'The financial crisis in December 1998 led to the intervention of the International Monetary Fund. They insisted on more privatisation and on letting ailing businesses close. That led to soaring unemployment in a country which, although fully industrialised, has scarcely any welfare provision.'
The South Korean president is Kim Dae-jung. He was a dissident under the military dictatorship which ran the country from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. 'Kim Dae-jung is under pressure from the old right wing which hails from the generals' time. They want as little change to the authoritarian state as possible. But Kim Dae-jung has abandoned his radical past. So he is under pressure too from workers and the left. The government said we all have to share the burden. Now people see the corruption and the lifestyles of the rich and there is a big backlash.'
Since an explosion of workers' struggles in the 1980s the militant trade union federation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), has had a major influence on politics. 'The KCTU leaders made concessions to the bosses during the International Monetary Fund intervention. That pushed the rank and file to organise a coup. Factory based leaders got support in the elections and overturned the old leaders. But when they got into the positions they too disappointed the workers. Workers at Halla heavy industries had a strike for several weeks for recovery of their wages. They won most of their demands and over 40 percent wanted to stay out for more when the union leaders ended the fight. That inspired other workers. But at the same time they lacked confidence and faced a political problem. If companies were bankrupt, simple economic demands like higher wages were not enough. We needed a political answer about nationalising the industry and making the bosses pay.'
The desperate need for a left wing political alternative to the big business policies of the major parties led to the formation of a workers' party, the Democratic Labour Party, in August this year. 'The emergence of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) is very significant. Half the party's founders were officers of the KCTU. So it has strong links to the trade union movement. It is attracting support from workers and already has 8,000 members. It recently won a local by-election in the major industrial city Ulsan. One opinion poll this month gave the party 35 percent support. This shows how workers are disillusioned with Kim Dae-jung.'
'There are many different ideas and contradictions within the DLP, even among the leaders. They oppose Stalinism and they want to distance themselves from Western social democracy because it is so right wing. They say that Tony Blair is far too right wing. This shows the strong influence of the militant working class struggles against free market policies. Everybody in the party says capitalism has to go. The question, however, is what kind of socialism is going to replace it.'
The South Korean state has clamped down ruthlessly on revolutionary socialists. 'More of our supporters were arrested and imprisoned in the first year of Kim Dae-jung's government than in the last year of the previous president, Kim Young-sam, who was backed by the military. Kim Dae-jung is proposing to amend the National Security Law, which can be used to imprison people for publishing books and articles which criticise the South Korean state. But he wants to leave the heart of the law intact. Six of our supporters are still in prison. They include Hong Gyo-sun. He will be sentenced on 2 December for publishing books which are freely available on any campus in Britain.'
'More and more workers are opposing the National Security Law. At a mass rally on 14 November 10,000 people, including famous workers' leaders, signed a petition in defence of Hong Gyo-sun. The Democratic Labour Party has come out against the repression and we are building a broader campaign against the National Security Law. We recently organised a protest of 80 people inside a court on the outskirts of the capital, Seoul, where one supporter had been denied his right to make a statement.'
'We cannot stress enough how important the international solidarity campaign has been for us. Resolutions passed by trade unionists here and in other countries, and the names of people like Tony Benn MP and left wing academic Noam Chomsky in the US have made a huge difference. They boosted people who were in prison and helped them maintain their ideas. They also gave confidence to others on the left. The judges and the state also felt the impact. Kim Dae-jung received a 'democracy award' in the US last year. When campaigners interrupted the ceremony and forced him to admit he jailed people for their ideas, it was deeply embarrassing for the South Korean state. The struggle is continuing in South Korea. We look to solidarity with workers and the oppressed across the world in our common fight against global capitalism.'
Committee to Defend South Korean Socialists, c/o 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 0171 538 5821, fax 0171 538 0018.