By J. Sul


The number of atypical, part-time and dispatch laborers (also known as precarious workers) has drastically increased in South Korea after the financial crisis of 1997 [1]. To overcome the economic crisis, the South Korean government received financial aid from the International Monetary Fund at the cost of restructuring its national business organization [2]. This restructuring policy came along with massive layoffs of employees, destruction of labor unions and deregulations on corporations [3].

Many argue that the financial crisis was an impetus to neo-liberalism in South Korea, which is true. Nevertheless, pointing out the cause of an event without analyzing how the cause became a cause only satisfies our desire of knowing the “cause” itself: the very desire of knowing the cause of an event does not delineate how the event of a cause develops and changes.

To properly understand the evolving economic structure of South Korea after the financial crisis and how it gave arise to an internal colony within its nation, we should first analyze what had happened before the crisis in the most general sense. The rate of profit in South Korea before the crisis will be discussed to correctly comprehend the development of the subsequent economic structure.

After the financial crisis in 1997, the South Korean government decided to hand the market to monopoly capitalists. Rationale was that too much regulations on corporations repel foreign capital from South Korea. The result of fourteen years of neo-liberal economic and political policy are as follows: great disparity in wealth [4], proliferation of precarious works [5], and dominant presence of young fascists in South Korea [6].

This article will specifically focus on exposing the relation between the sudden appearance of young fascists and neo-liberalism in South Korea.

At this point some may ask “Why South Korea? Why should we, Westerners, be bothered to read this?” Others may say that the event of young fascists acting out and the proliferation of precarious work is just mere a “particular” phenomena in South Korea, insinuating that this political event is only “specific” to South Korea.

However, note well that particular is not an anomaly of a universal law, nor is it a thing of difference. The particular is a unification process of a universal with an individual as a necessary mediation which expresses the structure of the object of the unification, in which the universal and individual complement each other [7]. In other words, the most general economic law in South Korea which exists through individual existence takes its form as particular and expresses the structure of its unification process: South Korea, the nation which was colonized once and is still economically and politically dominated by the first world capitalist country (namely the USA) now has an economic system controlled by monopolized capital [8]. Accordingly, for this monopolized capital in an ex-colonial state to maintain its life, or to valorize its value, in the absence of its own colony, it has to formulate an internal colony within its own nation. This process of creating an internal colony in a neo-colonial state creates particular economic, political, and cultural structures; accordingly, these structures, when left alone, become the spawning pool of fascists.

Hence, this article is not specific to South Korea, but to all the nations that were once colonized but liberated, not by the people of the nation but by the power of first world capitalist country, and reached a monopolized capitalist system.

Economic structure

Imagine yourself working in the same place for the same hours and doing the same work as your friend. Yet, you get paid less, about 4.2 times less, than your friend. Now imagine about half of the working class in South Korea is like you and the other half is just like your friend. Well, the power of imagination is obsolete here, for that is the actual reality in South Korea. The following graph by Nam-Sin Lee, the manager of Korea Precarious Worker Center, shows the wage gap between regular workers and precarious workers.


Figure 1. Wage Gap between Regular Workers and precarious workers (Nam-Sin Lee, 2014)

The difference in wages has been objectively bifurcating regular workers and precarious workers within the working class. Those two are not simply different by their names but by the concrete economic position into which both workers are situated. It’s worth mentioning here that this economic exploitation is legitimized by the cultural structure imposed on the very word of “precarious work”: precarious workers deserve to be paid less because they are “precarious workers”. This cultural structure will be discussed later in this article. Understanding the systematic economic exploitation of precarious workers will be enough here.

Some may argue that the graph is only specific to one sector of economy in South Korea, suggesting that precarious workers are not actually the half of the working class. However, according to the following graph, the facts prove otherwise:


Figure 2. Amount and Ratio of Precarious Workers in South Korea (Nam-Sin Lee, 2014)

Since the early 2000 the absolute number of precarious workers drastically increased. The ratio of precarious workers to regular workers presented a decreasing trend since 2007. However, this decreasing trend is mainly due to the restructuring of the labor contract for part-time workers. In spite of its downward slope, about half of the working class still consists of precarious workers in South Korea.

Then how did this happen? The proliferation of precarious works in South Korea started after the financial crisis of 1997 when the South Korean government received a financial aid from the International Monetary Fund institution at the exchange of restructuring its national business organization. This restructuring policy was essentially enacted to attract foreign capital to South Korea. This shift in policy resulted in creating a “rational” and “flexible” labor market. Workers who can be easily fired and get paid less than regular workers were deemed hirable for the new “efficient” neo-liberal capitalists.

Nevertheless, it would be crude to pinpoint the IMF crisis as the sole cause of the proliferation of precarious works, though it is partially correct. For us to correctly comprehend how that specific financial crisis restructured the labor composition in South Korea, we should analyze how the economy of South Korea had been doing in the most general sense until 1997. We need to analyze the trend of the general rate of profit in South Korea.

