Marxist Influence in South Korean Development and its Global Implications

The life of a political science student at the University of Oregon is pervaded by the omnipresence of Marxist text, and though the progressive-leaning-socialist views of the professorship are clearly present, the students are largely left to their own devices in determining the effectiveness, viability, and applicability of Marxism. It is in this text that we will attempt to discern the quality of these traits, using the economic development of South Korea in the 20th century as a case study. Through this process, we will see why Marxism, like many political and economic ideologies, can be wildly valuable in certain contexts, such as in the early economic development of vulnerable regimes, and detrimental in others. We will also explore the implications of these findings for the political theorist.

South Korea’s transition into a fairly major player in the global economy is a fairly recent development— as recently as the 1970’s, over half of the nation’s labor force was employed in agriculture. This changed quickly, though; within 20 years, that was reduced to only 20% of the population (Koo, 34). So what happened during those 20 years? According to Hagen Koo in Korean Workers, this shift from agriculture occurred alongside a massive expansion of manufacturing in the country. As jobs were created in urban areas through state investment in manufacturing, young people began moving from the rural areas they once occupied and began earning wages. This establishment of a proletariat is likely where our analysis of Marxist thought begins, as the workforce transitioned from low-density, non-wage-earning, disjointed population to a high-density collective, employed by a small number of manufacturing companies.

It’s also important to mention that this “proletarianization” was very much encouraged by the state— during the 1970’s, there was a massive economic liberalization movement in southeastern Asia. It’s this movement from small, agrarian, authoritarian states to manufacturing export economies that marked the rise of the region’s global presence. South Korea’s most concrete example of this is perhaps the creation of POSCO, a state-owned steel production company, in 1968. While South Korea had, up to this point, never been home to a steel production facility, Park Chung-Hee was hoping to imitate the economic success of the west. South Korea was able to become the fourth-largest producer of steel in the world within 10 years with the financial support of Japan, with which South Korea had just recently normalized relations. Very rarely can a nation’s economic policy change without having some impact on culture, though, and an impact was certainly had.

With this new, liberal, west-emulating agenda, South Korea was confronted by an interesting and dangerous paradox: Their workers remained unionized only in the most technical sense, underpaid, and overworked in spite of the adoption of this new pseudo-democratic framework. This paradox is faced by nearly all developing countries attempting to liberalize their economy, and we can see a nearly perfect parallel in the case of Thailand. In Thailand’s case, the “class struggle” was met and complimented by a growing presence in Marxist ideology (Walker, 13). We can see that this was the case in South Korea as well, as is evidenced by the labor struggles that extended well into the 1980’s.

How might we have expected any other result, though? With South Korean political scholars clearly advocating for systemic changes to closer emulate the west, it should be no surprise that the culture changed to meet those adjustments. As discussed in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, there are some forms of violence that are simply incompatible with the ideals that the west espouses, and oppression of the the proletariat is a form of mass violence— violence, of course, being defined as an intentional act of harm.

Although POSCO is an example of oppression by the state, the lack of laborer’s rights extended into the private sector as well. The fact that workers were treated as mere resource, or as Marx says in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “[sunk] to the level of a commodity and [became] indeed the most wretched of commodities (70)” instigated an incredible upset that would change the landscape of the laborer. As workers-turned-scholars and scholars-turned-workers recognized their own circumstance in the writings of Marx, revolution became inevitable; although class warfare is often avoided by the maintenance of ignorance in the lower class, working-class South Koreans of the 1980’s had the benefit of comparative politics. Prior to the departure from agrarian life, comparing their own status to those in the west would be comparing apples to oranges— most were self-employed, and those who weren’t were aware of their nation’s vulnerable regime. It became far more reasonable to demand ownership of their labor once the state entered a more stable, growth-oriented period, especially when that period was accompanied by a flood of western ideals being systematized.

The idea that workers and scholars began to blend and fuse is an important one to understand when attempting to conceptualize how Marx made his way into the hearts and minds of the worker. This class of scholarly workers developed a culture of ceremony and togetherness in the 1970’s and 80’s that involved public protest of inequitable systems and unfair class politics. This culture of ceremony was deep, robust, and prolific— involving formalized dance, masks, music, and poetry. One particular ceremony, the mask dance, often involved two different groups of people, the Confucians and the commoners. The commoners would heckle and tease the Confucians for being hypocritical and immoral. This ceremony was clearly influenced by the class politics of the time, and reinforced by Marxist ideology.

Korean Workers brings forward an important account of the activism of Lee Sun-ju on page 119, which underlines the importance of Marxist thought in the labor movement. Lee Sun-ju, a student at Seoul Women’s University, was bound for a life of factory work, and worked in a garment factory (as many women did) for a month during her junior year. At that point in her scholastic career, Sun-ju had familiarized herself with Marxist literature after learning Japanese, as there were very few texts offered in Korean. Her circle of friends had studied the political and economic philosophies of Marx, discussing how it could explain the incredible inequities and injustices found in Korean culture at the time. So, when Sun-ju experienced the life of a worker, she was appalled.

