South Korea Interest Groups

South Korea Country Studies index

South Korea - Interest Groups

Interest groups

Despite its Constitution and formal structure, the South Korean government has never fully conformed to the liberal democratic model that sees the state as a simple summation of diverse and competing interests within society. In politics, as in economic life, South Korea has more closely fit the "strong state" model, in which the government has tended to outweigh particular social or group interests. Nonetheless, the balance between the government and various interest groups showed some dramatic changes in the late 1980s; as the 1990s began, observers found it likely that such changes would continue, despite efforts by the government to retain its traditionally strong position.

During most of the postwar period, the South Korean government had encouraged organizations for the communication of economic interests, but had not encouraged professional or occupational interest groups to voice political demands. Independent or unsanctioned interest groups had come into existence from time to time to challenge fundamental policies of the government. In the late 1980s, such challenges accounted for a sizable proportion of extragovernmental political activity.

The relationship between government and business associations in South Korea had its roots in the period of Japanese colonial rule, when the governor general established the Seoul Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other industrial associations as a means of communicating economic policies to the business community. Since 1952 all businesses were required by South Korean law to belong to the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the bylaws and initial membership of which closely paralled those of the Seoul Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the colonial period. Since 1961, when the Park government began its economic development plans, the Federation of Korean Industry has represented the major conglomerates. A larger organization, the Federation of Small and Medium Industries, has had much less influence. The Korea Traders' Association and the Korean Federation of Textile Industries round out the four major industrial associations. In 1989 there were some 200 additional business associations licensed by the state.

In most cases, the government recognizes only a single association as the representative of that industry. Major business leaders may have individual access to administrators through personal ties and might be able to influence the government in minor ways, such as obtaining exemptions from specific taxes. For the most part, however, business associations through the 1980s were dominated by the government. As noted by one specialist, "it is through industry associations that the Korean government implements its policies, enforces routine compliance, gathers information, and monitors performance." In the 1980s, this process was sometimes facilitated by the placement of retiring senior military or national security officials in industry association positions.

Institutional changes and pressures toward open markets began to change the traditional government-business relationship in the mid- and late 1980s. Larger corporations became interested in having a role in policy formulation more commensurate with their contribution to more than two decades of economic growth. This interest took several forms, including substantial corporate contributions to all major political parties during elections. As economic ministries grew in influence within a more decentralized economic planning structure in the 1980s, the related industry associations, just as in Japan and the United States, gained a greater voice. Growing liberalization of the domestic market under foreign pressure also led to greater friction between the interests of specific economic sectors and the need of the government to satisfy its foreign critics or risk a loss of access to vital foreign markets. As the 1990s began, these frictions seemed likely to continue and to lead eventually to further readjustments.

In general, the higher-paid professions establish and administer their own associations and cooperate closely with the appropriate government ministries, but receive no government support. These associations are chiefly concerned with maintaining standards and the economic status of the professions concerned and have been traditionally regarded by the government as politically safe. The major exception has been the Korean Bar Association, which became increasingly outspoken on human rights and related legal issues in the 1970s and 1980s.

The government has attempted to keep tight controls on the intellectual professions, sponsoring the formation of the Korean Federation of Education Associations and the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organizations of Korea. Membership in the Korean Federation of Education Associations was compulsory for all teachers through high-school level. Members of these umbrella groups received significant medical benefits, and they tended to avoid political controversy. The Korean Newspaper Association and Korean Newspaper Editors' Association were politically cautious during the early 1980s, but became much less constrained during the early years of Roh's rule.

Dissident associations have frequently grown from the intellectual sector of society. The Minjung Culture Movement Association (minjung means populist) was formed in 1985 by dissident artists and writers who did not want to belong to the state-controlled Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organizations of Korea. Similar organizations of dissident journalists, such as the Association of Journalists Dismissed in 1980, or the Democratic Press Movement Association, often were dealt with harshly under the Fifth Republic. The Association of Korean Journalists, although more broadly based and less ideological, was quick to resist censorship and, after a change in the law in 1988, supported the formation of journalists' unions.

