Korean Confederation of Trade Unions

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KCTU logo.png
Full name Korean Confederation of Trade Unions
Founded 11 November 1995
Members 682,418 (2007)
Affiliation ITUC
Key people Kim Young-Hoon, president
Office location Seoul, South Korea
Country South Korea
Website www.kctu.org (English)
www.nodong.org (Korean)
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions
Hangul 전국민주노동조합총연맹
Hanja 全國民主勞動組合總連盟
Revised Romanization Jeon-guk Minju Nodong Johap Chongyeonmaeng
McCune–Reischauer Chn'guk Minju Nodong Chohap Ch'ongynmaeng

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), also known as Minju-nochong (Korean: 민주노총; acronym for KCTU in Korean language) is a national trade union centre officially established in 1995. Its predecessor was the National Council of Trade Unions (NCTU), established in 1990 as an independent alternative to the Federation of Korean Trade Unions. With 682,418 members in 2007, the KCTU accounted for 40.6% of trade union members in South Korea.[1] The KCTU has more than 1,200 affiliated enterprise-level trade unions.[2] It is the second largest trade union national center in South Korea, following the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). On 1 April 2009, KCTU delegates at a special session elected Lim Seong-kyu as President.[3] Of the two, the KCTU is generally considered to be the more militant.

In 2008, during massive "mad cow protests" the KCTU declared a general strike to protest the import of US beef on grounds that consuming the allegedly tainted beef could damage worker productivity.[4]

In 2009, the union came under intense criticism for its cover up of the attempted sexual assault of a female union member by a high ranking union leader.[5][6] The KCTU's perceived militancy and preoccupation with political matters unrelated to working conditions has also caused it to suffer a loss of members.[7]

In July 2009, the KCTU was ordered to pay for the damages incurred from its destruction of 11 police vehicles during a violent rally two years previously.[8]


After the liberation from the Japanese in 1945, and the subsequent coup d’etat in 1961, by Park Chung Hee, there existed only one legal trade union federation in Korea, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). Park’s regime was truly authoritarian, to the extent he suppressed all political and business leaders they deemed corrupt. In essence, he arbitrarily restructured the unions and permitted only those he and his regime regarded as "loyal" to their cause.[9]:284 As a result, for almost two decades under the military regime of President Park, FKTU was substantially weakened and became subordinate to the repressive state and capital, the family owned conglomerates or chaebol, who dominated and monopolized the industries in Korea who incessantly expanded with the help from the government. Hence, the labor movement became very fragmented; nevertheless, they operated through localized unions, such as the miners, textile workers, anti-political activists, and various Catholic groups. By the 1990s, with the demise of the military regimes, chaebol groups of Korea began to reassert themselves with the introduction of automation production processes, decentralized factory location of production sights, and began to relocate the production to overseas, exacerbating the situation even further.

Gaining strength and support[edit]

To sever the relationship from the FKTU, whom many regarded as the proxy of the government for their subordination to the military regimes, various national federations of the chaebol-based unions emerged, including the Kia and Hyundai Group, as well as regional unions, such as the Masan and Changwon Unions Association. Moreover, in the public sector, the National Teachers Union was formed in 1989, to counter the authoritarian system of education in Korea. However, many trade unions felt the need to consolidate and overcome the fracture nature of the trade unions at the national level. As a result, they formed a national organization, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in 1995. And subsequently, their membership increased from 861 unions and 391 000 members in December 1995 to 896 unions and 490 000 members in December 1996. And almost immediately, the KCTU proved to be a formidable force, they became the vanguard of the workers and the indispensable "check" to the power of the state, employers, and the FKTU.[9]

Rise of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions[edit]

Despite the internal struggles and factionalism of KCTU, their methods nonetheless were extremely effective. In the early 1990s, there was a shift from domestic growth to national competitiveness, one of the major economic policies of Korea became "growth first, and distribution later." To counter this model, the unions adopted the popular policy of "strike first, bargain later." Stated differently, Korean workers used strikes as a weapon to seek political change, better working conditions, and for higher wages. In 1996, a significant event occurred that would catapult the KCTU to both national and world stage. The New Korea Party, led by President Kim Young Sam, unilaterally passed and amended labor laws without the presence of the opposition party in the middle of the night, in a six-minute session. In essence, the amended laws made it significantly easier for the employers to lay off the workers at will. Moreover, the amended laws did not allow the multiple unions at either at the local or at the national level; thus, making KCTU with its 500,000 members illegal and would not be recognized until 2002. These provisions prompted the KCTU to successfully mobilize 150,000 Korean workers and FKTU leaders, who previously displayed a pro government propensity to strike together.[10]:149 As a result of the government’s arbitrary decision to stifle the laws, President Kim Young Sam and his administration was censured by the OECD in their failure to honor the reforms which were promised to the people of South Korea and, for displaying "backwardness" with respect to labor law reforms. Additionally, international community including, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and International Metal Workers Unions both criticized and condemned the actions of the Korean government. Similarly, the foreign union representatives held joint news conferences with Korean unions, closely observed the strikes, and held various demonstrations outside Korean diplomatic missions abroad. Despite the overwhelming rebuke from the International Community, the South Korean government chose to adhere to their initial decision and even threatened to arrest the strikers. It has been estimated that, the three weeks strikes cost $3.4 billion in lost production.[10] President Kim Young Sam, recognizing the growing support of the KCTU by the people, decided to revise the laws and to meet with the oppositional leaders. In March 1997, parliament passed a more diluted version of the labor laws and the President's chief economic adviser, who was the protagonist of the earlier laws, was fired along with other advisers. At the end, President Kim in a meeting with the opposition leaders stated that, the KCTU would be legalized.

