explains that relationships between the union and rail company soured as the protests came to an end. Union leader Kim Myung-hwan is currently under police investigation, and at the height of the strike, KORAIL threatened to expel 490 union members, filed complaints against 198 and relegated 25 to a disciplinary committee.

Although the strike has ended in theory, it continues in practice as the union grapples with unresolved issues such as the punishment of its leaders and harsher measures that will be put in place to ensure the debt-stricken KORAIL does not suffer ulterior losses.

Park's challenges

Large social challenges loom as the 61-year-old conservative President, Park Geun-hye, enters her second year in office.

The rail protests, which were joined by students, workers, lawyers and teachers, were also a protest against her rigged election (with the help of the Korean National Intelligence Service), her undemocratic modus operandi and her broken promises.

As the Korea Herald articulates, Park’s creative economy pledge has seen little progress and her welfare pledge was put on the backburner. The President’s massive crackdown on labor unions on December 22nd, the largest in South Korea’s post-dictatorship history, proves her determination to crush democratic organizations, much like her father had done during his martial rule in the 60s and 70s.

The railway protests fall into the same domain as the protests against the Park administration because her party has long advocated steps towards privatization, which are also underway in other sectors such as the health sector. In fact, on December 15th this year, around 20,000 doctors carried out a protest against medical privatization.

Privatization of the medical industry would allow hospitals to open for-profit businesses, potentially corrupting the entire South Korean medical industry by shifting the focus from medical practice to money-making.

President Park Geun-hye has often been criticized for her strict my-way-or-the-highway approach to negotiations and politics. She is currently facing resistance by people from all walks of life, including Protestant orders that have joined factions of the Catholic Church and Buddhists in declaring Park as an “enemy of the nation,“ as her approval rating plummets to the lowest level since her inauguration.

During the railway protests, KTU General Secretary Byeon Seong-ho said, “If the administration does not take its knife from the necks of the workers and the people, we will have to become knives and bring this administration down.”