After experiencing the pitfalls and failings of the industry for a number of years after graduation, Sun-ju and a group of her coworkers (a number of which were also former students) flooded the union election with labor activists, placing a number of former scholars and advocates of Marxist ideology into power.

If one looks at the local leaders of the labor movements, they will likely find that the majority of them had formal education that led them to the works of Marx. Koo reveals this on page 103:

“[i]t was a period of Marxism and radical discourse; many students, intellectuals, and political activists were strongly influenced by Marxism, dependency perspective, or people’s liberation theology and embraced the idea of radical social transformation through collective action.”

Although Marx is rarely credited, the consistency with which his works appear in the lives of those leading the movements can be no coincidence. We might infer that the reason for the omission of Marx’s credit for the success/instigation of such activism is the pervasive anti-communist sentiment that was and is found in South Korea. This inferral can be reinforced by the behaviors of the minjung political party.

The minjung (“people”) movement is potentially one of the most concrete examples of Marxist ideology making its way into the public consciousness in South Korea, although those advocating for the new party were sure to align themselves with nationalists; during that time, to align one’s self with Marx would be to commit effective social suicide (Koo, 143). This party largely focused on the issues that class disparities created, and aimed to represent those marginalized by the recently liberalized economy— much like the labor movements that occurred earlier in the US and the UK. The parallel to the labor movement in the UK is particularly strong, as the UK’s labor party has much in common with South Korea’s minjung party. Suehiro points out, though, why South Korea was able to see such incredible change so rapidly on page 257 of Catch-up Industrialization: “The three features most frequently pointed out have been lifetime employment, the seniority system… and cooperation between management and trade unions to achieve the company’s growth-oriented targets.” Although South Korea changed a lot to mimic the west, the threshold between the private and public spheres was very blurry during this time. This resulted in a lot of oversight that restricted both unions (each factory could have only one union by law, so many companies created their own to block the minjung advocates from creating their own) and companies in way that created a culture of employee loyalty. Because of the lifetime employment expectation and the reliability of the seniority system, which rewarded loyal employees, workers felt invested in their work environment. This culture of personal investment is very much backed by Marxist thought, and came about as a result of workers identifying problematic elements of work culture in the country and unifying against those elements.

A term coined in Marx’s Political and Philosophic Manuscripts, “alienation”, was almost certainly one of the concepts that immediately took hold in the hopeful and progressive minds of South Korean students. The South Korean worker, especially if female, was made to work a considerable amount more than the workers of countries South Korea competed with and emulated. In 1980, as the labor movement began en force, Koreans were working 53.1 hours per work week, as compared to the 39.7 hours that were (and are) expected of Americans (Koo, 48). Revisiting Sun-ju, we learn that her daily wage at the garment factory, where “[o]vertime until midnight or even 2 A.M. was very frequent”, was approximately $9.95 in 2017 USD. Because the workers of South Korea were unable to appreciate the value of their work, they become removed from it. Not only did most workers not have a passion for the work in the first place, but the ability to take pride in the work was ripped from their hands. She was unable to even regret her decision, she said, as “[l]ife was too busy to reflect on… her decision to become a factory worker” (Koo, 120). How can we make conscious decisions about our wellbeing if we are unable or disallowed to even reflect on the decisions we’ve already made? Marx brings this up on page 74: “[The worker] no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions- eating, drinking, procreating.” The person has become animal. A person unable to correct their own path is a victim of de facto slavery, “forced labor”— in Marx’s words: “With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men.”

The very nature of industrialization makes alienation almost inevitable, as industrialization is most often accompanied by mass production, which undermines the value of the worker’s hand in the creation of the object. Regardless of the worker, the bowl will look the same and serve the same purpose, devoid of the mark of its maker. In this way, the commodity (a bowl in this case) is removed from the worker, and the worker is disallowed from taking pride in the creation of that commodity (Marx, 74).  

It is furthermore important to recognize that, because the labor of a member of the working class very rarely actually belongs to the individual, the product of that labor becomes unimportant. When labor is exerted as a result of employment, the individual sees the production of steel bars less as the creation of a valuable resource and more as an opportunity to receive capital. The exertion of labor is less about living a life fulfilled, and more about living a life at all. In this manner, the worker is treated not as a powerful and individual human, but rather as a source of energy: no more important than the coal powering the facility.

