South Korea’s Conservative Government Is Cracking Down on the Country’s Militant Labor Unions

Last week, South Korea’s intelligence agency raided the country’s largest group of independent unions. It’s a blatant attack on workers’ rights that has raised fears the conservative government is resurrecting dictatorship-era methods of bludgeoning labor.

President Yoon Suk-yeol walks with his aides in Seoul, South Korea. (Chris Jung / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

South Korea’s intelligence agency raided the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the country’s largest organization of independent unions, and an affiliate on January 18.

The high-profile raid, over alleged ties between four former and current union officers and North Korean agents, has raised fears that the conservative government is reverting to dictatorship-era methods of attacking labor by conflating organizing with threats to national security.

The moves come at the same time as the conservative government, led by president Yoon Suk-yeol, seeks to lift restrictions on long working hours and reduce pension payouts while increasing worker contributions. Yoon was elected last March on an openly anti-labor platform.

First Spy Agency Raid

During the raid, thirty agents of the National Intelligence Agency (NIS) executed a search warrant on the KCTU’s headquarters in Seoul. They were delayed by hours of scuffles with KCTU staff, who stalled them until the confederation’s lawyer arrived.

The KCTU is a network of unions that has grown to more than one million members in the world’s tenth largest economy. KCTU members work in industries ranging from auto and shipbuilding to emerging sectors like health care and software engineering.

Since its founding in 1995 (seven years after the end of the country’s military dictatorship), it has been subject to routine repression by the government, conservative and liberal alike, with all ten KCTU presidents to date being jailed at least once during their terms. But this is the first time that the KCTU has ever been raided directly by the NIS, the equivalent of the CIA and the FBI combined.

While the warrant was issued for a single KCTU official over allegations of links with the North Korean spy agency, one thousand riot police and firefighters surrounded the building in what appeared to be a public relations stunt. That was twice the number of police initially deployed to a Halloween block party in Seoul, where 158 young revelers were crushed to death due to the lack of crowd control.

In a twist, the NIS did not arrest the official, allegedly a national security threat. Instead, the agents seized data from his phone and computer and then left.

The situation was similar at the office of the KCTU-affiliated Korean Health and Medical Workers Union and two other locations where the NIS simultaneously executed search warrants involving three other former and current KCTU officials. The NIS and the police made spectacular scenes and then left after downloading data from the subjects’ electronic devices.

National Security Law

“The agency has been conducting private probes [into the four individuals] for violations of the National Security Law for many years,” the NIS said in a statement. “It has already secured evidence tying them to North Korea, which enabled [NIS] to get the warrants.”

The National Security Law forbids unauthorized travel to North Korea and contact with its people. After the raid, some conservative news outlets cited anonymous NIS sources saying that KCTU officials received orders and money from North Korea.

The National Security Law was enacted in early 1948, a few months ahead of the country’s founding constitution, when South Korea declared itself the Republic of Korea under US tutelage, amid strong left-wing opposition at home and the rise of a rival communist republic in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. The legislation has since been used to suppress domestic opposition and labor organizations under the pretext of military threats from the North.

The law remained intact even after the country embarked on democratization in the late 1980s, when mass protests put an end to the three decades of military rule. Even liberal presidents have routinely resorted to the law and its main enforcer, the NIS, to stymie organized labor.

In 1998, the international rights group Amnesty International protested then president Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2000, for arresting twenty-five student and labor activists on charges of violating the National Security Law for forming a “pro-North Korea group.”

“The apparent attempt to link trade union unrest to alleged ‘pro-North Korean’ activities is alarming and indicates a return to authoritarian methods of stamping out dissent,” said Amnesty International at the time. “The arrests coincide with a general strike and threats from government ministers to crack down on strikers and demonstrators,” Amnesty noted.

Trucker Strike

The recent raid followed on the heels of the defeat of a national strike by independent truckers.

In November, when twenty-five thousand truckers walked off the job, some saw it as the beginning of a long-awaited “winter of discontent” against Yoon’s anti-labor policies. Among other things, the owner-drivers — members of a KCTU affiliate — were demanding the expansion of minimum pay rates to all truckers and to make them permanent. The striking truckers said that the minimum rates, determined by a joint commission of truckers, contractors, and the government, had helped reduce road fatalities and injuries because such rates disincentivized speed and overwork.

The strike ended in defeat after sixteen days. Bigger unions did not join the action, and the Yoon government pressed the truckers hard with a series of return-to-work orders. After six years of growth, the KCTU found itself on the defensive. In contrast, Yoon’s approval rating rose by 9 percent as the crackdown on the truckers rallied his conservative base.

The anti-strike stance was bipartisan. On December 8, a day before the truckers’ vote on ending the strike, the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, which controls a slim majority in the National Assembly, urged the strikers to accept the government’s proposal for a limited three-year expansion of the minimum rate scheme. The government has yet to make the extension.

The liberals were also silent on the NIS raids. During a fifteen-minute TV interview on the evening after the raids, Lee Jae-myung, the opposition party leader and Yoon’s opponent in the last presidential race, did not say a word about the NIS or the KCTU.

Meanwhile, the NIS is trying to extend its once-ubiquitous tentacles to every corner of the country again. In December, the agency was empowered to “investigate and gather information” on senior government officials for human resources purposes. The surveillance of civilians by the NIS was outlawed in 2020, following a probe that showed rampant misuse.

The new guidelines did not specify the scope of information gathering, in effect allowing the agency to expand warrantless and arbitrary surveillance. The NIS also has been lobbying for the repeal of a new law that will remove its domestic investigative powers by the end of the year. The legislation was prompted by a 2013 scandal when it was revealed that the agency manipulated evidence and tortured the sister of an ethnic Chinese defector from the North to frame him as a North Korean agent.

Anti-Labor Agenda

One day after the KCTU raid by the NIS, the police raided two national offices of construction unions, known for their militancy though also marred by rumors of corruption.

In his televised new year speech on January 3, Yoon painted all of organized labor as a self-dealing elite who are privileged compared with unorganized workers. His government is likely to step up its attack on workers by attempting to pit them against each other and by branding some of their leaders as corrupt and privileged — or pro–North Korea quislings.

Along the way, Yoon will increasingly have little option but to use force and an authoritarian apparatus like the NIS as he will find it increasingly difficult to push through anti-labor laws. The majority opposition Democratic Party will stall his anti-labor agenda in the legislature, but only because it does not want Yoon to succeed, not because the party is a reliable ally of labor.

The raid on the KCTU showcases the challenges faced by labor in numerous countries across the world, as unions face the reemergence of authoritarian and repressive measures amidst ongoing attacks on living standards, wages, and pensions. These global issues require global solidarity.