Bori is a student and a part-time staffer at Platform C (@platformckr, platformc.kr), a South Korean activist organization based in Seoul. He is also a co-host of the podcast Red Star Over Asia (@redstaroverasia), covering Asian politics, history, and social movements from a left perspective. Here, you can read Bori's translation of an essay by Hong Myung-kyo, "Towards an East Asian Solidarity from Below," which informs his work both at Platform C and Red Star Over Asia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tommy McGlone: For readers who might not have a ton of context for the current conjuncture in South Korea, would you mind just talking a little bit about who have historically been the key players in South Korean politics (including People's Democracy and the KCTU), then situating things a bit post-2020 election?
Bori: The first point to make about the political system in South Korea is that it's a president-led system. So whichever of the parties has their presidential candidate elected essentially controls the political system. It's been this way since the start of the Korean War, after which South Korea had a series of dictatorships, some military, some not. And throughout that process, the very popular National Assembly's power was diminished and most political powers were concentrated into the presidential administration.
We are currently under the Moon Jae-in "regime," if we reverse Korea spotters’ terminology. It's in its final year; we'll have another presidential election next year. The reason the five-year terms are a bit off is because former President Park Geun-hye’s administration was cut short. It was revealed that she had a connection with a political "puppet master" who was a shaman-like figure. One of the popular allegories that went around during that time compared this figure to Rasputin, and the anti-Park movement was compared to the Russian Revolution.
Another aspect of South Korean politics is how dominated it is by the chaebols, which is a term for conglomerates in Korean. A kind of self-derogatory nickname we have for South Korea is the Republic of Samsung, because that's how influential the chaebols' politics are. Samsung's chairperson Lee Jae-yong was convicted of bribery in 2017, but he was put on parole just recently. So, despite the popular support President Moon had getting into office in the first place after Park was pulled down, there's a continuation of Samsung-dominated politics today.
When Moon Jae-in had a cultural event visiting North Korea, you could see that all of the chaebols were with that envoy as well. In popular liberal discourse, although talks about unification aren't that popular — though there's still a longing by liberals and nationalists as well for reunification — there's an aspirational economic colonization aspect to the discourse. "North Korea has those rare earth metals. It has cheap labor. Think about how much our economy will expand and surge and grow if we can reunify with North Korea." Previous discourse about unification being our dream, that we desire reunification, isn't really hot with the younger generations. But when we talk about economics, there's a strict continuity between liberal and chaebol discourse, because one of the first attempts of reconciling with North Korea by the ruling class was made by Hyundai's chairperson when he brought a string of cows up to North Korea. So this process has made very weird bedfellows.
The last critical aspect of Korean bourgeois politics would be that it's very much a two-party system; you’ll have the democrats and then you'll have the conservatives. They change their party names every few years, so I kind of lose track, but currently, it's officially the Democratic Party and the People Power Party. There was some hope that the conservatives would split after Park was brought down and they couldn't find a strong enough figure to rally around. I still think that's somewhat the case, but they’re coalescing around Yoon Seok-youl. As far as other parties go, there are these small progressive parties, and these very weird conservative parties that are just satellites. The whole political system is such that the winner-takes-all in elections. It was changed recently so that it became more proportionately representational, but this was a compromise, and it was effectively undermined in the last general election by the two main parties.
One of the smaller, progressive parties — which I'm actually a member of — is the Justice Party, which has a couple of representatives elected into the assembly. But other than that, the other progressive parties are very weak. I would include the Justice Party among those weak ranks.
You've also asked about two other things, People's Democracy and the KCTU. These illustrate where I come from in approaching bourgeois politics. So starting from the latter, the KCTU is the acronym for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. It's currently the larger trade confederation of the two which exist. The KCTU was created in response to the state-sponsored Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which pushed down against autonomous organizing. There was a huge debate in the 1980s on what to do with that. Do we join that union and try to democratize it from the inside? Or do we create a separate confederation? But anyhow, by now the KCTU has grown larger than the FKTU.
The KCTU is the result of the mass struggles of the 1980s, during which Marxism was revived. Prior to this, the left was wiped out in the South due to the brutal repression after the Korean War. There was a kind of liberal democracy advocacy/intellectual sphere until the 1970s, but they didn't have mass support. And then, in 1970, the heroic worker Jeon Tae-il self-immolated to draw attention to how poor the working conditions were for the women workers in the garment factories — women and girls, to be frank. Students, who had this kind of moral sense of using their intellectual prowess for social good, turned towards workers as subjects of emancipation. That really got off the ground with the Gwangju Massacre in 1980, after which there was a kind of disillusionment with the United States as a beacon for liberal democracy. Until that moment, it was really kind of assumed that the U.S. was the model that South Korea could aspire to after the military dictatorship was over, but when it was revealed that the U.S. had given the okay for the massacre in Gwangju, there was a disillusionment there, and Marxism became great again. So the KCTU has lots of Marxists and communists embedded within its ranks. Some of the leaders are workers, but among those, some are student radicals who went into the factories to organize and build labor unions from the ground up.
People's Democracy is a name of a tendency of the left. It's in contrast to National Liberation, because there was a schema very popular in the 1980s, the NLPDR, short for the National Liberation-People's Democracy Revolution. The idea was that first, you would have to address the contradiction of a divided nation, North and South Korea, and then you would go for a people's democratic revolution, something like that. However, there was an internal split between the NLs and the PDs over what was the “primary contradiction,” to use Maoist terminology. The PDs were those who said that you couldn't explain South Korea (back in the 1980s) as a simple American colony or as a semi-feudal kind of state; you had to address how strong capital was and the autonomy South Korean capital had.