Conflicting results of the January 1997 strike[edit]

The results of the January strike varied. Ostensibly, the strike was historic, in the sense that, it was extremely well managed and organized on a national level, for the purpose of seeking legal reforms. Stated differently, it was a political struggle as well as economic. But more importantly, for the first time, labor had emerged as the leading social force in South Korea. Organized labor, KCTU, obtained the immediate recognition from the government they had long sought. Further, they were granted the right to form multiple unions at the industry level but were prevented in forming the unions amongst the teachers and public servants. Conversely, many people believed that the revised law was very deficient in its substance. For example, the employers still retained their right to lay off the workers at their discretion only after a two-year deferment. The "no work, no pay" rule and no payment to full-time union leaders was still applicable in the revised laws, including, the flexible workday policy in an effort to reduce the wages.[11] Hence, the employers were able to strengthen their power while the workers lost the protection of lay off and job security they sought so desperately.

Limitations of KCTU[edit]

The year 1997 was a devastating year for both the people of South Korea and the country. By November 1997, many conglomerates including, Hanbo, and several chaebol groups were bankrupt. In addition, numerous banks became insolvent. In spite of both the Bank of Korea and the government’s effort to curtail the economic turmoil and the exchange rate and the stock market went into a free-fall, thus causing Korea to possibly default on its foreign debt obligations.[12] On December 3, 1997, the International Monetary Fund decided to give the largest bailout package to South Korea, consisting of $57 billion. Included in the package, various harsh conditions were attached. The IMF demanded stringent requirements. Korea in addition to restructuring its financial and corporate sectors, it was to "liberalize" its markets, in other words, open up its markets in such a way that would benefit the foreign investors. In an effort to secure the jobs of the workers, KCTU implemented a nationwide signature campaign for the guarantee of jobs for workers and sought to punish the people responsible for the devastating economic crisis. Moreover, they organized approximately 30,000 people at a rally and demanded political reforms and sought protection from the impending arbitrary layoffs, hence the General Strike of 1997. The General Strike was supported by the blue collar and white collar workers, including, the financial sector and clerical workers.[13] The strike was also supported by the general population and despite the state control of the media, the Internet acted as the conduit in providing real time information to the outside world, for the first time. But despite the efforts of the KCTU in organizing the General Strike, the results were very disappointing. Whether it was imposed by the IMF or by the government, it gave a significant discretion to the capitalists or chaebol with respect to laying off the workers. Moreover, the fear of losing their jobs, the workers who were not unionized in particular, the middle and the upper level workers were completely caught off guard. The economic crisis also compelled the government to enact laws without seeking the input from the unions, thereby exacerbating the ongoing conflicts. As a result of the mandated restructure by the IMF, labor disputes inevitably escalated to 129 from 78, in 1998.[14]

Criticism of KCTU[edit]

Within three years of its existence, KCTU managed significant achievements, including, legally recognized by the government and gained substantial national prominence. With more than a half a million members and its ability to mobilize tens of thousands of workers at any given time, KCTU was now a legitimate force that could not be ignored. Nevertheless, voices of discontent within the union were growing. On January 14, 1998, the Labor Management Government Tripartite Council was formed, as mandated by the IMF. It was a concerted effort on all three parties to equally "share" the pain and suffering associated with the economic crisis. As a part of the "share" of the union, KCTU leadership conceded the redundancy layoffs in the case of emergency affecting the companies, something that the union members had consistently rejected. And consequently, the union members of the KCTU voted out the leadership who they deemed were responsible for the grave mistake and elected a hard liner, Lee Kap-Yong as their new president.[15]

In response to the economic crisis, KCTU membership levels had also declined. It fell by 9 per cent or 40,783 members, between January and October 1998. To mitigate further layoffs by the employers, KCTU affiliates have engaged in strike action at the Hyundai Motor Company in August and September 1998. Although the company had intended to lay off 1500 employees, as the result of more than a month of stoppage during which some union members went on hunger strikes and national support was given by other trade unions, Hyundai was compelled to reduce the numbers being laid off to 277.[9]:288 But nevertheless, they could not prevent the membership of KCTU from declining.

