restricted access 7. Labor Policy and Labor Relations during the Park Chung Hee Era
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As in most other areas, the Park Chung Hee era (Pak Chŏnghŭi) left a mixed legacy in labor policy and labor relations. On the one hand, his labor policy was successful in the sense that labor was effectively mobilized and harnessed to his industrialization program with minimal friction. Given that exportoriented industrialization depended heavily on the low-wage, hard-working, and disciplined labor force, the major objective of Park’s labor policy was to ensure such a favorable labor market for export-led industrial development. Labor supply was well maintained, manpower training was adequately performed, and wages were kept under control. More importantly, the Park government maintained a high level of industrial peace throughout the period of rapid economic growth until the end of the 1970s. Throughout this period, there was not a single occasion when any large-scale labor disturbance hampered export production. South Korea thus offered a very favorable investment climate for foreign capitalists. Both foreign and domestic capital were assured of industrial peace and of consistent state policies about labor issues. On the other hand, Park’s labor policy may be considered a failure from humanist and societal points of view. It was a highly authoritarian and repressive system. It systematically denied workers the right to organize and defend their interests collectively through representative organizations. Obsessed with economic growth, the Park administration turned a blind eye to the incredible degree of labor exploitation and abuse in the workplace and left no adequate outlets for workers to air their concerns. Thus, the system bred much disaffection and resentment among workers. An historical evaluation 7 Labor Policies and Labor Relations during the Park Chung Hee Era Hagen Koo Labor Policies and Labor Relations during the Park Chung Hee Era 123 of Park Chung Hee’s labor policies, therefore, depends on which side one takes—that of capital, labor, development, or economic justice. It was a good system from the capitalists’ point of view and from the viewpoint of economic growth. But it was a bad situation from the workers’ point of view, and from the human rights’ perspective. Considering this, it would be fair to regard Park’s labor policies as half success and half failure.1 From a long-term perspective, however, I would argue that the Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏnghŭi) government’s labor policy was largely a failure, and an unfortunate one. It was so, I contend, not simply because it was undemocratic and repressive, but also because it established a system that was effective in the short term but counterproductive and not sustainable in the long run.2 The structure of the control system had broken down by the end of the Park era through internal contradictions and labor resistance. And it left an undesirable legacy for the succeeding labor regimes that plagues today’s industrial relations system. This chapter examines labor policies and labor relations during the Park Chung Hee era by focusing on the dialectic relationship of mobilization and demobilization of labor. Park’s consistent policy was to mobilize workers economically as an element of production, and demobilize them politically as a possible threat to security and national development. But he did this in a rather crude and shortsighted fashion, relying primarily on security forces, with little regard to developing a mature industrial relations system. The consequence of his narrow developmentalist and security-oriented approach was the growing alienation of workers from the system and the mobilization of workers at the grassroots level in alliance with democratic forces in society. Eventually, both Park himself and the working people had to pay a great price for the crude labor system Park installed during this period. Furthermore, Park’s labor policies bequeathed to succeeding generations a pattern of habits and behaviors—on the part of capital, labor, and the state—which rely too heavily on mistrust, uncompromising confrontations, and violent means of dispute resolution. To a great extent, the highly contentious and mistrustful industrial relations that seem to characterize the South Korean industrial system today is attributable to the pattern established during Park’s developmental decades. Hagen Koo 124 Park’s Labor Policies It seems that Park Chung Hee and his associates came to power with no clear vision or ideas about the industrial relations system they planned to develop. Their main concern was to maintain political and social order and to prevent organized labor from becoming a source of political instability or an obstacle to economic development. Most probably, military...


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