I wouldn't say that People's Democracy exists as an entity in-and-of-itself, but is rather a broad range of tendencies, groups, and organizations. I would also finally add that I really don't see a lot of national liberationist theorists today. National Liberation is more of an organizational continuity rather than an ideological commitment. Of course, there is an ideological commitment to National Liberation, but it's not argued for, it's assumed in an organizational form. Whereas although the PD tendency also exists in organizational forms as well, you could additionally presumably argue theory on a more substantial level with PD. You could see from my descriptions that I identify more in the vein of the People's Democracy tradition.
Tommy: To expand a little bit on some of the stuff you're saying about the KCTU and its embedded nature, would you mind painting a broadish picture of the state of labor organizing today in South Korea and how that relates to leftist organizations, but also to existing union structures?
Bori: So I've already mentioned that the Republic of Korea — AKA the Republic of Samsung — is politically dominated by the chaebols, but they can alter the economic system to their needs and wants as well. A brief economic history would be that in the 1970s, what dominated Korean exports was small industry. So you would have garments, you would have wigs, and it was very much based on the labor of women. There was a turn in the 1980s towards more heavy industry. So you would have the steel industry, you would have dock workers, you'd have shipbuilding, and then you would start building cars, stuff like that. And it became much more broad-based: you would have large factories, which employ thousands of workers who would all go into the same factory at the same time — usually male-based.
What changed during that time was not just what kind of industry the state promoted, but also where workers were from. So as usual in developing countries, you would have a surplus of labor coming from the countryside, pouring into the cities. The workers themselves are looking for a better life, but for the capitalists, they keep the wage levels down — they also constitute the urban poor. In the 1980s, when there was a move to the heavy industries, you would have some sections of those workers becoming employed regularly in those factories. You had a model where if you worked long enough for the factory, you would be granted lots of benefits. The healthcare system in South Korea is very deeply connected to employment; contrary to some depictions of Korea having a very great public health care system, there are lots of caveats with that. Anyhow, you have these workers being regularly employed with contracts and gradually larger benefits. This was not just granted to them. Obviously, this was achieved through the heroic struggles of labor organizing, especially after the eruption of labor struggles in 1987. This was the year of formal liberalization in South Korea; the dictatorship ended and general elections were held. There were labor struggles throughout July, August, and September of 1987. There were wildcat strikes all over the country, and they created autonomous, democratically-led unions that were separate from the state-led unions, and they fought for those benefits.
But in 1997, there was a financial crisis and the IMF stepped in. The documents of the inner workings of the IMF have only this summer been published and released, so we can get a fuller picture in the coming years. But at the time, the IMF recommended structural reforms. That was basically when neoliberalism as an ideology was fully implemented in South Korea — although you could argue that the origins of neoliberalism in South Korea start earlier than that, especially if you understand neoliberalism not as the marketization of everything but as taking away power from labor unions, individualizing workers, and making them fight each other rather than letting them fight together collectively. These measures were brought in earlier than 1997, especially in, say, modularization in car manufacturing: the modification of the factories meant that you didn't have to have all the workers just in one single factory. You could separate those manufacturing processes into smaller entities and create factories here and there. The technology improvements meant that it became less labor-intensive. So you could lay off workers that were not essential or did not have specialized skills. So in that sense subcontracting became a huge thing.
So this was the point I was trying to build up towards. This is the general condition that the KCTU and the broader labor movement finds itself in.
Two things: when I speak of the Samsung Republic, Samsung prided itself on its 70-year-old policy of not allowing any labor unions to exist in their factories, and that has generally held true. When I encountered the radical movement of South Korea after I entered university in 2014, my seniors took me to the rallies of the service center workers of Samsung Electronics. These were the engineers that went individually into the customer's houses to repair electronics: air conditioners or refrigerators and stuff like that. They wear the vests of Samsung Electronics, and they think of themselves as Samsung Electronics employees; customers think of them as Samsung Electronics engineers, but they're technically not employed by Samsung Electronics. They're subcontracted by Samsung Electronics to Samsung Electronics service centers. There are various subcontracts. At Samsung, for example, I remember reading about there being 17 layers to their manufacturing. This kind of model for controlling labor is generalized in service work, cleaning services, building maintenance, etc.
This is extremely important because of the second aspect: there's a labor standards act in South Korea, but this only applies to businesses that employ more than five workers. Less than that, it doesn't apply. Minimum wage does apply, but other benefits the business doesn't have to grant to employees. It's a very huge loophole, because 5 million workers in South Korea are employed in sectors that have less than five workers. So that's a big bunch. Keep in mind that the Korean population is 50 million. So at least 10% — a huge proportion of workplaces — do not have the labor standard act applicable to them. So, when you're subcontracted and you are in a workplace that does not have the labor standard act there to protect you, then it's hard to have the three labor rights guaranteed. The three labor rights in Korea are the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to collective action. But these are very hard to guarantee when labor protections aren't applicable. This is directly connected to the social security that South Korea has, weak as it is. If you're outside of that net, if you're not employed in a bigger business, then you don't have healthcare benefits — or at least it's significantly lower, and you have a much higher chance of falling into poverty.
Tommy: In an article you sent us by Baek Seung-wook, Baek argues there is a shift in theorizing the situation in South Korea from this lens of neocolonial state-monopoly capitalism to a model of neoliberalism and alter-globalization. How has this neoliberal model of subcontracting dictated both theoretical responses and practical responses from organizations and from left/Marxist theorists?
Bori: I think another thing to keep in mind here is what I’ve mentioned earlier: the return of Marxism was in the 1980s. The heyday of social science (including Marxism, but also other currents) occurred later, in the 1990s. It really surprises me when I go into old used bookstores and discover these books that have been translated — these were all done in the 1990s, the books are all tattered and yellow. But this same period marked the beginning of the general downfall of Marxism as well. So there was this big social formation debate about how to characterize the stage of development in South Korea and the place of South Korea in the world system. It was very theoretical, very theoreticist, and I think idealist in various aspects as well. And then, after that whole debate that characterized an era, Marxism died out. Marxism gave way to the various post-things: post-structuralism with the import of Deleuze and others, post-colonialism, postmodernism. Personally, that's why I had to kind of grapple with the Marxist inheritance as someone who identifies himself in the broad "post-structuralist" tradition.
