By Hyun Lee | November 8, 2020
An interview with Han San-gyun, former president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The interview was conducted on July 31, 2018 by Hyun Lee, KPI Associate and ZoominKorea contributor
Translated by Jane Lyon Lee and Kyung Rae Lee
In December 2015, Han San-gyun, then-President of the Korean Confederation of Unions (KCTU), was imprisoned for his role in leading resistance against then-President Park Geun-hye’s wave of repression against labor. Long noted as the most militant and progressive of Korean trade union organizations, the KCTU was a primary target in Park’s campaign to crush the labor movement. Public outrage over Park Geun-hye’s crimes and misdeeds grew into a mass national movement called the Candlelight Revolution, which ultimately drove her from office and led to her arrest and imprisonment. The KCTU played a key role in that movement.
Lee: The last time I interviewed you, President Han Sang-gyun, was November of 2015. At that time you were putting your efforts towards creating a united front of progressive forces led by the KCTU--to fight against labor market reforms, and to oppose the anti-democratic policies of the Park Geun-hye administration. Since then, a lot has happened. I think it is because of those proactive actions by the KCTU that the Candlelight Revolution was possible. Through that movement, there was a change in the government, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Han: In 2015, I declared a people’s uprising and actually it was from that point on that I was targeted and pursued by the Park Geun-hye government. After that, amid a total awakening, the demands of the people were heard. That anger was reinforced when it became known that the collapse of farmer Baek Nam-gi was the result of a high water pressure cannon stream [fired at protesters]. We saw then that those in power would use whatever means available--not to take care of basic rights and democracy but to maintain their own power.
After witnessing that, to protect myself, I went to Jogyesa [Temple] for several days. Korean society was in denial. The government’s public security measures were horrific and though the government did not wield guns or knives, it was an extremely serious situation in which no one could act freely. I was thinking that if at this point, the KCTU, as representative of organized labor, were to succumb to them, then wouldn’t the anti-democracy, anti-labor, anti-history Park Geun-hye government just forge ahead with even more egregious actions?
They wanted us to kneel down to authoritarian suppression, but the KCTU was born as an organization dedicated to justice, democracy, and to the rights of laborers, and is an organization that will not kneel down. As an organization that does not bow down, the KCTU resisted and had to endure a really difficult time.
And then I brought to the forefront fundamental issues of Korean society: the labor problems, issues of class polarization, and grievances of the working class. The Park Geun-hye government was destroying democracy. It had to be called out for its anti-history, anti-labor path of governance.
Up to that point, I had been involved in organizing the masses, and saw the reality of angry laborers, farmers, the poor, youth, and students. But then [when I was imprisoned] I was separated from society. I look at those mass uprisings from my personal point of view, and see that there are many different opinions as to how the rest of society connected itself to this, and how it all evolved into a movement. As you pointed out in the question you asked, I agree that the role that the KCTU played in all this was not a small one. The Railroad Union strike really played a decisive role in the Candlelight Movement as it secured a physical position in Gwanghwamun [Plaza, in Seoul].
Lee: When was that?
Han: It was the fall of 2016. It went on from the fall, so citizens were able to pick up their candles and participate. The momentum of this strike made it possible for Gwanghwamun to be established as a place where citizens could safely protest and call for the resignation of Park Geun-hye. That moment marked the birth of what is today the Moon Jae-in government. It was also the time when the minority party came to publicly show its face in politics. This time was also about whether Park Geun-hye should be impeached right away through an early election, whether we should withdraw from the frontlines for safety reasons, whether the first and second lines of defense should be dispatched, and a lot of other unbelievable conversations. This was when the KCTU and others in the democracy camp decisively demanded that Park Geun-hye had to resign. With that, things naturally moved down that path.
This process spread, but the KCTU did not just play a role in Seoul at Gwanghwamun. There were the rural areas and cities across the country--there was no place we didn’t go, making it possible for the people who could not get to Seoul to gather in the streets. The workers did everything to safely manage the assembly [of the people]; they installed speakers and emceed. Doing all this took enormous strength, and they made all kinds of posters and signs. The KCTU is a flagship organization and has done this kind of thing throughout its history.
