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They Are Not Machines

Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970s

Soonok Chun

Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampsire, England; 2003

ISBN # 0-7546-3545-7


Review by Jerry Winzig


They Are Not Machines is a difficult book to read.  I say that with reluctance because the challenge of writing in another language is beyond my capabilities.  However, readers who brave Chun Soonok’s sometimes turgid prose will be rewarded with important insights into the often unhappy role of women in South Korea’s rise to a world economic power and its development into a full-fledged democracy.  They are insights vividly supported by personal experience, for the author’s brother, Tae-il Chun, poured gasoline over himself in 1970 to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of Korea’s garment workers, and her mother, So-sun Yi, remains an important Korean human rights and trade union leader.


Soonok’s first insight is into how poorly Korea was served by Seung-man Rhee’s first republic from 1948 to 1960.  Rhee’s administration was a failure at economic development, social reconstruction, and democratization.  Furthermore, the American Military Government in South Korea was complicit in these failures.  Soonuk says America’s occupation of South Korea “was not as well-planned or as efficiently conducted as was the case with their occupation of Japan.”  Perhaps worst of all, many of the oligarchs who profited under Rhee’s uneven policies, particularly in the textile industry, were Japanese.  For Korea’s former colonial masters to profit from the suffering of their former colony has been a bitter pill for South Korea to swallow.


When Rhee’s government collapsed in 1960, it was followed by the short-lived second republic and an interim government under Chong Ho.  This government was toppled in a military coup by General Chung-hee Park, who held power first as a military ruler and then as an repressive, authoritarian dictator thinly disguised under civilian rule until 1979.  Park’s rule is the focus of much of Soonok’s book.


Park immediately undertook to build South Korea into an exporting economy.  While he succeeded, Soonok points out that much of South Korea’s significant economic gains under Park’s policies came at a terrible human cost to South Korea’s workers, and especially to women workers in the textile industry in the 1970s.  Their working conditions were horrible, their work week was excessive, and their pay was so low as to render them captives to their employers.


Soonok’s brother’s descriptions of a visit to garment workers in the Peace Market captures the working conditions: “The place of work is no bigger than eight pyung [four and a half square metres], which means that there are four workers in every pyung.  The space is so cramped, with tools, fixtures, and sewing equipment taking up so much room that there was none remaining for workers to stretch freely in their chairs.  The height of the ceiling from the floor was so low; it was the infamous ‘attic’.  The smell of formalin from the fabrics piled up in the corner was enough to suffocate anyone.  Not only that, but there is so much ravel [fibres] and dust from the fabric that the workers’ hair becomes coated almost as soon as they begin to work.”


Soonok quotes from a 1980 poem by Ji-ha Kim to illustrate the pathos of young women coming to Seoul to work:


“I must go,

don’t cry, I must go

on the hard road to Seoul,

climbing the white and black parched hills to sell my chastity.

Without a promise of when I’ll return,

or if I will come back with brightly blooming smiles,

and without the humble promise of untying the ribbon.

I must go,

however hard and miserable life may be.

How can I ever forget the hills covered with

green-bean flowers and the smell of wheat

growing in the fields surrounding the village

where I was born.

I will not forget, but will cherish them deeply in my heart.

I might come back in tearful dreams,

I might return with starlight in the night.

I must go,

don’t cry, I must go

on the painful road to Seoul,

climbing the many hills which make even the sky weary,

to sell my labour.”


While the unionization efforts of women textile workers were not a traditional political success, their efforts did lead to the end of General Park’s rule.  In 1979, when police prevented opposition legislators from entering the National Assembly chamber, all 69 opposition assemblymen courageously resigned their seats.  That, accompanied by massive street demonstrations, led to Park’s assassination by one of his close aides.  Even though Park’s death was followed by years of even more repressive military rule under General Doo-hwan Chun, followed by General Tae-woo Roh, the seeds had been planted.  While South Korea’s economic gains came at a terrible human cost, democracy and accountability also came.  In 1995, former Presidents Chun and Roh were tried and convicted of bribery, treason, and murder.


Soonok concludes, “[T]he democratic principle is now firmly embedded in the South Korean labour movement, and it is due to the efforts of the female textile and garment workers of the 1960s and 1970s that this is so.  Just as the full extent of the achievements of those pioneers can no longer be denied, the ‘genie of democracy’ that they so courageously liberated can never be put back into the bottle.”


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