But anyhow, neoliberalization became a catch-all concept. Everything was suddenly happening “because of neoliberalization.” And it's still kind of like that to this day. I think I've actually learned more from recent studies in neoliberalism in the Anglosphere, which characterize it by separating the practices of neoliberalism from the ideology of neoliberalism. I don't think that's a popular conception here in South Korea right now, currently. There’s a kind of a reluctance to theorize either neoliberalism or capitalism as such. There's a joke that if you kind of stubbed your toe it's because of neoliberalism or something like that — that's how prevalent its use is for establishing those kinds of causal relationships. So I don't think it's really a helpful metric.
The reason I brought this up is because there aren't distinct eras where you move on from one theoretical problematic to another; it was more the dying-out of the debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s leading to pretty much nothing. There was a huge move towards the alter-globalization movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s through the World Social Forum and stuff like that. I always read about those references, but as someone not from that era; there's also a lack of literature in South Korea about the 1990s and early 2000s current as well, so I can't really speak much for that. I just wanted to point out that kind of dying out of discourse. That's one of the problems I'm grappling with myself.
So how do we understand South Korea's position now? This connects to my interest in international solidarity, but also South Korea's relationship to American imperialism. All those old categories about neocolonialism or sub-imperialism, stuff like that, sometimes may obscure more than they clarify. I don't know what might be the appropriate categories or concepts or theoretical frameworks to understand South Korea's position in the world currently. I think there needs to be much more study there, and this underdevelopment of theorization is what is pointed out by the term neoliberalism, I would say.
Tommy: You have a podcast, Red Star Over Asia, which focuses on Asian politics in a really internationalist way. What, both personally and theoretically, brought about your interest in international solidarity, and how do you think it's related specifically to this strange global political moment we're in?
Bori: I think the thing about political realization is that you discover where you are rather than consciously moving towards it. My pathway would be kind of trying to grapple with the melancholia that's prevalent in leftist organizing. So we had this golden age, this heyday, despite state repression, in the 1980s and 1990s; what do we have now?
All the student organizations and radical sects are collapsing. Reproducing militant activists for various, say, labor unions or also other social movement organizations, is not working. There's a lack of new blood and I see that in real-time. When I was in a student organization in 2014, on my campus, there were about like, oh, a hundred participants. The next year, there were 50. So you see those things happen and you think to yourself, "I don't want to be the person to close my organization before I graduate." That might be one of the reasons why I'm still having trouble graduating [laughs].
But how to grapple with that sense of loss? Wendy Brown calls it "leftist melancholia;" Jodi Dean wrote about it as well. Personally, I'm for Rodrigo Nunes’s work; I think his way of formulating it probably makes the most sense to me at the moment. And then there's also Enzo Traverso. But when you talk about trying something new to your senior organizers, it gets pushed back by "we've tried it before, it didn't work."
Now, I guess one of the things that prompted me to reach out in English to comrades abroad was: “Okay, so there's this broad sense of defeat here in South Korea, but what does that look like in the broader context? There should be leftists outside of our country.” And I came to realize this missing internationalism is precisely the lack in South Korea.
It's very starkly in contrast to what Korean communists were like in the early 20th century, because when Korean communists did not have a country, they started out kind of like moralist nationalists. Eventually, however, they heard about the Bolshevik Revolution, and some of them took a train and went to Moscow and saw the future for themselves and committed to communism. There were various attempts at building a Joseon communist movement — “Joseon” was the previous dynasty's name before modern “Korea.” These communists tried to organize and sometimes succeeded in organizing communists in Korea, but aside from that, they had to help launch the Chinese Communist Party. They also had to be a huge presence in the Japanese Communist Party, because the Comintern's policy was “one party in one nation.”
You can also see this in documents. So in the Chinese characters — because northeast Asia has this shared heritage of using Chinese characters, like Latin characters for Europe — there's the two-letter word for liberation, haebahng. And it's shared in Japan and Korea and Taiwan and in some parts of China. That's because all of the militants using the term were in the same party. So they shared the terminology as well. But despite that legacy, because of the left being wiped out after and throughout the Korean War and the harsh military dictatorship being imposed, South Korea practically became an island. It still is a peninsula, connected to the larger continent, but you have a very militarized zone in between and a very hostile confrontation between the two nation-states.
So a lot of theoretical imports came from Japan, and many militants in the 1980s learned Japanese. The turn to English happened in the 1990s, and before that, there was a very high literacy level of Japanese. So lots of Marxist texts and textbooks were circulated in Japanese or translated into Korean from the Japanese versions.
Now yes, there are various attempts at international solidarity. There are positions within the trade unions, the KCTU has one director for internationalism. The KMWU (Korean Metal Workers' Union) has one, the KPTU (Korean Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Union) has one as well, but these people are very busy with “calendar work”. I don't know if that's an appropriate term, but basically, you have to go to other meetings with other international organizations: the KCTU is affiliated with the ILO, so you would have to attend those meetings and share reports and updates and keep in contact with trade unions in other countries.
Labor union organizing is not constrained within the trade unions themselves. Labor unions in South Korea are very embedded in social movements, as that's the only way they can win in their struggles in their workplaces in the first place. When they're thoroughly embedded in their local districts, where they extend solidarity to other struggles: that's the condition for actually winning their strikes or winning concessions from their bosses.
