A recent article (in Korean) on the Jinbonuri news website points to the remarkable progress that Korea’s broad left Democratic Labour Party (민주노동당) has made over the last year (Jinbonuri is apparently run by a “community of people who give critical support to the Democratic Labour Party”). At the beginning of the year the DLP was still a minor party that tended to be dismissed by mainstream commentators, but in April it won 10 seats in the general elections to the National Assembly, gaining 13 percent of the vote. Since then, with huge disillusionment with the ruling Uri Party (president Roh Moo-hyun’s centre right party, with vaguely progressive leanings) and the inabillity of the rightwing Grand National Party (한나라당) to get much beyond its base of 30 percent, the DLP has reached a steady level of around 18 percent in opinion polls. As the writer of the article points out, if non-voters are taken into account this gives the DLP 25 percent of the vote, meaning that under an all PR system (Korea currently has a partial list system) they would get 70 seats out of 300 in the National Assembly. Obviously this interpretation is a little on the optimistic side, but the important point is that the DLP has now broken through a number of barriers to become one of the mainstream parties.
There has been a long history in South Korea of attempts to form a viable leftwing party, and this project had various incarnations during the course of the 1990s. The Korean Democratic Labour Party was founded in the late 90s with the backing of Korea’s leftwing union federation, the KCTU. In common with a number of other similar new(ish) left parties around the world it incorporates different people and groupings with a variety of political positions, from revolutionaries of various stripes to reformist social democrats. I remember when I was living in Seoul in 2000 during the last general elections there was some hope that the DLP might get one or two representatives elected, but in the end one candidate was narrowly beaten in the industrial city of Ulsan and not a single DLP candidate was elected. I was honestly surprised that a party with the backing of a massive trade union federation could not get anyone elected - surely if even half of the KCTU’s membership voted for the DLP they would get one or two people in?
Obviously electoral politics doesn’t work like this and the DLP had some massive barriers to break through - not least the stranglehold that regionalist politics still maintained at that time. This meant that people in Cholla province would tend to automatically vote for Kim Dae-jung’s (now defunct) Milliennium Democratic Party while those in Kyongsang province would vote for the GNP and those in Ch’ungch’ong for Kim Jong-pil’s ULD (자민련). So until recently, South Korean electoral politics really consisted of ‘parties’ which actually just represented shifting alliances between different sectors of the political elite (who basically represented the interests of big business and held the anti-communist / pro-US line) but which could call on the loyalties of particular sections of the population on the basis of regional background and patronage. And this in spite of the fact that through the 80s and 90s South Korea had one of the most militant labour movements in the world as well as very strong civil society and student movements, which together had succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian regime that had lasted through the 60s, 70s and much of the 80s. So all in all it is a massive leap forward for a ‘real’ political party with a social base and a left reformist program to have made so much headway.
The big question is, where is the DLP headed? It seems the leadership have consciously tried to model the party on Brazil’s PT (Workers’ Party) so this raises the spectre of a Lulaesque drive for electoral victory and then a swift accommodation to the real powers that be once in power. Something like a history of the evolution of the Labour party from a working class, reformist party to a centre right ‘social liberalist’ big business party but massively sped up. Even so, on the form of the PT it might take at least 15-20 years for the DLP to achieve power, and by that time, as Alfredo Saad Filho points out in this excellent Red Pepper article, the party itself would have had to change beyond all recognition.
Actually, Alfredo Saad Filho and Sue Branford’s discussion on the Lula government and the PT does raise some other important points of comparison between Brazil and Korea. Alfredo points out that there were two objective factors in particular that helped to push the PT down the road that it took of increasing compromise.
The PT was created in the late 1970s through the convergence of two groups of activists. First, the democratic movement struggling against the military dictatorship, including radical left organisations, Catholic base communities, academics and social movements. They needed a broad and powerful left party to accommodate their different views, express their joint platform, and give the movement organic unity. Second, the ‘new’ trade union movement, symbolised by Lula’s metalworkers’ union, but including other segments of the working class created by Brazil’s rapid development: bank workers, public sector workers, civil servants, teachers, and so on – the skilled working class and the lower urban middle class. Their demands were often corporatist, but they were organised and vocal. The coalition between these two groups led to the emergence of the PT as a party of a new type.
However, these two pillars of the PT have collapsed. On the one hand, the restoration of democracy in 1985 was the product of an elite pact that shifted the political form of the state but brought no economic change. Civil liberties were restored, but the left was disarmed and demobilised. All political organisations were legalised; any newspaper could be published; all social movements were permitted; most political fronts and umbrella organisations collapsed; and dozens of platforms competed in the political marketplace. Paradoxically, political democracy disorganised the Brazilian left.
On the other hand, the democratic transition was followed by the transition to neo-liberalism, which disorganised the working class. Deindustrialisation led to the loss of one third of manufacturing sector jobs in Brazil, most public enterprises were privatised, the civil service suffered terribly: the social base of the PT was decimated. The party responded to these challenges by shifting to the political centre and claiming the mantle of ‘honesty’ and ‘good local administration’. The economic reforms were increasingly sidelined. Finally, in 2002, the PT leadership walked the extra mile and ditched the remainder of its reformist platform in order to seal Lula’s electoral victory. It is now clear that that victory was hollow.
The positive side of this analysis, as far as South Korea is concerned at least, is that both of these objective factors have not really been fulfilled there (yet). On the one hand, the arrival of democracy in South Korea, two years later than in Brazil, does not seem to have “disarmed and demobilised” the left. Of course the intensity of struggle has not been the same since the late 80s and there has been much made of the post-80s generation of students being disinterested in activism, while the ex-student activists (the so-called 386 generation) turned to ‘getting on in the world’ in the 90s. But this seems to be, partially at least, wishful thinking on the part of the rightwing media - the student movement is still strong, the civil society and democracy groups are still influential and active and people as a whole are, if anything more leftwing than before. And ready to come out on the streets to prove it, as they have done in recent years to protest against the actions of US troops or the attempted removal of Roh Moo-hyun from office earlier this year.
Likewise, despite the attempts of the Korean ruling class and the IMF, what Alfredo calls the “transition to neo-liberalism” has not been completed in South Korea, partly of course, as a result of fierce resistance from the working class, lead by the KCTU. Of course there have been great changes in the Korean economy (which I don’t feel qualified to comment on in any detail) with a great increase in the number of casual (or ‘irregular’) workers. However, one of the KCTU’s main campaigns recently has been to get rid of this kind of casual labour and prevent the government from expanding it.
Alfredo goes on to say of the PT:
Instead of attempting to make up for the decline of its core constituency by extending its sources of support vertically, to relatively more privileged social groups, the PT should have focused on horizontal expansion to other segments of the working class – among unorganised workers in the formal sector, informal sector workers, working class women, rural workers and the unemployed.
So the KCTU and DLP’s fight against casualised labour look somewhat like this sort of “horizontal expansion”, as do two of the other main labour flashpoints in recent times - the formation of a (previously illegal) teachers’ union and the recent struggles of the outlawed civil servants’ union (whose members are currently fighting a rearguard action against massive state repression).
If the DLP and the Korean left in general can manage to either fight off the huge structural changes that sections of the ruling class would like to force on the economy, or can learn from the PT and find ways of remedying any disadvantages this might produce for the left, rather than turning automatically to the right, then its future development as a radical left party is still open.