South Korea is located in East Asia. It was established after the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries – South Korea and North Korea. Notably, the landlords established South Korea with assistance under US auspices. After that, the nation underwent significant phases of economic growth characterized by undesirable incidences such as disorders, major rebellions, guerilla movements, and dissents, which occurred between 1946 and 1949.1 These incidences may be attributed to crude methods of governance that landlords used to guard their privileges instead of pursuing the development of the country. Specifically, they ruled the country using draconian military and police rules. This essay paper reviews the role of the US hegemony and Korean patriarchy in the development of South Korea.
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The US hegemony in South Korea played an important role in the country’s development. For instance, the US provided South Korea with economic and military aid. Specifically, in 1945, the US gave South Korea economic and military aid worth 13 billion.2 Also, between 1946 and 1978, South Korea received about $6 million worth of grants from the US. Further, the US natives considerably wrote South Korean plans and policies. Again, the US hegemony extended to the direct management of South Korean programs. For instance, during the creation of the Korean BAIRs, the Kennedy administration put pressure on the Korean government to respect human rights and let civilians lead the country. As a result, South Korea promulgated a new constitution in 1963. Despite the new constitution, the government concentrated most of the power in the central agencies. To reduce hegemony, South Korea sought to eliminate its dependency on the US in the 1970s. Considerably, South Koreas reduced its direct reliance on the US compared to the case of the 1950s and 1960s.3 However, the nation created a new form of reliance – indirect dependency – that was based on the grain market. Particularly, South Korea relied on US multinationals for refining and shipping oil. Besides, the security of South Korea continued to depend heavily on US military aid.
The South Korean military was instrumental in the economic development of South Korea in East Asia. Notably, almost 600,000 soldiers constituted Korea’s military, which at the time was the highest military/civilian ratio.4 The military personnel played four main roles. First, it protected the hegemony grand areas. Second, the military was responsible for giving disciplined training and primary literacy for young people. Third, the military provided a serene environment of rearing managers and officers who later took over the management and control of big corporations and state bureaucracies. Finally, the military was a key player during the shift from the import-substituting program to export-based growth.
The import-substituting program brought a breakthrough to the South Korean economy. The main industries that operated in the program were cement, flat glass, textile and so forth.5 The success of these industries is attributable to government nurturing and protection in terms of tariff reliefs, foreign entry obstacles, and overvalued exchange rates. During this period, capitalists penetrated official monopolies, the state, and banks, where they made substantial profits through import-substituting industries.6 Besides, capitalists took over Japanese held industries in South Korea, a move that established the foundation of conglomerates that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s.
The role played by export-based growth and the emergence of BIARs put South Korea on the world map of swift economic growth. During export-based growth, South Korea relied on comparative advantage relative to education and skills but low paid labor. Notably, the labor at electronic and light industries was higher than that of America, but its cost was 20 percent.7 Labor exploitation characterized the export-based growth phase in South Korea.
In particular, South Korea promoted policies, which excluded and exploited workers and spent little on social welfare. For instance, in 1973, the South Korean expenditure on public health, public assistance, social insurance, welfare and veterans’ relief was 0.97 percent of the GNP.8 Due to labor exploitation, South Korea recorded a large number of labor strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. Notably, between 1979 and 1980, South Korea recorded about 700 labor strikes, in which one strike organized by miners took a small town east of Seoul hostage for several days.
Labor exploitation culminated in the formation of labor unions. The main aim of labor unions was to improve the working conditions of workers. The first real desire to establish labor unions started during labor protests in the Pyunghwa market in Seoul in 1970, were the main organizer Chun Tae-Il, a 22-year-old tailor who sacrificed himself for the sake of other workers.9 Following his death, his colleagues formed the Chunggye Textile Union. Another labor union formed at the time was the Dongil Workers union.
The formation of independent labor unions was not an easy path. Usually, the employers did not accept independent unions and as such, they used any possible means such as bribes, harassment, threats, and government industrial union help to block union organization or reform management-controlled unions.10 In particular, the government and employers always monitored union activities. Further, the union leaders were subjected to numerous forms of torture such as imprisonment, harassment, threats, and beating. Despite the torture, workers persisted in establishing and running labor unions.
Some unions used numerous strategies such as externalization and politicization of workers’ struggles. For instance, Dongil worker’s hunger strike in Myungdong Cathedral in Seoul gained support from professors, students, and church leaders.11 The Protestant group (Urban Industrial Missions [UIM]) and Catholic Organization Young Workers Union (Jeunesse Ouvnere Chretienne) played major roles in influencing labor unions. Also, the church organized night schools, which taught workers the importance of unions and their management.12 On the other hand, students formed alliances with labor unions that were based on humanitarian concerns of the workers in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, students no longer considered as mere humanitarian objects but rather “most important political allies and most powerful forces for social transformation.”13 Besides, students took part in strikes such as Daewoo Auto Strike and Kuro Solidarity strike.
In the unions, women and students were instrumental in fighting for improved rights of workers. For instance, women-led protests in Wonpoong, Y. H. Trading Company and Dongil.14 The active role of women in the labor union is based on their exposure to labor exploitation, sexual violence, and patriarchal domination.15 In the 1990s, the labor struggle shifted from all workers to women workers. Using gender subornation and gendered cultural logic, companies considered labor as an abstract factor of production. As such, irregular employment characterized the South Korean workforce.
This situation triggered workers and trade unions to contest neoliberal employment reclassification. Women based organizations such as irregular South Korea women’s trade union (KWTU) and Korean Solidarity against Precarious Work (KSPW) were established to fight for the women workers.16 In particular, these labor unions fought discriminatory labor practices such as low wages, insecure and irregular employment.
In conclusion, the development of South Korea was highly influenced by US hegemony and the Korean patriarch. The US direct influence ranged from the provision of economic and military aid, as well as formulating and implementing policies and programs. Indirectly, the US-controlled South Korean grain market regarding refining and shipping of oil. In a different vein, the Korean patriarch in the form of military, labor exploitation, import-substituting growth, and export-based growth contributed significantly to the development of the nation. For instance, the import-substituting program enabled capitalists to make huge profits from monopolies, the state, and banks.
Chun, Jennifer Jihye. “Contesting Legal Liminality: The Gendered Labor Politics of Irregular Workers in South Korea.” New Millennium South Korea: Neoliberal Capitalism and Transnational Movements, edited by Jesook Song, 63-83. London, UK: Routledge.
Cumings, Bruce. “The Origins and Development of the Northeast Asian Political Economy: Industrial Sectors, Product Cycles, and Political Consequences.” The political economy of the new Asian industrialism, edited by Frederic C. Deyo, 44-83.. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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Koo, Hagen. “A Martyr, Women Workers and Churches.” Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation, 69-125. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Bruce Cumings, “The Origins and Development of the Northeast Asian Political Economy: Industrial Sectors, Product Cycles, and Political Consequences,” The political economy of the new Asian industrialism, ed. Frederic C. Deyo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 66.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 79.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 68.
- Ibid., 68.
- Ibid., 71.
- Ibid., 74.
- Hagen Koo, “A Martyr, Women Workers and Churches,” Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press): 69.
- Ibid., 78.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 74.
- Ibid., 105.
- Ibid., 96.
- Jennifer Jihye Chun, “Contesting Legal Liminality: The Gendered Labor Politics of Irregular Workers in South Korea,” New Millennium South Korea: Neoliberal Capitalism and Transnational Movements, ed. Jesook Song (London, UK: Routledge): 66.
- Ibid., 66-67.