Yet it seems that internationalism isn't a starting point for lots of social movements. It's an afterthought. I'm not saying that there haven't been attempts — that would be an outright lie, because, for example, when the KCTU and various left social movements thought of trying to create a political party that would be actually representational of their base — that was the Democratic Labor Party — delegates visited Brazil to learn from the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores), about local organizing, about how to embed in the neighborhoods and stuff like that. And those attempts were important. There was also a craze for Venezuela with Chavez in the early 2000s as well. But with the decline of social movements in South Korea overall, that kind of interest has faded out.
But now, it's not just about learning about things abroad, but also a practical issue with factories in South Korea being relocated to Southeast Asia or South Asia: India, Vietnam, Cambodia, China. When the factories completely relocate, then the workers organized within the boundaries of South Korea can't do anything about it. So internationalism is a precondition for continuing on in those struggles. Yet, there's a serious lack of investment in that area. So I guess this is my wager, and if I can still contribute and work towards emancipation in the South Korean context, this might be the area that I can actually contribute more towards. And that’s not to mention learning lessons from diverse contexts and also being able to contextualize South Korea's sometimes vibrant, sometimes stagnating social movement history in a more global and historical context is what prompted me to take interest in international solidarity.
Tommy: I had a professor point out to me once when we were reading Giovanni Arrighi that it’s always a problem how national forms of organization hit these sorts of walls, because capital can just sort of dance from nation to nation, organizing itself at will. I think that's such a strong point that you make there.
Andrew McWhinney: In contrast to this leftist or communist understanding of international solidarity, there's been this sort of development over time of this idea of East Asian capitalism, kind of like an “internationalism of capital,” trying to seize on an essentialist development model that relies on very reified "Eastern values." So is the need for “East Asian solidarity from below,” as Hong Myung-kyo says in an article you translated, the need to think about international solidarity, also related to the development of these ideas of capitalism trying to seize on a particular kind of ideological understanding of "East Asia?"
Bori: So in the Myung-kyo article, it explicitly states that's why it's needed, but I think there are two caveats. One is that the discussion about “East Asia” was a hot topic in South Korea for a limited period of 20 years. So in the 1990s and 2000s, you got research grants if you hitched on the keyword "East Asia." There were lots of vacuous articles because of that. So a variety of articles that were written about East Asia or the whole discourse about it meant that you would have competing ideologies within that discourse as well. “East Asian capitalism” was one of the right-wing interpretations of East Asia that put forth a kind of cultural essentialism, whether that be Confucianism or something else — maybe the common use of Chinese characters could be another basis — as a kind of attempt to differentiate from the West, while trying to lump in Japan and China and South Korea to articulate a vision for the future on that basis.
So what I want to say by mentioning this is that I don't think a lot of people talk about “East Asia” anymore. It has completely died down. So this is another very interesting or very tedious aspect of South Korea's intellectual culture: there are no established starting points. So one fad leads to another, but doesn't leave an image of what came before. If another craze comes, then you go after that. So you have these ruins of various intellectual fads, but no real beginnings. This is even starker, in contrast, to maybe say Japan or China.
Baek theorizes this as the lack of a “history of thought” in Korea; you can see resonations of that in discussions about the constitution of South Korea, of the Republic of Korea, whether it should be based on the provisional government that was in Shanghai during Japanese occupation. And there's a discrepancy there: when there was a provisional government in Shanghai, they deferred writing a constitution until after an actual nation-state was established, but when an actual nation-state was established, it was deferred back to Shanghai. I guess Tommy would understand from his Rousseauian roots — the idea of a self-referential constitution of a political body — but in South Korea, it's deferred to each other; there's no discourse of an establishment of modernity.
That’s an endless restart, and it explains the intellectual impasses here in South Korea. "East Asia" would be another example; post-structuralism and the craze about Deleuze and his cinematic theory would be another. Althusser even was a craze at one point! There are these crazes that come and pass and “East Asia” was one of them. So that makes me kind of curious how to approach or articulate international solidarity without recourse to the Comintern, but also in a more concretized, local context.
And I guess that would be East Asia, even if not a lot of people talk about it. There are still ways of concretizing it further. The borders of what constitutes East Asia are very flexible, elastic, and maybe you could be opportunistic about it, but I think it somewhat builds a framework. And to figure out how workable that framework is and how actual its borders are, I think a lot of work needs to be put into understanding the concrete reality of East Asia: capital flow, national connections, geopolitics, and then the extent of social movements being embedded.
For example, there's a surprising amount of support for Myanmar in South Korea. August 8 was the anniversary of Myanmar's 8-8-88 democracy protests, which were brutally and very bloodily put down by the junta. There were a lot of resonances in South Korea for that. It's a very stark example of a popular front because there's no reluctance in supporting them; it seems like there's a clear allegory to the democratization movement in the 1980s in South Korea as well. There's also the case of the allegory of the struggle against a military dictatorship. There are a lot of Myanmar migrants in South Korea, whether that be through working in factories or other areas, or students studying abroad in South Korea. And those Myanmar migrants are in various cities around South Korea, so they all have their local points for struggling as well. And there's a lot of strong support there — though South Korea isn't a part of the Milk Tea Alliance, despite its shared Sinophobia, which is a problematic aspect of the Milk Tea Alliance and another worrying aspect of South Korea's turn in its chauvinism against China.
But if you can see an expansion of that kind of sentiment — of sharing a historical struggle together — that might expand the category of East Asia as well, because that would be a kind of lens of understanding terms for understanding "East Asia." And "Southeast Asia" is always fluctuating in South Korea as well. So for example, Hong Kong or Taiwan: are they Northeast Asia? I don't think that people would argue that. So they're kind of lumped into a broader "East Asia." I don't think people, at least South Koreans, would categorize Singapore as part of Southeast Asia, because “Southeast Asia” has this kind of racist connotation of more “brownish” people being in very hot weather and stuff like that, where it's cheap to go for tourism and stuff.
