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Between Migrant and Minjung: The Changing Face of Migrant Cultural Activism in Korea

Jamie Doucette and Robert Prey

In 1979, Kim Min Gi and other activists from South Korea’s democracy and labour movements clandestinely released the collective radio play “Light of a Factory” (Kongchang’ui Bulbit). This work was used to mobilize factory workers into the broad-based minjung or people’s movements that were challenging the dictatorship. The play documented the lives of Korean workers and the suppression of their desires under the authoritarian regime. The plot centered on female workers in an export factory who decide to organize a union. It was loosely based on real struggles such as the massive strike by female employees at the Y.H. Trading Company in 1978-9; a strike which spilled over into the struggles of the Korean democracy movement. The music was a cacophony of different styles and influences: from US camptown progressive rock, to Western and Korean folk music, to shaman ritual and other traditional styles. Cassettes of the play were rerecorded on home stereos and passed around from hand to hand.

“Money for our backbreaking work… Money that Never Comes.” [Still from Light of a Factory, DVD version, 2006, Hakchon Music]

Fast forward to the current period and similar protest music is being made by migrant workers in South Korea (hereafter Korea). Although these recordings are more likely to be distributed via Youtube, the lyrics deal with strikingly similar themes. The music of Stop Crackdown, a bad name for a very good band that was formed in December 2003 by migrant workers from Nepal, Burma, and Indonesia, is one example. The music has elements of Korean prog-rock, such as deep base lines and strong vocalist-led melodies, reminiscent of some of the camptown rock music popular in the late 1970s. In particular, their single ‘Payday’ highlights the plight of foreign migrant workers in Korea with lyrics that are eerily reminiscent of Kim Min Gi’s ‘Light of a Factory’. In that play, upon having their wages withheld, the mistreated women workers sing, “Money for our backbreaking work… Money that Never Comes.” In Stop Crackdown’s ‘Payday’ video, migrants facing similar conditions belt out a chorus that concludes with the line  “Oh Boss, give me my pay.” Similarly the space of Stop Crackdown’s performances also resonates with the Minjung cultural movement,1 as they are a fixture of contemporary social movement rallies (both the migrant and irregular workers movements and other social struggles), performing at movement events and at a locations (such as Marrioner Park, Myeoungdong Cathedral, etc) of historical significance to previous democracy movements.

Still from the Stop Crackdown Video, Payday.

Thus, these two musical productions exist in an interesting tension with one another, revealing some of the political transformations Korean society has witnessed over the past 3 decades. When ‘Light of a Factory’ was secretly being produced, Korea was an industrializing, migrant-sending country: thousands of Korean construction workers were exported to the Middle East, while nurses and miners found a temporary home in Germany. By the late 1980s, Korea had shifted towards becoming a migrant-receiving country.  The migrant worker population in South Korea has since increased rapidly. As of February 2009, there were 854,000 registered foreigners in South Korea, or about 1.8% of the population; in addition, there are an estimated 200,000 undocumented workers, roughly one quarter of the total number of migrant workers in the country.2 Thus migrant workers are beginning to make up a significant proportion of the working population, and the struggles they experience are not unlike the struggles of past workers’ movements. As Young-Min Moon points out, “the public appearance of the foreign workers is an uncanny experience because of the profound sense of irony and complex social memories it brings…  those who were fighting for justice have become the citizens and mute onlookers of the host nation, which has become an entangled object of desire and resentment for the exploited (migrant) workers.”3

While there may seem to be an apparent cleavage between citizens and migrants, they are temporally, if not spatially, connected through their struggles. The democratic trade union movement of the 1970s and early 80s, which was led by women workers in the garment and textile industries,4 helped to gradually achieve more equitable labour rights legislation and recognition of unions. It was in part as a response to these struggles and to labour shortages that Korean employers began to import migrant labour. Migrant workers exploited by employers in turn found a home among Korean activists from the democratic labour struggles and the broader social movements and civil society groups that emerged from the democracy movement.

Migrant workers have drawn on these networks to advocate for greater rights and to contest the distinctions that separate them from ordinary citizens, asserting their equality and solidarity with workers and everyday residents of Korea through a variety of forms of activism. As Kim Dong Choon has argued, civil society (simin sahoe) in Korea is largely concerned with societal transformation and thus the priorities of the democracy movement still continue to inform it.5 It is not merely a passive sphere of interest group mediation. Thus the fact that groups led by migrant workers, and even undocumented migrant workers, are actively taking part in Korean civil society speaks of the continued vitality of social movements in South Korea, even under the current conservative regime of Lee Myung Bak which has adopted a considerably more repressive attitude toward social movements than previous liberal governments.

Thus, there is a complex historical relationship between migrants and Korean civil society that needs to be further explored. Starting with the cultural activism of one high-profile migrant worker - Minod Moktan - the lead vocalist of Stop Crackdown - we highlight some of the contributions made by migrant activists within Korean civil society. At the same time Moktan’s arrest and deportation in October 2009 draws attention to some of the injustices that migrants face as a result of Korea’s labour migration policies.  Before exploring this case, however, it is important to first provide some background on migrant labour history and policy in Korea.

