South Korea's Lady on the Crane

On Saturday, thousands of Korean protesters are due to flock to the summer resort city of Busan for what has been dubbed the “third bus of hope” to demand that the giant Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction chaebol reinstate workers laid off when their jobs were shipped to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

They have been drawn there partly by a 51-year-old welder-writer named Kim Jin-suk, who has been sitting in the cab of the 35-meter-high Crane No. 85 in Hanjin’s Yeongdo shipyard for more than 200 days and who has clearly captured the country’s imagination. Activists have chained themselves to the bottom of her crane in a bid to “protect her,” they say. A whole polyglot army that includes labor activists, students, religious leaders, the disabled, eviction protesters and sexual minorities and other dissimilar activists has been drawn into the fray.

Two other “buses of hope” – actually more caravans of hope comprising hundreds of buses --have arrived in Busan on earlier weekends, carrying thousands of protesters against mass layoffs at Hanjin, where police have doused them with water cannons in an attempt to keep them away from the Yeongdo site. Authorities have sought to close off the avenues of approach for the third bus of hope.

Busan, South Korea’s second-biggest city, occupies a significant place in the country’s history. It is known not only for producing two former presidents -- Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun – but also for igniting the epochal June 1989 democratization uprising. It has thus taken center stage again as a major segment of society looks for new hope in the promise of worker solidarity.

Kim, an essay writer who writes about people who survive in an unfriendly labor environment, is not alone. Two New Progressive Party advisors have been staging a hunger strike in front of the Daehanmun Gate of Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. Academics and others have begun hunger strikes as well.

In times of uncertainty, Korean companies have often used massive layoffs as a survival strategy in a flagging economy. Critics say Korea’s company owners are like first-class passengers on a sinking ship that needs electricity to run the pumps. They are said to refuse to run the pumps because they feel hot and want to divert the energy to use the air-conditioners. The boat sinks and everybody drowns. That is the present approach to the troubled Hanjin case, the critics say.

People also know that unless worker strikes demonstrate their continued ability to wreak havoc, only a narrow slice of government officials will care about the workers’ demands. This is why the debate over the workers’ conditions, such as wages, working hours and welfare, is less important than the debate over how to rejuvenate an economy that relies overwhelmingly on foreign trade.

It has been a truism for more than four decades that the export-oriented country that couldn’t have booming economic growth if the economy was disrupted by labor strikes, violence and instability. Although economists have repeatedly warned that South Korea remains dangerously vulnerable to global economic downturns if it continues to depend heavily for growth on exports, the pattern has been repeated again and again only to become an inherent part of the “unstoppable growth” ideology.

Thus, frustrated and angered by the demand that workers forbear their protests in favor of national growth and by the company’s massive layoffs, protesters are advancing toward the city in the name of the bus of hope – a name coined by a poet who spearheaded its creation, and who is now being chased by the police.

While it might or might not be a turning-point in determining how to resolve the Hanjin case, Kim’s protest on the crane is the only weapon she has left. The middle-aged woman climbed up there in the winter and has remained into the summer, using a bucket for a toilet. She uses a solar-powered mobile phone to communicate with the world. Kim’s brinkmanship is thus highlighting a scar on what was once the most-rapidly developing country in the world.

Needless to say, South Korea, polarized between rich and poor, is becoming more uncomfortable for workers. Critics of the government assert that South Korea’s safety net has more holes than a Swiss cheese. There has been no sign of any progress on the Hanjin affair. The owner, Cho Nam-ho, is the second son of the late Cho Joong-hoon who founded Korean Airlines and other sister companies in the Hanjin Group. South Korea is a chaebol culture where critics say a few highly organized, diversified industrial-business conglomerates crowd out everything in sight with the approval of the government. Now, many people think, the chaebols, by their refusal to recognize worker rights, are becoming the reluctant midwives to labor activism. That could be a heavy blow to the pro-chaebol Lee government.

Kim, many feel, is dangerously on the brink of the same kind of action a male colleague took in 2003 – by hanging himself. It is best not assume the worst, even if sacrifice by suicide has been from time to time considered an acceptable solution to social problems. Given that very small perturbations create very large and nonlinear results in an open system, if Kim were to make such an extreme choice it would almost certainly set off a conflagration that would seriously damage the Lee government and complicate future elections.

The government, as an honest broker, should persuade Kim to stop her uncompromising struggle immediately before it explodes into public outrage although clearly the problem fundamentally lies with Hanjin, not the government. The Hanjin case should be addressed with an eye towards forcing a sustainable relation between the owners and workers. Kim’s denouement needs to end happily so as to demonstrate that South Korea is not living in an age of anger and brutality.