One of the more important dynamics of labor has been left in obscurity thus far, the treatment of the female workforce in Korea. In this respect, all trade unions including, KCTU were criticized in unison for their lack of interest of the female workers. Their failure to address the concerns of harsh working conditions and numerous labor rights violations are extremely unfortunate and incomprehensible.

The trade unions in South Korea had been historically repressed by their governments for almost five decades. From the creation of the First Republic of Korea, from President Syngman Rhee and subsequent military generals who ruled for the next thirty years, all suppressed the unions and deliberately dishonored the constitution of the country, for the sake of the "progress" of the nation. However, with the inception of KCTU in 1995, South Korea and its people began to see a glimpse of hope. They in essence, profoundly changed the dynamics of the relationship between the capitalists, state, and the workers. KCTU, from its meager start successfully solidified themselves as an indispensable partner with respect to the workers’ rights of Korea. From an illegal entity, they were invited by their government to be a "partner" in the national decision making process. Stated differently, they were recognized as a formidable force that could no longer be ignored. The culmination of their status came during the presidential election of 1997, when KCTU now the second largest union, nominated Kwon Young-Gil, as the fifth presidential candidate of South Korea.[16] But despite their achievements, they had their share of deficiencies that included internal fragmentation, decline in their memberships, and the neglect of female workforce in Korea. Therefore, although KCTU had elevated the political and social status of organized labor, ironically, they were impelled to accept various labor changes that would ultimately harm and hinder the worker’s positions in Korea.

2013 police raid[edit]

On 22 December 2013, hundreds of riot police raided the KCTU's headquarters in Seoul injuring hundreds. Six senior KCTU leaders were arrested for supporting a national railway strike which the government declared "illegal". According to the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Transport Workers’ Federation: "The government of South Korea and its anti-union behaviour is again in the spotlight of the international community. Its actions run contrary to its obligations to the ILO and also the labour standards in trade agreements with the US and the EU. Further, the government is failing to fulfill its original commitment to the OECD, upon accession, to respect international labour standards."[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Unionization rate in 2007 stands at 10.8 percent first upward move in 18 years Korea International Labour Foundation, 19 September 2008. Accessed 2009-04-09.
  2. ^ This is KCTU KCTU English webpage. Accessed 2009-04-09.
  3. ^ KCTU elects a new president The Hankyoreh, 2 April 2009. Accessed 2009-04-09.
  4. ^ South Korea seeks top labour leader's arrest
  5. ^ Truth behind sexual assault cover-up at KCTU revealed
  6. ^ Four resign in KCTU sexual assault scandal
  7. ^ 4 unions cut ties with KCTU, citing unnecessary strife
  8. ^ Court orders labor body to pay for destroyed police buses
  9. ^ a b c Seung-Ho Kwo & Michael O'Donnell (1999). "Repression and struggle: the state, the chaebol and independent trade unions in South Korea". Journal of Industrial Relations 41 (2): 272–294. doi:10.1177/002218569904100204. 
  10. ^ a b Bae Johngseok, Chris Rowley, Dong-Heon Kim & John J. Lawler (1997). "Korean industrial relations at the crossroads: the recent labour troubles". Asia Pacific Business Review 3 (3): 148–160. doi:10.1080/13602389700000009. 
  11. ^ Charles K. Armstrong, ed. Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy and the State. 2nd ed. Asia’s Transformations.( London ; New York: Routledge, 2007), 84-85
  12. ^ Sunhyuk Kim. The Politics of Democratization in Korea: The Role of Civil Society. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 126-127
  13. ^ Jin Kyoon Kim, "Rethinking the new beginning of the democratic union movement in Korea: from the 1987 Great Workers' Struggle to the construction of the Korean Trade Union Council ( Chunnohyup ) and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions" (KCTU), Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 1:3, (2000) 499, DOI: 10.1080/14649370020009979
  14. ^ Yunshik Chang, Hyun-ho Seok, and Don Baker, eds. Korea Confronts Globalization. Routledge Advances in Korean Studies 14. (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009), 113
  15. ^ Charles K. Armstrong, ed. Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy and the State. 2nd ed. Asia’s Transformations. (London ; New York: Routledge, 2007), 86
  16. ^ John Kie-chiang Oh, Korean Politics: The Quest for Democratization and Economic Development. (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1999), 218
  17. ^ Korean Police Attack KCTU Headquarters

External links[edit]