Before we delve into this rate of profit discussion (which is often mystified), let us define what precisely we mean.
The rate of profit can be defined as surplus value over the summation of constant capital and variable capital: r (rate of profit) = S (surplus value)/C (constant capital) + V (variable capital). Accordingly, when we divide this equation by V (variable capital) we get the following formula: r(rate of profit)= S/V (surplus value over variable capital)/ 1+ C/V( Constant capital over variable capital) .

S/V is the rate of surplus value and C/V is the organic composition of capital. What this equation implies is that when the organic composition of capital increases, meaning if the total value of constant capital increases (let it be the value of raw materials, intermediate products, means of object or labor, and/or machines), assuming that the value of variable capital remains the same, the rate of profit decreases.

In the society where the accumulation of capital exists as a dominant trend, the organic composition of capital increases, leading to a decrease in the rate of profit.

Nevertheless, the law of tendency for the rate of profit to fall has its own counter tendencies: if the rate of surplus value increases due to intensive labor exploitation, if the value of labor-power or constant capital decrease; and/or if cheap raw materials are easily acquirable, then the tendency of rate of profit to fall can be counterbalanced.

With these conditions in mind, let us analyze the following graph


Figure 3. Rate of Profit in South Korea. (Martin Hart-Landsberg, Seongjin Jeong, Richard Westra, 2007)

According to the graph, the rate of profit in South Korea had been decreasing since 1970s and it reached its lowest during the late 90’s. It’s not a mystery then that the IMF crisis occurred in 1997. After the crisis the number of precarious works drastically increased, as we have seen in figure 2. This infers that to compensate the downfall of the rate of profit, the South Korean government restructured labor organizations to acquire cheap labor-power from its own people.

Unlike the first world capitalist nations, like the USA, South Korea does not have the large amount of immigrant population from which it can exploit. Compared to the USA where immigrants take 15% of the total population, only 2.7 % of population in South Korea is immigrants [9]. In addition to that, South Korea did not and does not have the power to acquire a colony to which it can export capital and import cheap raw materials. Hence, in comparison with the USA where the size of manufacturing industry steadily decreased to 13% of its total national economy due to constant exports of industry capital, South Korea’s manufacturing industry maintained its size of 31% since 1980s [10].

Within the limit of these conditions, the South Korean government had to resolve the economic disaster brought on by the falling rate of profit. The easiest and the most effective way of resolving the crisis was to liquidate labor unions and create precarious works where capitalists can exploit the cheap labor of workers.

The creation of an internal colony first appeared as a restructuring of national business organizations, which, in fact, resulted in creating a vast amount of precarious work. This proliferation of precarious works at the expense of people’s lives is the material basis of the internal colony in South Korea. Accordingly, this material basis is in a complementary relation with its cultural structure.

Cultural structure

So, what does it mean to be a precarious worker in South Korea? Prior to answering that question we should first discuss how social status is generally stratified in South Korea.

South Korea is a society that values education very highly. Not because education nurtures the minds of the young, per se, but because the university from which students graduate brands their social status.

We often hear that Asians parents are too strict on their kids and that they only want their kids to be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. But such is precisely so because being a doctor, or being a “regular worker”, is the only way of living like a human being in a nation like South Korea. The parents’ desire of having their kids accepted to one of the top universities is based upon the social narrative, “if you do not go to those prestigious school, you’re going to be less than the people who have went there.”

Parents who suffered the financial crisis in 1997 and had their kids during 1990s are captured by the fear of their children becoming precarious workers like themselves. So from a very early age, South Korean children go through a rigorous route of education for the mere purpose of getting into a prestigious university.

After a rough and mind-numbing education path for more than 12 years, South Korean students take a university entrance exam. This test decides who is going to “matter” in society.

But even after the 12 years of preliminary education, most students cannot get into one of those top Universities. For it actually is a physical impossibility for the University to accept every student. So, most students fail.

Let us just think for a second. A person sacrificed 12 years of her life for the mere purpose of getting into a university. During that murderous path, the pain that she had to bear was often legitimized by the discriminatory narrative of only the ones who get into prestigious Universities “matter”.

We should note here that this narrative has its physical ground on the actual presence of precarious work. In other words, the actual reality for the people who cannot get a degree from a prestigious university is to become a precarious worker. The “precarious worker”, which has been portrayed as undesirable and taught to be detested by parents, is the only identity that those failed students can acquire at the end of the day (or at the end of 12 years).

One peculiar thing to note here is that the discriminatory narrative is not in a direct, physical relation to the existence of precarious works. The narrative, though it is bound to its physical reality, has its own freedom of existence; hence, it can be reproduced and reinforced by itself. Accordingly, the reinforcement and reproduction of the narrative blinds one to see the actual physical reality upon which the narrative is based (the presence of precarious work).

