The Marmot's Hole

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Post-election laborer suicides

Since the election of Park Geun-hye, three labor activists and a unification activist have committed suicide. Another labor activist died while attending the binso of one of the laborers who took his own life.

You won’t find much in English on the suicides outside of this Kyunghyang piece (and this one).

Moon Jae-in visited the binso of one of the dead laborers yesterday to offer condolences and words of support.

A reader suggested I post about this, so I have. Not sure exactly what to say about it, though. Even leaving aside the fact that three of the suicides were officials in unions affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions—of which I’m not a huge fan—and the other was a member of the this group, I don’t really want to turn people taking their own lives out of dissatisfaction with the results of a democratic election into heroes.

That said, while there’s nothing the Park administration could ever do to win the support of the likes of the KCTU, there are things it could do to improve industrial morale. The Kyunghyang ran an editorial on the deaths, calling on the government to do something about companies suing unions over strikes. In the case of Hanjin Heavy Industries, the company dropped its suits against individual unionists, but still has a 15.8 billion won suit against the union itself. This despite the fact that the company agreed to drop its lawsuits when it reached an agreement with its union in November.

The mood at Hanjin has reportedly been quite dour even after the November agreement, in which the company withdrew its mass layoffs. The fact that the company seems to be moving its operations overseas might have something to do with it:

Another reinstated worker said, “After Hanjin constructed a shipyard in Subic Bay, Philippines in 2006, they have hardly obtained any orders for their Yeongdo shipyard even though the shipbuilding industry was prosperous. In 2010, they separated the design unit of the shipyard, which is its core unit.

All the reinstated workers feel that the company has no intention to operate the Yeongdo shipyard.” He continued, “The company has not acknowledged the apparent failures of management, and instead have blamed the workers claiming that the labor disputes have made it difficult to win orders. We expected for a better relationship with management when we were reinstated, but they’re neglecting the basics such as issuing ID cards and leaving us out in the cold.”

One of the more critical labor issues is the use—in some cases, illegally—of irregular workers and inhouse contractors, such as at Hyundai. The problem here, though, is that not only do the companies unenthusiastic about changing their hiring practices, the regular unions don’t seem particularly keen to help out irregular workers, either. And how you resolve this without scaring companies into moving their operations overseas, I don’t know.

President-elect Park apparently laid down the law during her meeting with major business heads yesterday (see English here), asking companies not to lay off workers. This reportedly even impressed the French. This was something I sort of expected—one of the first things her old man did after taking power was arrest 24 of Korea’s top businessmen just to let them know who was boss. Whether that sort of intimidation works as well in the globalized market of the 21st century, though, has yet to be seen.

MUST READ: Kings, Kims and chaebol

In his latest column in the Korea Times, Andrew Salmon draws comparisons between North Korea’s Kim dynasty and South Korea’s corporate dynasties:

At the head of some of this nation’s leading conglomerates, royal-style dynasties are as firmly entrenched as the Kims are in Pyongyang and they, too, are now bequeathing power to their third generations.

Seoul’s corporate dynasties certainly act in a manner befitting royalty. They inter-marry and live secretive lives in fortress-like homes guarded by bodyguard detachments.

They rarely appear in public and speak to the media even more rarely; a reporter is more likely to land an interview with a member of de facto European royalty than with a top-tier chaebol chairman. Yet unlike European royals, chaebol royalty have no fear of a muckraking media ― their advertising budgets (allegedly) buy editorial quiescence.

I’m not sure if they’re totally free of muckraking—progressive papers target them all the time. But then again, the progressive press has relatively little influence, so the point still stands.

Read the whole thing on your own.

And this week’s ‘Balls of Steel Award’ goes to…

the Financial Times’ Christian Oliver, who in a blog post at the FT blasts Seoul’s strategy of using what we at the Marmot’s Hole — lacking as we do both a legal department and the financial wherewithal to withstand major lawsuits — prefer to call upstanding members of the Korean business community as the point men for its efforts to win the 2018 Winter Olympic Games:

South Korea faces tough opponents in winning the 2018 winter Olympics: France and Germany. So it should be relying on its most charming ambassadors, headed perhaps by Kim Yuna, the Olympic figure-skating champion.

Instead, Korea is allowing the country’s most notorious corporate boss to do the lobbying. Kim Seung-youn, chairman of the Hanwha conglomerate, was briefly imprisoned in 2007 for abducting some bar staff to a building site, where he beat them with a steel pipe in revenge for an attack on his son.

Kim, whose sentence was suspended, will be travelling to Europe and the US to lobby for the Olympics to be held in the town of Pyeongchang. His company, which makes chemicals and explosives, is one of the Olympic bid sponsors. In a statement released over the weekend, Hanwha said Kim would be “fully mobilizing his global network” in European countries and would “seek active co-operation from them”. Let’s hope he has some more gentle means of persuasion at his disposal than steel pipes.

As Mr. Oliver notes, this is something of a pattern — the head of another Korean conglomerate, ahem, was also set free to lobby for the games, a move we lambasted here at the time.

Granted, as Mr. Oliver notes, almost nobody outside of Korea knows what any of these guys did, so nobody’s likely to complain. He could have also noted that we are, after all, talking about the IOC.

It’s what this says domestically, however, that’s problematic:

To some extent that is true, but the winter Olympics bid shows that Korea’s political system still panders to business leaders to the extent they feel they are above the law. That is disturbing.

Indeed it is.

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