Of course, this will have to be further evaluated by others, but if the KCTU had really created a massive strike that effectively stopped all production, logistics, and service, and without going to constitutional trial, had condemned the unrighteous power of the state, it would have been the most revolutionary thing ever done. I regret that we did not go that far, but would the anger of the Korean society really have been revealed if we had done that? Everyone was so skeptical at that time. Amidst those circumstances, we created momentum that gave rise to a sense of hopefulness. I’d like to sum up things that way.
Lee: As you have said, the KCTU stood at the forefront during the most difficult times, and you brought together a broad spectrum of progressive forces to maximize full power. How was this possible?
Han: On the one hand, we were completely surprised. I, too, from prison, was amazed at the situation. But eventually, although each group differed in terms of where they were headed, and their standards of worth, this was a matter of coming together as one, cohesively, and then jumping over ideological differences, the different views of common sense and justice, among the women, men, young, and old. There was really an indescribable national anger. This anger was over the mishandling of government affairs and the atrocities committed by the Park Geun-hye government. No one could disagree that injustice had been done.
There was a time when I made a direct order telling others not to demand my release from prison. My reason for doing this was one of justice and out of fear that there would be an amplification of the demands and ideas of individual units. Instead, everyone, despite having their own individual different thoughts, became one as they stood at the forefront of justice.
Lee: Please explain the process of preparing the mass gatherings.
Han: In 2015, the KCTU introduced the first-ever direct re-election. There were four slates that came forth as candidates for the direct re-election. When we went to meet the union members at the different sites, we had already set the platform. That platform included opposition to labor market reform, holding a general strike in April, organizing a mass demonstration in November, and correcting the wrongs of the anti-labor policies of the Park Geun-hye government. As a result, cooperating partners had already agreed to the platform and our slate was elected.
No one predicted that we would win the election. The reason we were elected was because there was a sense of urgency that things should be done differently than had been done up to that point. We then needed the decision of the approval committee, so we opened a proxy system and via that system, the platform was passed unanimously. Upon passage, we knew that nothing would change unless we fought. Why? The Park Geun-hye government had defined labor, the KCTU, and the National Teachers Union as enemies.
We came to the conclusion that if we compromised with our enemies, we would be left with only two choices in the end--to kneel before them or to oppose them and fight alongside labor. Because fighting would be hard for the workers alone, we met with other social progressive groups such as farmers, the urban poor, youth, and student groups. With all of us at the table for discussion, something surprising happened at that meeting. When we insisted that the Park Geun-hye administration had to resign, the representative from the farmers was in agreement, and the representatives of the urban poor, the youth, and the students were all in agreement, too. This momentous decision took just twenty minutes to make. This is written in the police reports. Just like that, it’s in there, but there probably had never been a case in which a decision for public progress had been made so quickly. It was important that regardless of difference in opinion, we came together as one voice. In this way, the bureaucrats who had previously been unable to see that the people’s anger had reached a boiling point saw now that anger was boiling. Because of this, the decision was reached so clearly and the direction set forth was so exact.
Lee: So, you went to prison. What were you charged of doing?
Han: At first, they charged me with instigation, and then they made up some crimes I never heard of before to frame me.
Lee: What was that?
Han: Things like paralyzing the city and inciting a coup, and conspiring on those kinds of enormous things. In the end, they could not convict me on any of those charges. So after that, [the charges] turned into violations of traffic and riot laws, and ten or more other crimes around obstruction of official duties and obstruction of the execution of special public services. I was convicted and received a sentence of three years. I was released on April 21 of this year  with six months remaining on my sentence.
Lee: Please talk about your experience of being in prison. While you were in prison, the Candlelight Revolution happened. Park Geun-hye was impeached. How did you feel then?
Han: When I was in prison, I was actually still the president of the KCTU, so the KCTU officers would come to the visitors’ room and we would give and receive updates to each other. We were forced by [the authorities] to either kneel down in front of them or courageously fight the war to the end. As I say this, I think if we had prepared for 100,000 to gather, 100,000 people would have gathered. If we believed in the people and that 500,000 would gather, 500,000 would have gathered. With the anger of the farmers and laborers in the current situation, if we said 1,000,000 would come at any moment, 1,000,000 would gather. It was to this level that, with confidence, trust, and love, we were going to forge ahead.