From Trainees to Employees

Migrant workers first started to appear in Korea after the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. Korea’s economy by this time had experienced two decades of rapid industrial growth and pronounced labor shortages were beginning to occur in some sectors, especially small businesses.6 As Andrew Eungi Kim points out, the percentage of employees in small firms grew from 18.3 per cent in 1980 to 27.6 per cent in 1995 as large firms subcontracted some of their labor-intensive production to smaller firms. The labor shortages in Korea were thus more serious in these small and mid-sized firms, and in 1991 unfilled manufacturing jobs totaled 222,000.7 Migrant workers, mainly hailing from South Asia, South East Asia and China, took over the jobs that young Koreans were shunning – the so-called 3D jobs (Dirty, Dangerous, and Difficult). At first, most worked without papers, making them easy prey for exploitation. The subsequent ‘Trainee System’8 (ITS) that the government enacted in 1994 did little to improve conditions. Similar to Japan’s Foreign Training Internship Program, migrants were paid substantially less than Koreans for the same work, and as they were considered ‘trainees’ not ‘legitimate’ workers, they were not protected by labor rights.9 By the late 1990s, migrant workers and NGOs had begun to protest the ITS and the government began to revise the system.10 The Employment Permit System (EPS), which was introduced in 2003, treated migrant workers as workers and granted them further protection under Korea’s labour standards law.

In many ways, the EPS had the potential to set a new benchmark for temporary migration policy in Northeast Asia by codifying strong labour rights for migrant workers. However, the EPS had several flaws. Undocumented migrants who had been in Korea already for over five years were denied amnesty under the EPS. There was no path to citizenship or permanent residency for longer-term migrant residents. The three-year time limit on sojourn was also too short for migrants to earn significant money to send home (especially since many migrants have to repay brokerage costs, even though the practice is illegal) and thus likely to encourage overstaying. Migrants were not able to easily change workplaces under the EPS without the permission of their employers, upon whose discretion they were also dependent for yearly renewal of their visas. This both limited migrants’ freedom of association and made them less likely to protest workplace conditions.

As Glenda Roberts remarks in the case of Japan, there is no straightforward relationship between labour shortages, on the one hand, and the welcoming of immigration in a transparent, systematic, and coordinated manner. “Even in the face of anxieties concerning labor shortages, the politics of migration in receiving countries prove to be complex indeed, as the state seeks to perfectly regulate and control immigration, and to define those worthy of some kind of regular status, versus those unworthy, illegal, and thereby, criminal.”11  Even after the passage of the EPS, undocumented migrants have continued to be the target of continuous immigration crackdowns. Twenty to forty thousand migrants are deported from Korea every year. These ‘crackdowns’ have resulted in many serious injuries to migrants and, in some cases, even death. As both Amnesty International and Korea’s National Human Rights Commissions have documented, the government seems to rely on immigration raids as its primary strategy for tackling irregular migration.

The Korea Immigration Service, sometimes accompanied by the police, has conducted mass crackdowns on workplaces, on the streets, in markets, train stations, and private homes of migrant workers.  Amnesty International has documented instances of arbitrary arrests, collective expulsions and violations of law enforcement procedures, including in some cases, excessive use of force, during these raids.  The mass crackdowns have also put pressure on detention facilities, contributing to problems of overcrowding, poor living conditions and delayed access to medical treatment.12

Migrant activists were not the only ones to complain about problems with the EPS, as many Korean employers were loath to replace well-trained staff after only three years. Thus, though the EPS helped regularize labour migration, allowing for an expansion in the number of migrants working in Korea, there were still flaws in the system that excluded long-term residents and produced illegality whenever migrants changed workplaces or the term of their sojourn expired.13 Since the election of the conservative government of Lee Myung Bak, the EPS has been expanded to five years, which has lowered the rate of undocumented workers. However, rights violations continue during immigration control exercises, and prominent and politicized migrants such as Stop Crackdown band members and members of the Migrants’ Trade Union have been targeted, and deported, with greater frequency than under previous regimes.14

‘Multiculturalism’ in Korea

While the numbers of migrant workers in Korea continued to grow through the 1990s, a new phenomenon was also taking shape. By the late 1990s, Korean bachelors, particularly those in rural areas who were finding it difficult to find Korean wives, were increasingly ‘importing’ brides from countries including Vietnam, China and the Philippines. The thriving international marriage industry has now expanded to include urban Korean bachelors and foreign brides from a host of other Asian countries.15 As Timothy Lim points out, the rise in both international migration and international marriage has been acknowledged from the most conservative to the most progressive news sources, editorial writers and columnists who note, and sometimes lament, the country’s loss of ethnic homogeneity and its move toward a “multi-ethnic society.”16

In order to maintain social cohesion in a rapidly changing society, the Korean government has instituted policies to deal with these new “multicultural families.” While the government now officially refers to the children of these marriages as ‘multicultural children’, some education and social welfare organizations refer to them as ‘KOSIANs’. KOSIAN, a compound word made from ‘Korean’ and ‘Asian’, refers to those children from foreign wives and Korean males. The word was coined as a way to avoid the term ‘mixed race’ which has negative connotation. However, the category of ‘KOSIAN’ is considered by groups such as Amnesty International and some domestic critics of Korean multiculturalism to be a discriminatory category in itself.17 On April 26, 2006, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun passed two new acts: 'Act on the Social Integration of Mix-Race Families and Immigrants” and “Act on Foreign Wife Integration”. President Roh declared that the “the trend towards multi-race/multicultural society is irresistible” and therefore “it’s high time to take measures to incorporate multicultural policies.”18 The Ministry of Education and Human Development also announced a shift in civic education textbooks from an emphasis on mono-ethnicity towards multiculturalism and the values of tolerance.19 Furthermore, routes to naturalization for foreigners who marry Koreans have been opened, and steps to have been taken to eventually recognize dual citizenship.

“Multiculturalism” in Korea, nevertheless remains a very slippery concept; a term which does not actually begin to acquire meaning until the conditions of its implementation are examined. If we look more closely at the meaning of ‘multiculturalism’ in Korea, we see that the Korean government declared the new policy of multiculturalism by first differentiating for