NEWSWEEK magazine, in its issue of April 10 1989, reported on the labor rebellion at the shipyard of Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. at Ulsan South Korea. The magazine referred to the uprising as “The Battle of Ulsan”.
A week earlier, some 2,000 Hyundai workers on strike since December of 1988 had fashioned “democracy missiles” from lengths of pipe, oversize bolts, and paint thinner. They fabricated crude bombs by tying together welders’ tanks of oxygen and acetylene, wrapped them with gasoline – soaked rags, and filled hundreds of Molotov cocktails from a gasoline tanker truck, which was itself rigged to explode. Near midnight Lee Won Gon, the pipe fitter who led the strike, came before his troops draped in the national flag and promised he would fight to the end until he was killed. Five hours later, thousands of riot police stormed the striking workers’ positions. The battle, however, was over before it began; all but a handful of striking workers had quietly slipped away from the beleaguered shipyard before dawn, leaving their makeshift arsenal behind.
“If they were gone at Hyundai, “NEWSWEEK reported, “strikers were still out in force elsewhere, confronting President Roh Tae Woo’s year – old government with its most difficult labor test to date.”
Emboldened by the widening of political freedoms in the last two years as well as by South Korea’s sustained economic growth, the country’s labor had been agitating for a greater share of the country’s prosperity. They resented the paternalism of South Korea corporate management. In return for the security of steady employment, the South Korean worker has traditionally been expected to suffer a grueling and sometimes erratic job schedule. Although the average wage has more doubled in the last decade, the workers’ frustration over their lack of individual say and benefits likewise rose. “This is not class struggle, “Lee Won Gon told NEWSWEEK before going into hiding after the assault. “We just want better working conditions and better status for workers. We have been locked down on in Korea for a very long time.
Until the Hyundai strike, President Roh Tae Woo had taken a “hands off policy on labor disputes in private industry. Even when Hyundai chairman Chung Ju Yung – held hostage by his employees for several days during labor negotiations – made repeated requests for forcible government intervention to end walkouts in his company the government would not budge. The company’s lost up to $ 6 million each day the strikers, violating a South Korea law against third-party participation in strikes, were the police ordered to control, or at least attempt to control, the mayhem at Hyundai, President Roh called leftist “enemies of democracy,” accusing them of allying themselves, consciously or otherwise, with inexorable territorial ambitions of communist North Korea.
In the short run it was believed that the deployment of government forces in the labor dispute at Hyundai would have a cooling-down effect, but in the long run it was feared to create even bigger problems. In Ulsan, more than 1,000 workers continued their protest, set buses and cars ablaze in streets, and attacked a police substation with firebombs. Elsewhere around the country, scattered groups of dissidents vented their age by smashing windows of Hyundai auto dealerships. At universities in Seoul, approximately 4,000 student demonstrators clashed with riot police. The continued violence at Ulsan clearly showed that it was one thing to win the battle of Ulsan and quite another to end the war. The causes of unrest lingered on.
The episode at Ulsan was not as unthinkable as it was sad. The world was staged in Seoul in September of 1988 in a mighty show of unity of all peoples for the 24th Olympic Games. Just 8 months later, however, the battle of Ulsan seemed to shatter the hope of peace and unity among all nations when the workers and the management of Hyundai could not follow a peaceful...