No matter how tyrannical the Park Geun-hye government was, they could not win over public consensus. We continued to send this message—be confident; let’s not waver here. Those people were inflicting fear and we had to overcome that fear. We continued like that and the situation changed. The candlelight spread like wildfire. Park Geun-hye was impeached and then jailed. One by one, things happened and the process expanded. I too was surprised by it all. Actually, I believed that eventually a day like this would come, but I didn’t know that it would come this quickly. I looked to the sky and to farmer Baek Nam-gi and to all the martyrs that came before us. The strength of the workers in Korean society was leading to significant change.
From then, although I was trapped alone within the prison walls, I thought, "I am no longer imprisoned.” I lived each day with a full heart.
Lee: Even now, there is a lot of change on the Korean peninsula. Exchanges between the North and South have started and conversations between the North and the United States are happening. What do you think about the current state of affairs?
Han: I am not an expert on the Korean peninsula's state of affairs. That is difficult to answer, but just seeing things from the perspective of the workers, this is a government that has made new connections in relations between the North and South--a vein that had been blocked. The two are validating each other, making promises, and more than at any other time, national support and hopes are high for peace, reconciliation, prosperity, and the path to unification. I think that since the  meeting at Panmunjom between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, a feeling of confidence has spread that if the people of the North and South put their minds together, we can do anything. This feeling is particularly true in South Korea.
I think that in order for us to realize that, the exchanges among the workers and exchanges among the people need to be fundamentally better. There must be a goal-oriented consciousness.
When that way of thinking expands and accumulates, no longer will our people’s future and happiness be determined by external forces and imperialistic power. On the other hand, the two leaders met at Panmunjom and sat together at the Dobo Bridge. Just seeing them talking with each other, seeing them honestly sharing with each other the many issues of the peninsula’s peoples--this created a consensus that regardless of social status or generation, there is no reason we cannot make this peninsula a place overflowing with vitality of economic development and reconciliation without war. If you look at it, in a way, this has been the greatest outcome [of the exchange].
Of course, in order to do this, we have to look at how specific efforts and organized labor are going to play a part. Actually, when the special zones in the North are expanded and South Korea puts forward capital, we will need the citizens to oppose further private investment in North Korea via the exploitation of workers and low wages. Our important homework and preparation going forward are how we, especially workers, are going to demand from capitalists that the process be one of mutual prosperity.
Lee: From the perspective of labor, what kind of country should a unified Korea be? To that end, how should labor participate in the South-North talks, and have their voices thus far been heard?
Han: Korean society, particularly South Korean society, has been centered on an ideology of separation and anti-communism, which is really an abnormal basis on which to form a democracy. We do have a democratic republic, but as we just discussed, it is clear that the ideology I just mentioned and an anti-communist framework have produced an imperfect democracy. This peace process will determine the collapse or survival of those who have enjoyed power without any particular skills and have ruled via anti-communist propaganda and an ideology of separation. We shall see, but many experts predict that the incompetent right wing will inevitably become obsolete. This will mean the entire political spectrum will shift to the left, and a new force will occupy the right. If the current government in power becomes the center-right, then the positions the progressive forces take up will become a critical viewfinder in establishing new inter-Korean relations. Ultimately the progressive working class has an absolute historical responsibility to go through a rebirth.
Actually, I will be sixty very soon. I wonder to what extent we really know about the North based on all our brainwashed learning. How much do we know about North-South absurdities? How much do we know about the real meaning of the Korean peninsula's geopolitical position in terms of Sino-U.S. relations? We need a more generalized argument around this issue. Truly, what kind of process is necessary for peace and prosperity on our Korean peninsula?
Lee: Last week, I visited the site where the SsangYong laid-off workers were protesting. The administration in power has changed; how do you see this problem getting solved?
Han: The Moon Jae-in government took office and pledged the creation of a labor-respecting society as a priority and a basis for its policies. Naturally, many workers have high expectations, and in many respects, there have been partial successes. Moon has said things like, "You must join labor unions in order to secure the rights of workers," and that he would work until such-and-such year to ratify the ILO agreement so that the right to form a labor union becomes common sense. And then there was talk about the exploitative pyramid structure of dispatched labor, and problems of outsourced labor, and in relation to this, the necessity of a government decision to overcome the current laws in this regard.