So there are hints of a category that might work for building international solidarity. Whether “East Asia” works or not is up for grabs.
Tommy: I'm curious about your perspective on how the history of anti-capitalism in South Korea relates to concepts of democracy, or even popular understandings of democracy, or an ideology of democracy. How does this relate to the many long historical struggles against imperialism from Japan and from the United States, but also against the dictatorships?
Bori: I don't think any of the characteristics of the South Korean left's relationship to democracy or democratization are peculiar to South Korea. I think it's more generalizable. I think it's an inherent tendency within Marxism as well, because that's what the left constituted itself around.
So on the one hand you would have very hierarchical internal organizing models inherited from Marxism-Leninism. This was the case under brutal repression as well. You see the remnants of that still here today. All of the sect forms are direct continuations from the 1980s, despite various internal discussions. And especially in the downturn of social movements, when there is no steady influx of recruits, an organization stagnates, becomes more rigid, tries to enforce more strict ideological borders. That's tied into hierarchical positions and that's how leftist organizations die out. That's in play right now here. But on the other hand, I think there are positive inheritances from Comintern policy, especially the United Front policy. Even despite disagreements about what the primary contradiction of South Korea is, NLs and PDs had a united front in various struggles.
This was a way for various mass organizations to have their leadership have a seat at the table and discuss a kind of common understanding of what people should struggle against together, even if there were differences between groups in their analysis of the conjuncture. But that broke down in 2006 or 2007 with the internal implosions of the Democratic Labor Party that I spoke of earlier. National Liberationists basically broke off and built their own kind of common front group: The Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement (KAPM). So we don't have that united front anymore.
Before that, all of it was always about democratization, because at least from my organizational lineage, I understand emancipation as self-emancipation and self-control. And I think you can see those resonations in the piece I translated as "from below," as distinct from state-led, top-down approaches. So what I mentioned is that there's a blatant contradiction or tension between applying that for society at large and applying it for oneself. So the organizational internal models for democracy are very weak in contrast to the actual contributions the left had for the democratization of South Korea.
Andrew: We've been speaking very specifically about labor and class and democratic struggles in South Korea. How do these movements relate to other kinds of anti-oppression movements in South Korea?
Bori: Anti-racism and anti-colonialism would be cases where South Koreans often situate themselves in the oppressed category rather than the oppressor category, despite a lot of indicators suggesting they should do otherwise. For example, there were various Chinese migrants in Korea in the 20th century, but they were massacred by civilians. I haven't encountered this history too much, so I need to read up more about it, but this chauvinistic attitude has a long history. But on the other hand, what is in popular memory is the massacre of Koreans in Tokyo after the great earthquake, when the Japanese had to blame some external force for being the cause of great suffering, accusing Koreans of poisoning the wells, etc. So there is a kind of anti-colonialism in the form of being anti-Japanese.
There's also a chauvinistic attitude towards the Chinese, but there are also Chinese Koreans: those who have Chinese citizenship but are ethnically Korean, living as immigrants in South Korea. They constitute the lower strata of the working class and are in more precarious positions, take up more precarious work, and face very racist attitudes. So that's one aspect that international solidarity will have to fill in; it's a very blatant, gaping hole. Not to mention the increase of migrant workers in Korea from various regions in Southeast and South Asia: Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, et cetera. I mention Nepal and Bangladesh especially because the chairperson and vice-chairperson of the Migrant Workers’ Trade Union, the MTU, are Nepalese and Bangladeshi respectively.
But there is, I would say, a quite strong feminist movement in South Korea. It's good to understand it through second-wave feminist history. There was a united front of overturning the military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, but that came with ignoring and suppressing internal contradictions, especially chauvinistic attitudes towards women: there would be coverups, there would be very inappropriate attitudes that were hushed. And so women were feeling excluded from the democratization movement and various leftist, radical student movements. They would become the “young feminists,” but they were young in their era; we're talking about the 1990s here, so they aren't the new generation anymore.
I bring up the young part because there has been a sort of recent revival of feminism, starting from 2016. If you go back a bit more, around 2015 there was a murder of a woman at the Gangnam station, and this was explicitly understood in structural terms. This was not just an unstable person randomly lashing out at someone; it was explicitly stated that he was looking for a woman victim. He let three men pass him by before he stabbed her. This was understood within a broader understanding of misogyny as pervading various aspects of culture. And so there were call-outs of various chat rooms in universities about the inappropriate ways people discuss sex or denigrate their fellow female students.
One great example of feminism being strong here would be the different dynamic of the #MeToo movement in South Korea. It was not instantly co-opted by liberal feminists in office: it struck out various people in leadership positions and also created this kind of grassroots #MeToo in various sectors: sports, arts, publications, literature, theater, just to name a few — there were all these hashtags “#Sexual_Violence_in_XX_Sector (#00계_내_성폭력).” This was in stark contrast to, I guess, Joe Biden and how liberal feminists in the U.S. responded to that accusation, really covering his ass there.
But I guess I should mention that there was a similar thing that happened with the ex-Seoul mayor Park Won-soon when he perpetrated sexual violence against his secretary. That information was initially shared privately within the Korean Women’s Associations United, but an ex-leader, Nam In-Soon, who is now a National Assembly member, relayed that information to Park, which led him to commit suicide. Currently, the KWAU is undergoing an internal process for reform to prevent similar incidents from happening again in the future. But as you can see, there was the power, the drive for that transformation to take place in the first place. That indicates that there is popular support and energy within the feminist movement.
