Occupy the Blue House
By Kelly Jarman
I had already seen the line of tents on the sidewalk before while driving past the Blue House and didn’t think they were different from the ones I saw circling the U.S. embassy. I couldn’t tell if they were Park Geun-hye supporters who, like the protester at the street corner our group walked past, scream at passersby and wave posters with American and Israeli flags.
I was part of a group being led to a protest site for the Korean Teachers Union to meet the president Cho Chang-ik. The first thing I noticed when we were brought to the tent built for the KTU’s protest was the charming stained glass window held up by string and slogans written in bright colours attached to the walls. When we entered, watched over by a police officer, I was surprised that it was warm in the tent and well equipped with traditional Korean raised platforms to keep yourself off the ground.
Our group introduced ourselves to Cho Chang-ik, the president of the KTU, who explained how the KTU wants their right to form a union, the rehiring of teachers fired for involvement in the KTU and peace and the reunification of Korea. They achieved legal recognition from Kim Dae-jung’s government in 1999 but that was taken away from them in 2013 by Park Geun-hye. The KTU’s logo is of a child’s face superimposed over the division of Korea between north and south and the union fights for reunification alongside other demands focused on the workplace. I admire how the KTU takes on larger struggles when they could just focus on their own material interests first.
What sprang to my mind after sitting down inside the tent was of different occupations and protests I had witnessed but my strongest recollection was of the construction of a traditional Longhouse built by First Nations on city grounds in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.1 In 2013 First Nations protested the government for approving fracking exploration on their land without their consent. It struck me how both groups of people are fighting a system that divided land by arbitrary western borders with no input from the people that were divided.
Reunification is an important position for the KTU but they have conflicted with Moon Jae-in’s government. I hold Moon Jae-in and his quest for peace in high regard and trying to reconcile my interest in Korean peace with the KTU’s positions was the most difficult part of the trip. The president of the KTU was very direct when he mentioned the union’s conflict with the current government. He stated that the Candlelight movement that helped put Moon Jae-in in power was a temporary alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and that there will inevitably be conflict between the two groups. I believe that the KTU deserves legal recognition but I very much admire Moon’s campaign for peace in Korea which left me feeling conflicted.
The KTU was made up of ordinary teachers like the ones I had met already working in a Korean public school. They were unassuming and they were nothing like professional activists or progressive media personalities. The president made self-deprecating jokes and had a great sense of humour. He answered questions sincerely and showed genuine interest in each of us.
Cho Chang-ik, talked about his students with love and reverence while passionately denouncing how students are overworked by the current school system. From working in public schools in Korea for three years I was familiar with how Korean teachers, while buried in mountains of paperwork and test papers, would do everything they could for their students. Even after he was fired the Cho Chang-ik taught his students outside of the school to help continue their education. It was impressive how frequently the president talked about the importance of children when explaining the union’s goals.
The KTU’s manifesto states that “The false education enforced by dictatorial regimes has caused educators to lose their authority, as teachers became knowledge-salespeople or entrance examination technicians.” This deeply resonated with me because of my experiences working in both the private and public Korean education system. Students are required to study by memorization for long hours leaving them physically ill and even with physical deformities. I have vivid memories of students covered in rashes over their entire bodies from stress. Teachers aren’t allowed to be pedagogues who help students but are forced to be taskmasters who enforce learning by memorization and cruel study regimes.
How Cho Chang-ik discussed students was important to me because Korean students have been heavily involved in Korean social movements. I visited the memorial to the Gwangju Uprising and what I noticed from looking at the birth dates of people who died was that a large portion of the dead were younger than twenty years old. Korean teenagers from my experiences are incredibly politically aware and once while assigning homework I was met with protest chants from the Candlelight Revolution. When I visited the protests against Park Geun-hye I saw teenagers organizing themselves, some even in a marching band, without supervision or guidance from adults.
My greatest impression from that day was the teachers’ honesty, sincerity and commitment to justice. Unions in the rest of the world can learn from the KTU’s focus on issues outside of work conditions and their protest tactics. Canada Post workers and their union the CUPW have had to resort to more militant protests to fight for their legal right to strike and to fight neoliberalism unions around the world will have to learn to adopt more militant protest tactics to protect basic rights.