Pyeongchang and the Woman on the Crane

If every winning Olympic bid is a surprise, then the Winter Games Bid Committee’s July 7 decision must be counted among the greatest of them. After two successive failures, South Korea in 2018 will finally become the second Asian country after Japan to host the Winter Games

For the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, whose popularity has fallen sharply, the International Olympic Committee’s anointment of Pyeongchang – NOT Pyongyang, the North Korean capital – is a political trophy that stands a good chance of delaying Lee’s lame duckhood, It also stands in stark contrast to a six-month protest by a lone woman on a construction crane in the city of Busan.

But first, by successfully winning the right to host the Games at the committee meeting in South Africa in a 38-vote victory over Munich of Germany, it enables Lee to obscure some of his other controversial policies, such as the unprecedented Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. That US$18 billion project, to further develop the country’s four major river systems, has been called a project to boost the fortunes of the construction cartel – of which Lee was a member before he became President – during the global recession.

Given Lee’s limited number of major accomplishments, the so-called Pyeongchang project will likely become a significant propellant to speed up other unfinished missions ahead of April general elections next year. Certainly, the country’s citizens are blissful although there is little evidence to suggest that the Winter Games boost the overall economy of a host country. Nonetheless, there is precedent. The Summer Games, held in Seoul in 1988, played a major role in stirring the unavoidable winds of change and reform which brought about democratization of the country.

Lee’s decision to make a personal pitch to the IOC for the country’s third challenge was, after all, a strategically sound one, not only as a token of Korean perseverance. Lee is said to have written personal letters and mailed them himself. At one point, according to Korean media, he made 10 attempts to call one single IOC members. Where his main competitors, Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicholas Sarkozy of France, didn’t show up, Lee followed the example of Russian President Vladimir Putin and appeared personally before the committee to plead for the games. It appears to have worked.

Although Lee’s unrelenting spin on the wonders of Pyeongchang could be fantasy, many pundits agree that he has lucked out. Although he is viewed by the Korean public as an intransigent chief executive, he has worked tirelessly abroad to promote the country’s image through a long series of state visits – most of which were accompanied by private pleas for Pyeonghchang as a Wnter Olympics site with the slogan “A New Horizon.”

Yet his good record abroad has been overshadowed by a seemingly never-ending series of sit-in protests at home, which the country’s mainstream media largely ignore. However, the protest by Kim Jin-suk, a female worker at Hanjin Heavy Industry and Construction, is hard for anybody to ignore.

Kim is carrying out an aerial sit-in protest on Crane No. 85 at the HHIC shipyard, having occupied the cabin of the 35-meter-high crane, for more than 180 days. The 51-year-old writer-worker is demanding that the company reconsider the dismissal of dozens of employees.

Some South Korean companies have a persistent record of evasion and obfuscation with the rules and laws in the name of ‘urgent need for management.” Layoffs or massive dismissals have become the easiest way in a flagging economy to reduce the overheads. So what the labor activist really wants is a lot of fence-mending related to labor conditions, along with a hope that the government is not going to rip up the safety net.

This is not an abstract issue. Like lots of supporters who voluntarily traveled to the South Africa IOC committee meeting in the belief that they were asking not what the country should do for them but what they could do for their country, the grim truth is that the Lee government should embrace those who have been seeking to join the female labor activist, taking buses to Busan, about 400 km southeast of Seoul under with the slogan “Bus of Hope,” in a bid to show support for her and other dismissed workers.

Just as Lee, with long experience in private enterprise, told the IOC in Durban, “This is a victory for the people of South Korea,” equally important is the fact that both the Pyeongchang supporters and workers at the HHIC shipyard are the same people. So far, however, the workers, far too often seen solely as instruments of financial gain in the name of development and growth, have not been fairly treated in a country that has seen a massive rise in inequality in recent years.

South Korean citizens are becoming more and more convinced that South Korea is not treating its workers well.

Demonstrations on the streets and factory yards are an everyday occurrence. The word ‘wrath’ has become common argot among people on the street. Above all, they are aware that today’s greatest sin in South Korea is bankruptcy.

So in a sense, Crane No. 85 is like a ship on fire in mid-ocean with a hold full of ammunition. Kim, its occupant, stands at the same place where a male colleague hanged himself in 2003, causing massive unrest . While the ‘Buses of Hope’ filled with lawyers, bankers and college students are violently blocked by the police, the government as an honest broker should act in a more bold and responsible manner to persuade Kim to stop her incendiary and uncompromising struggle instead of trying to hide the labor dispute . The HHIC case should be addressed with an eye toward the responsibility of owner to worker and vice versa. If that were to come true, people could see that South Korea’s so-called new horizon is not a misnomer.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.)