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CULTRATIThe Webtoon Songgoot; Professor Jongkang Ha's story about labor movement
Dong-hee Kim, CUB Reporter | 승인 2017.12.21 14:04|(259호)

  Many people regard cartoons as a means to enjoy their time by simply forgetting the pains of reality. However, some cartoonists express sharp criticism and bitter satire on society with their pens. The webtoon Songgot, which means “awl” in English, is a work by Kyuseok Choi that was adapted into a TV drama. This work, based on several true stories, is famous for accurately depicting the reality of labor in Korea. Kyuseok Choi received advice from many people in order to correctly describe the labor problems in Korea, and among them was Professor Jongkang Ha, who is currently working in the Labor Academy of Sungkonghoe University. The experience and advice of Professor Ha were reproduced in the cartoon through the role of Goshin Koo, the manager of a labor office. In this issue, Culturati interviewed Professor Ha Jongkang and talked about a culture in which ordinary citizens take more interest in and get more involved with social issues.


Q1. I heard that you were arrested and tortured during the student movement. Even now, you are still fighting for the rights of workers. What drives you to do that?

A1. To be honest, it’s historical consciousness. Looking back on history, for thousands of years, the rights of the underprivileged have gradually strengthened, and dictatorships have collapsed and lost their power. So, which side should I be on? When I entered college in 1974, only 15% of high school graduates went to college. Therefore, there was no need to worry about seeking employment. Countless college students went to college without thinking about that. On the other hand, a small number of students studied very hard, participated in club activities, and prepared for the future in college. Other groups of students tried to do something for their colleges. While they were in college, they worked hard to improve the quality of their colleges and expand students' thinking through student movements. I thought that those who would contribute to society after graduation would be the people who did something for their colleges rather than for their own sakes. At that time, students learned that the Yushin (meaning “renewal”) Constitution of Park Chunghee was the best constitution in the world, and students did not know the truth of the People's Revolutionary Party incident. I decided to participate in a student movement because I thought I should tell students what was true. Even after graduating from college, I felt confident that the most obvious field in which to contribute to the development of society was the labor field. My choice has resulted in a life that is not great or sacred, but simply ordinary. I have maintained my position in education and counseling for a long time because I have never been interested in the politicization of labor movement.


Q2. “The reason for failure is due to a lack of effort." This point of view has been controversial recently and was also addressed in Songgot. What do you think of the belief that failure results from a lack of effort?

A2. It is not limited to only Korean society. Two major conflicts have continued throughout human history. There has always been a trend in every field to see a problem as a discrete problem or to see it in a whole picture. For example, in the field of literature, there are pure literature and participatory literature, and in the religious field, teachings of individual salvation and social salvation conflict with each other. When the Pope visited Korea in 2014, he mentioned that one of the Ten Commandments, “Do not kill,” can be interpreted these days as “Do not kill economically.” This means that if you are a true Catholic, you have to actively participate in politics, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted Nazi Germany. On the contrary, there are certain forces claiming Christianity as a pure religion, quoting a phrase in the Bible, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.“

  In other words, there are two conflicting trends in Korea too: one teaches people to be successful through personal efforts, and the other emphasizes that society should change simultaneously as much as an individual makes an effort. But I think the latter is right. For example, in the past, a nurse had to buy gowns and shoes with her own money when she went to work at a hospital. Obviously, that was unfair, but is the problem solved if the nurse works faithfully? No! The social structure that this nurse belongs to must change. That means we need to make laws, organize labor unions, and negotiate with hospitals to improve the situation through agreement.

  In fact, sometimes there are occasions when there are hidden, intricate intentions in the teachings that individual efforts can solve many problems. For example, many Koreans only know that Helen Keller overcame three physical handicaps thanks to her willpower and effort. She died aged 88, but we do not know what she did until her death because the contents of all Korean textbooks about Helen Keller tells us only the fact that she overcame her disabilities. Koreans do not know that Helen Keller lived as a thorough campaigner until she died and pointed out the wrongs of capitalism and the US government.

  So, what I am trying to say is that the education provided by institutions has the function of making the public think just as vested interests do. No matter how hard you try to be happy, you are not satisfied because someone takes away your share. However, people define the cause of unhappiness as an individual's laziness so that they cannot recognize the existence of the establishment. This kind of education, emphasizing the lack of individual efforts, has the side effect of preventing people from grasping social problems correctly.