Another significant event would be the Hundred Person Committee For Eradicating Sexual Violence Within Activist Society. It happened in the early 2000s within the progressive movement. Incidents of various degrees of violence were lumped in all together to indicate that we're trying to demarcate from what is acceptable and what is not.
And there were excesses, but a lot of standards were set on what kind of rules should be abided by and what processes should be undertaken if someone is being accused of sexual violence. I guess what I've found interesting looking into Anglosphere literature is how sexual violence has been generalized into interpersonal violence or abuse, whereas in South Korea, it's still mainly approached in terms of sexual violence perpetrated against women, in its various manifestations, whether that be outright rape to inappropriate remarks, which is harassment in the workplace, and all those power dynamics in between.
And it's still in that process. So what this indicates is that there is not much of a reflection or a pure problematization of those categories. I owe how I approach feminism a lot to Luce Irigaray; of citizenship being sexed, with rights for women: the right to not be sexually objectified, the right to their own sexuality, and the right to motherhood. I think these concepts are problematized when the scope includes queer people, but that's not an avenue that's pursued a lot. That said, people are aware, at least good feminist organizers are all aware of this problem, and are trying to intake queer theory because there's also the more, very explicitly TERF tendency in South Korea as well. And you can see this tendency being dominant for those that had not encountered feminism until recently.
One horrific example would be when just a hundred Yemenese refugees arrived in Jeju Island and self-professed feminists were arguing that these refugees should not be allowed because they would be more prone to rape women because the refugees were bringing in “those kinds of cultures” with them, that the men should have stayed back at home and fought for their own country, stuff like that. And we're not talking about any number on a scale of larger than 100 people. We're talking about a hundred refugees that created this huge backlash in the name of “feminism.”
So I guess the point would be: labor/class struggles and other anti-oppression struggles are separate, but not necessarily antagonistic. The metal workers’ union, for example, struggles to recruit women in their ranks and also promote them into leadership roles. That's not to say that it's not advocated for, but it's a difficulty that they're trying to address. And this is very important to account for because of the gendered aspect of labor in South Korea, where most of the women work in subcontracted jobs in businesses that employ less than five people. There's a huge gender wage gap in South Korea as well, not to mention the M-curve, where women have a hard time returning to their jobs after they've raised children and “lost their specialization”.
So these are definitely aspects that need to be addressed that are not being adequately addressed at the moment. One last thing is that... I guess this could be a clarifying example of what the gender aspect of labor in South Korea is. The eating-out culture in South Korea is really great. People from overseas would come to Korea and marvel about the variety and the cheapness of eating out, especially in contrast to trying to make food at home, because the costs for doing that are much higher. What accounts for those low costs for eating out is how women are employed in those sectors; about how restaurants usually employ less than five people.
I personally worked at a pork broth soup restaurant that employed five people. I was one, there was a male manager, and three were women. Two of those women were Korean Chinese and all three were not being paid the minimum wage. I asked why; they said it was a compromise of acquiring a job that's near enough to their home — but they were also taking into account how badly the restaurant was doing. And frankly, the restaurant did close the next year. But that kind of illustrates how gendered labor is in South Korea, in a certain aspect.
Tommy: You're involved with Platform C. Could you talk a little bit in general about what kinds of organizing you've been involved in, and how that culminated in your current involvement with Platform C?
Bori: I guess I term it as my encounter with the emancipatory movement in South Korea in 2014. Before that, I was more of a nationalist liberal angered by a lot of injustices in this country, especially with my educational upbringing. But having seniors take you to rallies and listen to people speak for themselves in those spaces, trying to organize stuff like that: it's radicalizing, but also I guess, a humbling experience. One way to understand it is — and I've never seen it being used in Korean — but a “mass line”. You go out to the masses, learn from them, be a part of them, try to articulate their struggles, stuff like that.
I guess that kind of summarizes it in part, but that's the modus operandi for all radical student organizing, regardless of whether you're a Maoist or not, because that's what works. So that was 2014-2015. 2014-2015 was student organizing. I was part of a club that studied political economy; I've recently tweeted that political economy is a euphemism for Marxism — I guess “Marxist political economy,” but you can get into debates about that with what the subtitle of Capital Vol. 1 is, whether that is “political economy” or a “critique of political economy.” I won't get into that, but in Korea, the term used is political economy, and part of that is a result of state repression. “Political economy” was part of those underground circles that became public during the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, after he allowed a loosening up of cultural norms. My club was part of that. One of the things that I still hold dear is one of the explanations that my senior gave to me: that our club has a proud tradition of consistently calling for the step down for all the South Korean presidents up until now. That we're in opposition to liberals and right-wingers alike.
But I had trouble thinking about what my future would be because I was an aspiring engineering student when I entered university, and frankly organizing did not have to do with what I had to study, and to an extent that still applies right now as well. I was burned out by that experience, so I started my military service then, from 2016-2017. But the thing is that if you start doing military service, you're cut out from your mass base, so to speak. So I lost track of what they were doing, but this two years experience of organizing was strong enough that I had to keep on reflecting on my experience on my organizing attempts: What went wrong? What's the source of this melancholia? What can I do better? Why do so many sexual violence accusations come up in my community? How do I respond to that? Am I like a male ally, or am I a feminist proper? How do I understand that? What is my position towards that?
But also, how did I treat my juniors? What kind of authority did I assume? Because the thing is, I had an exasperated feeling as if I had to grab onto something of a tradition that shouldn't be lost. So even despite not completely understanding it, I had to keep shoving that imagined tradition down my juniors' throats as well. And it was not something I was proud of or something I enjoyed, but I thought it was necessary. When I had to perform that role, there was no senior that could mediate, who could have explained my part in that whole process and could have given me the distance to reflect and maybe correct my malpractices. When that mediating role and shoving-down role is one and the same person, it's really hard to find the balance or lessen tensions in the first place. So I grasped my impasse there, but I guess reading The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière helped me realize that I assumed too much knowledge. That's not how teaching goes; that's not how self-emancipation goes.
