Labor's Cold War
A Whitewash of South Korea
From 1961 to 1979, South Korea was led by Park Chung Hee, a former general who made economic development his number-one priority and created a police state notorious for torture and long prison sentences. Some of the worst repression was directed at unions, which Park saw as a threat to economic growth and national security. The only legal union, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), was under tight government control and thoroughly penetrated by the Korean CIA (KCIA). The situation was so bad that in 1970, a young worker in Seoul committed a fiery suicide to protest conditions in the garment industry, an action that Korean activists point to as the beginning of their modern labor movement.
The AFL-CIO, despite its pledge never to support government-controlled unions, financed and supported the FKTU from 1971 until the late 1980s--with full knowledge of the government's penetration of the FKTU. In 1971 Jack Muth, regional director of the Asian American Free Labor Institute, wrote a report to his boss, AAFLI executive director Morris Paladino, about a visit to Seoul. "Undoubtedly, the US [Embassy] Mission is aware that the Korean Government keeps a close watch on the activities of the unions," Muth wrote. "Even during our visit, we were introduced to two Korean CIA agents who were attending the FKTU political seminars; they were introduced as CIA agents openly." (The toothless nature of the FKTU is underscored by a CIA study of South Korea in 1979 that I obtained last year under the Freedom of Information Act. "Union activities are restricted by law," the CIA reported. "Many labor leaders still lack credibility among the workers because they often are corrupt or have been co-opted either by management or by the government.")
In the late 1970s US religious and human rights organizations began calling attention to the appalling treatment of South Korean workers. They were particularly concerned about the brutality directed at young women laborers in the textile and garment industry, and the lack of response by the FKTU. An AFL-CIO truly concerned about workers' rights would have embraced those efforts by denouncing the repression in South Korea or severing its relationship with the FKTU. Instead, the archives show that Paladino spent much of his time railing against the churches' involvement in Korean labor affairs. At AAFLI's 1978 board meeting, for example, he complained bitterly about Korean religious activists who had come to Washington to protest "against the FKTU, alleging that women workers in South Korea are being seriously abused by their employers and the government without adequate representation by the FKTU unions." Their charges, he fretted, had sparked inquiries from US textile workers and the United Auto Workers.
At the next board meeting, in 1979, Paladino lashed out at the Urban Industrial Mission, a religious group in Seoul that provided the only support available to struggling young laborers. Financed by the World Council of Churches, the mission had offices in an industrial area of Seoul that provided a safe place where employees in Korean factories could discuss working conditions free from police spies, learn basic organizing skills and connect to the largely underground resistance to Park's dictatorship. Paladino, however, was incensed that the mission's campaigns had "resulted in the diffusion of slanted and partial information in the United States and in Europe" about South Korea and the FKTU. In response, he told his board, AAFLI has "attempted to keep the record straight and provide the facts to American affiliates of the AFL-CIO whenever requested." Paladino's goal, apparently, was to whitewash the image of one of Asia's cruelest dictatorships.
In October 1979 Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA during a revolt in the industrial city of Pusan by students and factory workers. Park's successor, Chun Doo Hwan, cracked down even harder on labor, outlawing all industrial unions and sending hundreds of church and labor activists to prison. In 1981, while Paladino was visiting Seoul, a group of garment workers seized the AAFLI office there to protest his refusal to meet with their illegal union. Police were called, and dozens of workers were injured in the ensuing melee. In a 1986 interview I conducted for The Nation, Paladino blamed the violence on the "different ethnic standards" of Koreans.
After military rule ended in 1986, Korean industrial workers organized the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions as an alternative to the FKTU; it wasn't officially recognized by the AFL-CIO until 1997. "Many Koreans know the truth about AAFLI and the FKTU's relationship to the KCIA," Kwon Young Gil, a third-party candidate in South Korea's recent presidential election and the first president of the KCTU, told me during a recent visit to Washington. "It's important for American trade unionists to acknowledge those facts so we can move forward to build a better relationship in the future."