But all these issues are being hindered one at a time by privileged groups like the Korean conglomerates (chaebol). In addition, the extremely conservative media has reached a peak in its negative distortion of the income-led growth model advocated by the Moon Jae-in as leading to South Korea’s downfall.
In the conflict between the government and labor, the foremost issue was the National Teachers Union as well as non-union issues. In addition, at the forefront of the conflict between labor and capitalists is General Motors (GM) Korea. Despite the fact that a court ruling found that GM Korea’s irregular workers were illegally dispatched, the workers still remain in the distressing predicament where they are still laid off and unable to gain reinstatement as regular employees. This is the real crux of the labor-capitalist conflict. In the case of the SsangYong conflict, the government--albeit a previous administration--was complicit. For example, there was the violent and murderous [former President] Lee Myung-bak government and his policy of suppression and its willingness to turn a blind eye to [SsangYong’s] accounting manipulation. This is just coming to light, but Supreme Court Judge Yang Sung-tae’s business ventures are also an issue, as well as the Supreme Court’s deal with the Park Geun-hye administration to baselessly overturn the ruling that SsangYong’s lay-offs were unjustified. When we look at this, really, whether it was the mistakes of the Lee Myung-bak government or the Park Geun-hye government, the Korean government made mistakes. In this regard, it would not be acceptable for the Moon Jae-in government to drag its feet or tepidly address these mistakes, and then claim to be a government dedicated to justice.
I am very concerned that on his formal visit to India, President Moon will deliver a message internationally, saying that the SsangYong layoff has been resolved. The president needs to know that the SsangYong problem is not just a simple SsangYong-specific issue; we are at a point with this where any worker in this country could be kicked out of his job. There is no greater trauma than being a worker who is kicked out because your boss does not like how things are going. In other words, it is as if the citizens of this world are playing musical chairs with each other and amidst this, a loud warning bell is sounding, calling for things to get fixed. In addition, Korea's national violence is an important problem that was uncovered by the deaths of workers, as in the case with SsangYong. Without a doubt, the SsangYong problem is said to have left the most painful scar on the Korean society.
So I see that it is the absolute duty of the Moon Jae-in government to make sure the first steps it takes are towards resolving the pain and anguish caused by these problems in Korean society. I hope these issues are resolved quickly and even if only it is the making of the decision to do so, the 119 employees must have their employment reinstated ; there must be a national apology to those individuals, and they should be compensated. If this problem is drawn out any longer or spreads and ends up tied to another death, how can we say there is justice?
Lee: What plans do you have now after your release
Han: I always have the mindset of a worker and the greatest happiness in my life is doing everything I am capable of to help those workers who are in the hardest and most difficult places. This is what I believe has the greatest value and how I will live my life.
Lee: Do you not have any more specific plans?
Han: I was released six months earlier than I thought I would be, so I missed making specific plans before I got out. I am going around to different sites and am listening to the voices of workers, the voices of those workers who have been kicked out, those being discriminated against, and the problems of women laborers.
Lee: Do we again need a united front of the progressive groups?
Han: The united front of progressive groups does not happen by just talking about it. Up to now, when we have talked about such total unity, it has always been in terms of making requests of the heads of the progressive groups, urging them to play a role, and then just staring at their mouths to see what they will say. This has been the history of the progressive movement. But it is my thought that we are repeating this history and have been unable yet to open the door to a new path. I have a question as to how we can bring about a real chemical reaction of dynamic energy to obtain justice. I am thinking that at this moment in time, we need a bottom-up grassroots movement that the workers create themselves.
 Baek Nam-gi was a 68-year-old farmer who was struck by a high-pressure jet fired by a police water cannon at a demonstration on November 14, 2015. Baek was knocked unconscious and remained in a coma until his death on September 25, 2016.  Located in downtown Seoul, Jogyesa played a crucial role as a site of refuge and collective organizing for the Candlelight Revolution.  An agreement on reinstatement was reached shortly after this interview took place.
Hyun Lee is a Korea Policy Institute Associate, the U.S. national organizer for Women Cross DMZ and Korea Peace Now! — a global campaign of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.