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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Social categories) "working class" in Korea: Tan Pyông-ho interview

Hong Se-hwa, a Hankyoreh special reporter or something, who spent a long time in exile in France after being active in leftist circles getting involved in a spying accident (don't know how much actually happened after all) and returned to Korea some years ago, has interviewed the former head of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (민주노총, 전국민주노동조합총연맹), Tan Pyông-ho, who has served his share of prison sentences during his years as a labor activist. The interview (or discussion) was published in monthly Outsider, and summaried in Ohmynews. From the points of discussion, I take up only the question of working class (worker) consciousness, or the lack of it.

One point of discussion formulated by Hong Se-hwa is the following: "If there are 14 million workers, there should be 14 million worker's consciousnesses, according to Marx. Why isn't it so?" The following are the points coming up in the talk.

Korean partition; there has been a deliberate brainwashing (I think it's Hong who says that) by the state of those who should have a working class consciousness; anti-communism, cold war mentality, state security mentality (anboûsik), flunkeyism towards USA (ch'inmi sadae), which have been pressed upon the people through education.

This is Hong speaking, a member of a newspaper self-definedly struggling against the "newspaper market distortions": "아주 전일적이고 계획적으로 교육과정이나 수구세력에 의해서 장악된 매체에 의해 헤게모니 작동이 일어나면서 그야말로 사회구성원들에 대한 잘못된 인식이 심어졌기 때문에 그 속에서 탈의식화가 있기 전에는 1400만 노동자라고 외치는 것은 큰 의미가 없다는 거예요." The education and reactionary media have planted a distorted (wrong, 잘못된) consciousness concerning the parts of society (사회구성원), which has obstructed the formation of consciousness.

"So what should be done, concretely", asks Tan, and Hong answers: "It's in the education. Those with a working class identity have must have experienced (경험했을 것) a reverse turn from the consciousness formed in school. Before reversing the consciousness learned in middle and high school, there cannot be any working class identity (노동자 의식)." Hong, a good Marxist, offers the wrong consciousness as an answer why the ordinary people (sômin 서민), who worry about school and medical expenses and should therefore be interested in free education and medical services, are sort of frightened (두려움을 느낀다). "The reason I constantly talk about 'getting free from [wrong (my addition)] consciousness' is because I think it's so important."

It's a very good question to ask why the working-class consciousness is so undeveloped in South Korea. The situation with North Korea surely explains a lot: when the ideological and military enemy is the other half of the same nation, which professes to be a workers' state (not only, byt mainly), the concept of worker, nodongja, could not become a normal social category. Nodongja is not used as a qualifier in the manner of West European countries for example; instead of "working-class areas" there are "ordinary people's areas" (sômin chiyôk) or "places not well off". I've listened to a lot of talk about Korean society, and no-one has ever used "worker" for disadvantaged people, or for people whose interests are at odds with the rich. Of course one reason to that may be that none of the people that I hanged around with did manual wage labor (but most did manual self-employed labor). Leftist-progressive teachers' union has been claiming (is it still done?) a worker's status, but those who are performing individual nogada* (toil, hard physical labor) are not interested of that consciousness and status. As a Marxist Hong thinks that there is a correct working class consciousness, which the Korean laborers have failed to achieve, not leaving much room for personal choice (in a scholarly writing it should be 'personal agency') or people's ability to form their own consciusnesses and choose their own sides.

Rice mill (pangakan) keeper (sajang*) at work. (c) AL 2001

On the other hand, it's a bit hypocritical to advocate adopting a worker's consciousness of these people who wouldn't send their children to a factory. Tan Pyông-ho is a real worker, Hong Se-hwa far from it, even though he used to drive a cab in Paris for some time. But won't be doing it in Seoul, as he doesn't need to. So given the social and cultural conditions in South Korea, the forming of working-class identity already in school (in the manner of England described in Paul Willis' Learning to Labour. How working-class kids get working-class jobs) is not going to happen, even at the relatively good conditions that the workers in key industries have been able to achieve.

One can also ask if any "elevation of consciousness" would happen in case the Democratic Labor Party increases its share of votes and gets someone into the parliament. My hunch is that it wouldn't, at least in a considerable degree, as the KDLP doesn't seem to be that tainted by smell of labor. (I can be wrong as well, isn't KDLP doing best in places like Pohang, where there are big concentrations of manufacturing industry.)

(*) Nogada is one of those Japanese-originating terms which are quite common in daily use but excluded from any standard language and even dictionaries, which do print for example a good variety of profanities. On the other hand, a huge amount of words coined from Chinese characters in Japan thrives well in Korea, and it would be very difficult (impossible) to do without them, so we don't see much attempts at language purification there. Nogada comes from the japanese dokata (土方), non-skilled construction worker, and perhaps it's mainly used at construction sites in Korea, but I've heard it used a lot for a hard work in general. (Google search on this - ended up linking the whole stuff...)

Sajang (社長) is another Japanese-originating word, and it is both a very common title from keepers of rice mills to owners of big businesses and a totally accepted part of standard Korean. In fact I think sajang must be the most common occupation in Korea... (A correction: the above link to the Standard Korean Dictionary tells that 社長 was already in use during Chosôn for a kind of an official, but I still maintain that the present use stems from Japan.)

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