So after I finished military service, I didn't really have anywhere to go. I read a lot more secondary literature on Althusser. So that pushed me back into a sort of organizing, but still, there were not a lot of spaces I could return to, nor somewhere I could have a similar understanding of how to approach politics. And that's where Platform C comes in. Platform C is an organization born out of disenfranchised ex-members of People's Solidarity for Social Progress (PSSP), which used to be a kind of a united front organization when it was first launched in 1997. It was an organization for activists, militants, and intellectuals to be a part of, and tried to coalesce a lot of leftists that were in isolation together into a group, but it has gradually degenerated into what I would call a sect today. And that's why the founders of Platform C either left the organization or were practically kicked out.
My student organizing days were, in a word, with the student wing of the PSSP. So I encountered the same organizational problems the founders of Platform C identified in the practices that I was part of as well. Our common understanding is that there needs to be a steady reproduction of militants that are knowledgeable of the history, the ethics, the principles of being embedded in social movements, contributing to those movements and pushing them towards communism. The various aspects of theory and other things can be debated along the way.
So you obviously don’t want a sect, but also you don’t want a Leninist organizing model where cadre already hold the answers and depict from above how to conduct things. On the contrary, you would want to promote a variety of models for militants to aspire to, depending on which social movements you're embedded within, the character, the nature of that organization, what its relationship to other NGOs, other mass movements, the state apparatuses, et cetera, are. There might be various models, and sometimes you will have progressive intellectuals, progressive organizers who don't necessarily share your understanding of communism or socialism, yet are doing great work. How do you work with them in a common setting? You can't be a sect in that sense either. But also, how do you promote intellectual discussions and a culture of treating each other equally and freely?
One peculiar cultural aspect of South Korea — I'm not entirely sure what it's like in North Korea, although I've heard some stories — is that there are different ways of addressing seniors from addressing juniors or equals. Usually, you have to put in more effort to address your seniors. The words become a bit different. And I argue that's not a particular “cultural” aspect to Korea. It's a peculiar political condition where there was no "May '68 moment" in South Korea; there was no mass upheaval of various cultural practices, because you can see in early 20th century Western cinema where you would address your senior as "sir," “ma'am,” and you would have to be very respectful.
You could imagine something like that, and that still plays out in Korea. So the seniors, the main founders of Platform C, are more than a decade older than I am. Yet, they've never addressed me as someone lower than them, which was a shock to me, because usually in Korea, if you assume someone is younger than yourself, even if it's a complete stranger, you start talking down to them. Now, even when you address someone as an equal, there are still ways of assuming superiority, right? You can get very passive-aggressive, you can assert your authority. There are various ways of being a postmodern father, and you need to be aware of that kind of contradiction, because there are situations where authority plays out, but you shouldn't assume you know better. You actually need to make the argument for why a certain practice is better, rather than taking it up in a moralistic manner, asserting why the other person should be listening to you and accepting it as it is.
So although awareness of this problem was explicitly mentioned, in some ways, the practices in the organizations I was part of didn’t always successfully address it. Spinning this in a positive light, the Balibarian in me would formulate it as “residing in the contradictions,” rather than trying to repress, suppress, or overcome them, because that's a much more complicated thing that can't be done in one stroke, and you need to get into the nitty-bitties of various concrete practices. You have to approach it in tactical and strategic ways so that they are undermined. You need to be very open about how you address others in an equal fashion, in a democratic fashion, so that it actually concretizes and actualizes those things that you aspire towards.
I might be giving a very romantic view of what Platform C is because these are things that are agreed upon at a more abstract level and attempts are being made to concretize them. Platform C is very much more a potentiality. But what it does, at least on a surface level, would be trying to create avenues for reproducing those militants, providing those kinds of practical lessons, but also know-how to pass down.
There's a joke about the C in Platform C is China, because of its explicit focus on China, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Myung-kyo is the mastermind behind that. So a focus on East Asian internationalism. Another C would be climate change. That's another primary focus point. A leftist take on climate politics in South Korea was published in pamphlet form last month, and that's, to my knowledge, the only practical Marxist take on environmental politics in South Korea at the moment. And other focuses would be the various labor struggles and feminist movements as well. So it's a place to gather for people in various social movements to try and create another united front. Even if Platform C itself is not the main center of that, it promotes work towards that end.
Tommy: Can you tell our readers about your podcast Red Star Over Asia, and what made you want to start that project?
Bori: What we aspired towards when we started this project was a kind of networking platform for Asian leftists. So the primary audience would be leftist organizers in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, what have you. And although we're using English as our primary language, we all have to start somewhere. Frankly, English is the only other language that I speak. And it's de facto the universal language at the moment. So that would be the weak justification for the language.
While it's a podcast that talks about social movements, politics, and history in Asia from a left perspective, it's not about promoting individual personalities or the podcast as such, but of trying to reach out and connect and establish a working relationship with leftists in the region. So far it hasn't worked out as well as we would like, but I guess we've also decided that might take some time.
Another important aspect I shouldn't leave out is that all the co-hosts are related to Korea in some fashion. So I'm a Korean citizen, born in Korea, who had a brief period of living in the U.S. at that critical language acquisition stage. So that explains my accent. Jack, I think, was born in Korea, but was raised in South Africa. Jay was born in Korea, but he went to an international school in Vietnam. Jack speaks Korean; Jay doesn't. And then we have Mike, who is an American who moved to Korea and is now married to a Korean woman and living very happily. I think he's looking forward to living here and organizing in a political fashion in the future.