As time went on the working class continued to struggle, in spite of occasionally winning small victories on the company level, until the growing conflict exploded in 1987 in what was dubbed the “Great Worker Struggle.” So relatable were the frustrations of the working scholars, and estimated 1.2 million workers participated in the struggle. This was estimated to be about a third of those employed by larger operations (Koo, 158). Prior to 1987, the labor movement consisted largely of women, who grouped up attain more gainful employment through community effort. The Great Struggle, though, succeeded in bringing employees from previously uninvolved sectors through a far more active approach to activism. This swung the demographics of the movement far to the male end of the spectrum, and although it would be easy to say that the change following 1987 was a result of widespread threat of violence, the change in demographic points to the possibility of cultural and institutional racism that was holding the movement back prior to the involvement of a more masculine population.  

As tensions built, Chun Doo-hwan feared an uprising and rolled out what became South Korea’s transition to democracy. Ignited by this success, the labor movement exploded: The number of unions increased exponentially overnight, and the beginnings of a years-long uptick in labor disputes were seen (Koo, 157). It is at this point that the average work week began to grow shorter in South Korea, and although Korea was still significantly behind the US, Japan, and even Taiwan, progress was progress— the labor movement had made a massive stride forward. The struggle not only brought real change to the lives of workers, but it also developed a strong class identity among the proletariat. The masses were now proud of the work they did, and announced boldly their status, taking ownership of their skill, hardworking nature, and the minjung movement only grew (Marx, 175). The glass box of alienation had been cracked, if not broken.

The interesting and ironic reality of this analysis, the analysis of a political economist, finding correlation between the spread of Marxist thought and the development of the labor movement in South Korea, is that Marx openly critiques and warns of the direct, black-and-white approach:

“Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain. Such a primordial condition explains nothing. He merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance. He assumes in the form of fact, of an event, what he is supposed to deduce-namely, the necessary relationship between two things-between, for example, division of labour and exchange. Theology in the same way explains the origin of evil by the fall of man: that is, it assumes as a fact, in historical form, what has to be explained (71)”.

In attempt of explanation, Marx says, the political economist reverts to a “fictitious primordial condition”— a not-so-subtle jab at the naive nature of the simplification— which should be avoided when possible, as it “explains nothing.” Here, though, he commits too heavily to his assertion. While his point is well taken (political science involves far too many variables for us to pretend that it is infallibly consistent), he seems to brush aside the value of the science as a tool of prediction and advisement, in spite of the fact that many of his works make bold assertions about the correlation between capitalist ideology and economic inefficiency. While it is entirely possible that Marx was referring exclusively to those attempting to make absolute claims, the irony of the fact that Marx himself utilized absolutes should not be lost on the reader. So, in spite of his critical view of those attempting to discern the correlation between politics and economics, let critique of our analysis be on the basis of flawed logic, rather than on the basis of the form of the analysis itself.

The influence of Marxism has spread to all corners of the earth, and this is clearly visible in populist movements across the globe. Although communism is still essentially a four-letter word in many places, this was particularly true in South Korea of the late 1900’s; with the communist North and the anti-communist South splitting in 1945, the fear of the spread of authoritarian communism was very real. Marxist ideology can be cleverly disguised as nationalist populism, though, and we saw this occur when student workers fought to organize themselves and to take ownership of their labor and their bodies. Without the influence of Marxist texts, which had to be sought after, it is very possible that South Korea would look very different today. It began with a few students learning Japanese, evolved into a political ideology, and then threatened the state in such a way that the Chun administration gave into the rising tide of democracy as a preventative measure.
While Marxism has yet to prove itself valuable to me in the context of the first-world nation, it is without hesitation that I affirm its value for countries on the cusp of achieving true democracy. With the leadership of Marxist scholars, collective action has enough pull to enact real change in certain vulnerable regimes.

Works Cited

Koo, Hagen. Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Press, 2001. Print.

Marx, ​​Karl, ​​and ​​Friedrich ​​Engels. ​​​The​​ Marx-Engels ​​Reader​. ​​2nd ​​ed. ​​Edited ​​by ​​Robert ​​C ​​Tucker, Norton, ​​1978.

Suehiro, Akira. Catch-up Industrialization: The Trajectory and Prospects of East Asian Economies. NUS Press, 2008.

Walker, Andrew. Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.


2 thoughts on “Marxist Influence in South Korean Development and its Global Implications

  1. Great post, I appreciate the linking of Marx to worker movements because his objective was always the unification of the working class. Even in his preface to Capital, he says that the most important consideration for him is for intellectual works to be accessible to the working class.

    In case you are not familiar with him, Thomas Shannon wrote a book called “An Introduction to the World-System Perspective”, for me it’s a seminal work which goes into the links between material conditions (and processes) and intellectual evolutions; it’s a great empirico-historical investigation which vaguely follows Marx’s infrastructure-superstructure conceptual couple.

    Hope to read more by you on these subjects!


    1. Thanks a lot for reading, Bernard! I’ll definitely have to check out Shannon’s work — I’ve built up a small reference library on this topic and am always looking for works to add. Cheers!


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