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Hyojoung Kim Micromobilization and Suicide Protest in South Korea, 1970-2004 Do notlet my death be in vain - Chun Tae-il ON NOVEMBER 13, I 97O, IN SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA, CHUN TAE-IL, A 23-YEARold garment worker, set himself on fire at Chongghye-Chun, the coun­ try’s largest textile and garment wholesale district, to protest the subhuman working conditions in the sweatshops and the government’s lack ofenforcement ofeven the most rudimentary rights ofworkers. The districtwas comprised ofthe Peace Market, Tong-il Shopping Center, and Donghwa Market, with approximately 800 sweatshops and an estimate of 20,000 workers. Most of the workers were young females in their early teens. The working conditions were beyond description: mostly young female workers were laboring in a small two-story compartment filled with material and sewing machines. The ceilings were so low that standing up was barely possible and the air was saturated with fabric dust. During boom seasons they had to work overtime, almost around the clock, with no extra pay; however, they had to endure drastic cuts in work hours or even layoffs when business was slow. In addition, the pay was far below poverty level. Given these terrible working condi­ tions, many of the new hires tended to quit within several months and those who survived eventually became sick with pneumonia and were forced to quit. Although labor unions did exist in Korea at that time, social research Vol 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 543 most were management- and government- controlled entities attached to large corporations that did little in actuality to protect the interest of workers. Sweatshops, owned and operated by small family-owned firms, did not even have puppet unions. Employed at one of these sweatshops since 1965, Chun Tae-il developed sympathy for these young female workers, and struggled to improve working conditions by petitioning factory owners, orga­ nizing rudimentary forms of labor unions such as the Society of Fools and Samdong [Three Buildings] Friendship Association, petitioning the Ministry of Labor, providing information so workers’ life conditions were reported in major daily newspapers of that country. In spite of small victories and the ensuing euphoria, all these efforts ultimately failed to improve working conditions. Alarmed by his efforts, the owners tightened their control over the sweatshop workers by using fear, which rapidly eroded their enthusiasm. At this juncture, Chun prepared his final act. A public demonstration on November 13,1970 was organized by Chun with the support of his friends and followers. A burning ritual of the country’s Labor Standards Law was planned for the day as a symbolic protest against the subhuman working conditions in the sweatshops and the government’s indifference and neglect in enforcing the basic rights of workers guaranteed them only in letters. Unfortunately, the protest plan had already leaked out to the police and the owners of the sweatshops at the markets. The owners kept many of their workers from attending the protest; police and security guards prevented access to the protest site; and the 500 workers who had managed to gather were forcibly separated by the police and directed back to the factories. With the planned protest on the brink of cancellation due to interfer­ ence, Chun poured a can of flammable paint thinner prepared for the event all over his body and was set on fire by an unsuspecting friend. Then he took to the street, desperately chanting, “Observe the Labor Standards Law!” “We workers are not machines! No work on Sundays!” “Stop enslaving the workers!” Engulfed in flames, Chun collapsed on the street. People—both other protesters and the bystanders alike, 544 social research shocked at the scene—stood still; they could not think ofputting out the flames. A moment later, the dispersed workers and bystanders started to gather around him. A copy of the country’s Labor Standards Law was thrown onto his burning body, ironically accomplishing the aborted burning ritual: the law burning together with the worker it was suppos­ edly written to protect. A newspaper reporter, given advance notice by Chun, arrived later at the marketplace, rushed to him. “Do not let my death be in vain” was the only decipherable words coming from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 543-578
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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