So we're all connected in different ways through the local region, particularly South Korea. And that's the starting point of discussing and trying to connect with other countries. I guess you could see some connections of that East Asian solidarity with some resonances in our podcast. I won't say that we've reached very significant development. But that's what we're aspiring to.
Tommy: You've emphasized international solidarity as such a crucial element for leftist politics in South Korea, for economic and trade reasons, but also just for other organizational reasons. From your perspective, what kind of relationships are important for international solidarity?
Bori: So I'm thinking about two things. One thing is the word "solidarity." This is something etched into my mind. In my first year of student organizing, I participated in this anti-poverty solidarity project. It's a week of going to various sites in Seoul of anti-poverty struggles, whether that be anti-eviction, or protesting the removal of street vendors, or working with the homeless; people having to live in very weak infrastructure and abject poverty. There was also the experience of participating in rallies; I was taught that a good activist attends rallies at least three or four times a week, and that's to be expected. This protest culture is very different from what I see from the U.S, where attending protests seems to be seen as more of a liberal, self-satisfactory kind of thing rather than actually affecting people's lives. Here in South Korea, I would say that it's much more materially grounded, in that the success of a particular struggle depends on the popular support it gains through the public expressions through protests.
So solidarity is not about identity. It starts with difference. You wouldn't need solidarity if you were in the same struggle from the start. If you had the same stakes at hand, very concretely right in front of you, then there would be no need for solidarity; it's already one and the same struggle. Solidarity starts out from recognizing that you've all come from different positions and all relate in different ways, but then you articulate a kind of common vision of how those struggles are connected. I think that requires you to recognize your ignorance of these other persons or other struggles. And I guess from there you could derive the Maoist principle of "no investigation, no right to speak."
If you want to promote solidarity, you need to actually start to understand, and that understanding starts out by recognizing your ignorance. You won't go out to some sort of struggle that's been doing its own thing for a time, has established its own networks of support, its own supporters, its own way of conducting things, and start teaching them how to do something. You need to learn, establish connections, stuff like that. I think this is the baseline for any sort of organizing to succeed in the first place. And that applies directly to international solidarity, with the added caveat of a language barrier, of a cultural barrier, of that ignorance being expanded much, much more.
So you would have in South Korea study groups that would study various struggles in South Korean history and Korean history. You wouldn't have that common kind of experience say with Vietnamese comrades, if you were to establish some sort of solidarity event there, but that's what needs to be done for those relationships to be built. The isolation that South Korean social movements have shows up in these moments when they're supposed to express international solidarity, when people, especially liberals, see parallels between South Korea's democratization movement between say Hong Kong or Myanmar — these liberals start trying to teach them how to do stuff without any understanding of how concrete conditions there are different. How in, say, for a Hong Kong protest, tactics and various discussions underwent are more advanced than these sectors that liberals like to publicize. Sometimes it's not just liberals, but supposed leftists that try to teach from afar — I guess another way to express that would be armchair leftism or LARPing. But I think international solidarity can be understood from that solidarity aspect. And that's something that I tried to promote. People in social movements already know how to do solidarity; we just need to expand that to an international level.
But another aspect that I want to emphasize is that learning is not just learning about those conditions; learning also transforms oneself. I speak of that from personal experience of being able to contextualize what stage or what particular form of what history of movements that I happened to encounter here in South Korea. Before that, there was this feeling of entrapment; you don't know what problems you're facing. But if you see parallels between what you're facing and what people are facing elsewhere — whether that be in place or time or both — then you lose that sense of isolation. You can sense that this is a part of a larger struggle; you can identify parallels and theoreticizations, you can draw from different materials and resources, and you can rethink, or relate to yourself in a different fashion. I guess this is Althusser's metaphor for doing philosophy: taking a detour through theory, going on a voyage through the world and returning to oneself, which is the same place, but after that, it's different.
That's the case for learning about struggles elsewhere. I think we can approach international struggles in the same way we approach historical struggles. So early 20th-century communist struggles for Koreans feel so far away they might as well have been a completely different nationality. Not to mention that there's a discrete kind of leap from that history to contemporary times. But I think you can expand that these people spoke Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, and did all this work for establishing international connections: sometimes getting money from the Comintern; discussing Korean liberation with Lenin; sometimes getting into really bloody disputes over how to distribute that money; sometimes getting caught by the Japanese colonial police and dying for that. You can see parallels with that history elsewhere today as well and in various police states.
I can see parallels between Korean student militants in the 1980s and labor student militants in Hong Kong and China today, and how they're treated by the state. A book is coming out very soon about Myung-kyo's visit to China, where he met various labor and student activists in Beijing. That visit was in 2017 and he did an internal report for Platform C in 2018. But currently, he's lost all contact with several of those organizers because they've been disappeared, arrested, and the minimum time for those being held up in prison, I think, is two years. You can read about the harrowing accounts of what it's like to have a repressive state apparatus force you to disavow your politics and make you a new person.
Andrew: Is there anything that we didn't touch on that you wanted to add, or do you have any closing thoughts?
Bori: One last point would be translation and learning another language. I don't know if your readers have done translation before, but in Korea, a lot of people really assume that translating English into Korean is a mechanical process: if you know English well, then you're instantly able to translate pieces into Korean. Whereas the reality is that the criteria for doing great translating work is how good your Korean is, not your English; how much you're able to find the adequate terms in Korean for terms that you understand in English. Context is what determines the quality of your translating work, rather than just your adequacy in English itself.
But by going through that process, you get to appreciate the internal workings of the language you're translating for. It's really hard to find the adequate terms of the concepts that you're trying to translate, especially when there aren't any parallels; you have to invent them. This detour, whether that be through philosophy or through another context's struggles and its concrete determinations, is crucial for understanding oneself, and it transforms you in the process. I think it's a very important way of approaching these things. It's not just "read theory;" read theory concretely in other contexts, and return.