For instance, the students who failed the university entrance exam rarely criticizes the education system and how it stratifies social status in South Korea. They mostly say: “well, I wasn’t prepared enough” or “I did not study efficiently.” Those students do not point out the oppressive narrative with which they have been educated, neither are they determined to resist against this insanely exploitative education system. The dominant existence of precarious works is not understood in relation to the social narrative they internalized, but just as a job, or an identity, to be avoided at all cost.

Let us further analyze how the reproduction and reinforcement of this social narrative functions with respect to precarious workers.

Cases of suicide among precarious workers are as widespread as the work itself. I cannot state all the suicidal cases here, but note well that the suicidal rate in South Korea is in the top among the OECD nations [11]. This is saddening enough, but what is more saddening is that the precarious workers themselves accept this same narrative which oppresses them and rationalizes their suffering.

For example:

A precarious worker committed suicide because she was fired even at the promise of her boss changing her labor contract to that of a regular worker. It was later found out that she was often sexually harassed by her boss. Yet, she just kept it in herself because she thought that if she resisted, she would not get the “regular job”. However, at the end of her labor contract, she got a text from the company saying that she was fired. The boss who promised to give her the “regular job” did not even bother to call her or meet her in person. She just got a text. The sense of frustration, betrayal, and the text, which brutally showed her social status in South Korea, lead her to commit suicide.

What is more sorrowful is that the cruel honesty of affirming this narrative imposed on precarious workers is written in her last will. In the last will, there was a sentence saying that she does not want to live like a “laborer” but a “capitalist”. This is a very honest expression from the person who has been economically exploited and socially looked down. This is the narrative that lower class parents say to their children when they come home from their arduous work: “Don’t be like me. Be like my boss.”

We should realize that the discriminatory social narrative imposed on precarious workers does not just exist within the realm of precarious work. It exists through every social relation that people make in society, whether the people are precarious workers or not.

The reproduction of the discriminatory social narrative is reproduced by the people who exist in the society where its economic structure is based upon exploiting the cheap labor of precarious workers. Accordingly, it is reinforced by the people who affirm that narrative and take political action on its behalf.

Users of Il-Bae (utterly shameful and purely disgusting website of right wing fascists in South Korea) do not challenge the dominant social narrative presented in South Korea. The users affirm the discriminatory narrative imposed on precarious workers and take a step forward; that the narrative is justifiable because we are living in a fair capitalist society. Their rationale is “precarious workers are precarious workers because they deserve to be that. They must have not been a good student in school.” To affirm this position and the actual precariousity of their living existence (most of users on the website are either precarious workers or jobless), they call themselves “losers”. Accordingly, these very people, who consider themselves as a ‘loser’, prey upon the ones who remind them of their precarious social status and/or the ones who challenge the graceful social narrative they have affirmed: women, immigrant workers, labor union members, people of color, socialists, communists, and other precarious workers are the main targets of their hate.

The current out bursting presence of young fascists in South Korea is not a mystery. The chicken is coming home to roost.

The creation of an internal colony, or the proliferation of precarious works within the working class, is not only accomplished by the economic structure of monopolized capital in South Korea, but also by the culture structure that dehumanizes the people of the internal colony, or precarious workers.

The interdependency of economic and cultural structure complement each other in the way that the former provides the physical reality to the latter and the latter reinforces and justifies the existence of the former: this complementary process has created the most ideal conditions for frustrated youth to become fascists. The sudden outburst of young fascists in South Korea is a reaction and a revulsion to the internal colony formulated in the working class.

In my humble opinion, I believe we have two choices in our hands in terms of resolving this economic and political conundrum in South Korea: destroy the established internal colony through united class struggle between regular workers and precarious works or formulate the social structure that can help precarious workers to actually make ends meet. The latter sounds abstract and even revisionist, for it seems to go against the destruction of the internal colony. However, those two are not mutually exclusive but complementary to each other. It is matter of which is more applicable in terms of the specific political situation in South Korea.

The establishment of social organizations that can materially subsidize precarious workers will not only support the lives of the workers, but also expose the lunacy of being employed at full time by capitalists. Accordingly, for such social organizations to be active and achieve their goals in meaning, it must be supported and established by both class conscious precarious workers and regular workers.

No matter what the future holds, the present situation should be clear enough. Precarious workers and their regularly employed counterparts are held hostage by a neoliberal system; a system where fascism is allowed to fester among the youth and the oppressed themselves. The story of South Korea should not be taken lightly. Whether or not your nation can be considered “neoliberal”, the forces of global neoliberalism have an insatiable desire for conquest which may bring the same fascism to your doorstep. Whether or not action is taken against the monopoly capitalists of South Korea and their imperialist allies is a story yet to be written.

[5]⦁ &⦁ number=2⦁ &⦁ seq=4⦁ &⦁ mime=pdf.
[7] Lee Jin Kyung. Theory of Social Formation and Social Science. Green Be, 2010.
[10] Ibid
[11] 사내유보금

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Excellent article. Studying the political situation in the ROK will go a long way to clarifying who is the enemy in the First World.


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