  I am not claiming that individuals do not need to do their best. But, there are plenty of opinions in Korea that defend the interests of the ruling class, but opposing views are too insufficient to stand. And what we need to point out here is that true equality means that the forces of both extremes are similar. The middle position, so called neutrality, is just a formal equality. For example, a tightrope walker's fan must always be set opposite the walker's body. When the tightrope walker sets the fan in the middle to maintain neutrality, he or she will fall to the ground immediately. So, if society is weighted towards one side, you have to add weight to the opposite side to become neutral. That is why I try to be with the weak against the privileged in order to balance society as a whole.


Q3. Would it be fair to increase wages and improve working environments for regular workers such as public servants and so-called “aristocratic” blue-collar workers too?

A3. The biggest problem with the Korean economy is that the proportion of labor income in its gross domestic product (GDP) is excessively small. If this condition continues, Korean economy, well known for its “miracle on the Han River,” may collapse again overnight as it did when it experienced a crisis that needed the IMF’s help. The most important cause of the economic crisis was excessively low labor income. Severely polarized Korean economy currently consists of a small number of rich people and a large number of poor workers. Korean people are trapped in a vicious circle in which the majority of people suffer from a lack of purchasing power, which leads the bankruptcy of companies. And this will make people even poorer.  

  That is why Korea should raise labor income somehow. Reducing the discrimination between regular and non-regular workers by lowering the salary of permanent workers is one way to revive the economy. A typical example is the salary peak system. It means that we will lower the wages of long-term workers and create youth employment using the savings. But, the reality is that the total amount of labor income will not increase even if youth employment is created. Therefore, we have to gradually raise the wage of permanent workers to increase the total labor income, and narrow the economic gap by raising the wage of temporary workers at a faster rate. Professor Paul Krugman at the City University of New York argued that raising the economic level of workers and the common people is not only morally correct but also far more effective than introducing tax cuts for businesses and enterprises. His theory earned him a Nobel Prize in economics in 2008. However, this fact did not attract attention in Korea. Furthermore, according to the income-led growth theory, it has been proven that when workers' wages are actually raised, productivity and work concentration also increase.


Q4. What do you think about the claim that the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) is excessively aggressive compared to other countries?

A4. Why did workers fight holding iron pipes in their hands? It is because they were attacked by more severe violence than those weapons. Companies employed “service companies” that look like police officers, armed with knives, shields, hammers, pistols, cudgels, etc., to hinder strikes. Would it be the iron pipe of the KCTU first? Or, would the weapons of “service companies” be first? The press does not report on this at all. Because companies unleashed violence using gangs, namely the employees of those “service companies”, workers were forced to wield iron pipes themselves. That is, people cannot blame workers blindly. If companies responded justly and peacefully, there would be no bloodshed between workers and companies, it would be just like the candlelight vigils seen before.


Q5. In Korea, universities are no longer called an “ivory tower” or “Hall of Intelligence.” Universities are called vocational schools and there is a craze for becoming public officials everywhere. I would appreciate it if you would say something to college students.

A5. In the process of a distorted historical development that includes the Japanese colonial period for about 30 years, the division of Korea by foreign powers shortly after independence, and a military dictatorship, negative viewpoints on labor movement were formed in Korean society. However, life as a worker and labor movement are ways to contribute to social development. Lastly, living a life in which only one’s own interests are pursued is a fragile and worthless life. I think that living an altruistic life is more worthwhile.


  Epilogue: The title Songgot refers to a person who acts according to his own conscience in an unequal situation without knowing what the future will be like. I hope you read this webtoon or watch this drama. Developed countries such as the United States, France and Germany promote labor education in the lower grades and workers' rights education is obligatory, but it is hard for Korean students to have such opportunities. (However, Professor Jongkang Ha said that the field of labor education in Korea is definitely improving.) I am sorry to say that this interview has been edited to satisfy word count restrictions, but I hope this article will be of some help to students' perspectives on labor movement.


Dong-hee Kim, CUB Reporter  pen9uinus@cnu.ac.kr

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