The government has been especially sensitive about unauthorized professional associations among teachers. Many teachers, and some opposition political leaders, have been determined to reduce the state's control over the political views of teachers and the content of education. In early 1989, President Roh vetoed an opposition-sponsored amendment to the Education Law that would have allowed teachers to form independent unions. In spite of the president's veto, activist leftist teachers--numbering about 10 percent of the nation's primary through high-school faculties--announced their intention to form such a union. The National Teachers Union (Chon'gyojo), inaugurated in late May 1989, criticized the Korean Federation of Education Associations as progovernment and weak in protecting teachers' rights. The Ministry of Education responded by dismissing more than 1,000 members of the new union in the spring and summer of 1989, resulting in the eventual withdrawal of more than 10,000 additional teachers. The Agency for National Security Planning conducted a well-publicized investigation into the union's ideology, with the implication that members could be charged with aiding an antistate organization under the National Security Act. Police broke up pro-National Teachers Union rallies; members participating in a signature-gathering campaign to support the union were charged with traffic violations. Eventually, several teachers' union leaders received prison terms on various charges. The Ministry of Education produced new guidelines that permitted teachers' colleges to deny admission to students with activist records and that allowed district education boards to screen out "security risks" when testing candidates for employment. These measures effectively halted the activities of the National Teachers Union.

The modern Korean labor movement, including unions of skilled and unskilled workers, dates to the first decade of Japanese colonial rule. South Korean law and constitutions since 1948 have recognized the "three rights" of labor: the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to take collective action. In practice, however, the government has consistently attempted to control labor and mitigate the effects of unionism through the use of a variety of legal and customary devices, including company-supported unions, prohibitions against political activities by unions, binding arbitration of disputes in public interest industries, which include 70 percent of all organized labor, and the requirement that all unions be affiliated with one of the seventeen government-sponsored industrial unions and with a general coordinating body, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). In the 1980s, large companies, often supported by the police and intelligence agencies of the government, also exerted pressure on unions to prevent strikes, to undermine the development of white-collar unions, to retain control of union leaders, and to prevent persons with some college education from attempting to organize workers by taking positions as industrial laborers.

Despite such measures, the government has never exercised total control of the labor movement. Even the Federation of Korean Trade Unions occasionally has been able to file administrative suits against government rulings or to lobby-- sometimes successfully--against laws that would have a negative impact on working conditions or rights of unions. Through most of its existence, however, the federation has been able to do little beyond submit proposals for legal reform to the government. Throughout the postwar period, dissenting labor organizations have either attempted to function apart from the government- sanctioned structure under the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, or have formed rival umbrella organizations, such as the National Council of Trade Unions, established in 1958.

South Korea experienced an explosion of labor disputes from 1987 through 1989 under the more open political conditions following the crisis of late June 1987 and the pressures created by long-deferred improvements in wages and working conditions. More than 3,500 labor disputes occurred from August through November 1987. Most were quickly resolved by negotiated wage increases and by the prospect that another common demand--freer scope for union activities--would be met in forthcoming legislation. In 1988 labor-related laws were amended to make it easier to establish labor unions and to reduce government intervention in labor disputes. Unions were still prohibited, however, from articulating any demands that the government interpreted as political in nature.

In 1988 the number of unions increased from 4,000 to more than 5,700. This figure included numerous new white-collar unions formed at research institutes, in the media, and within the larger corporations.

There was a general privatization of labor-management conflict during 1988 and 1989 as the government adopted a more neutral, hands-off stance. Companies experimented widely with tactics such as lockouts (5 in 1987; 224 in 1988), and labor unions achieved new levels of joint action by workers in different regions and industries. The government's ability to manage organized labor through the traditional means of controlling the FKTU declined. The FKTU, under criticism for the many years it represented the government more than labor, also began to take a more independent posture as the 1980s came to a close. In 1989 the once-docile umbrella organization prepared to sponsor union candidates in anticipated local elections (an illegal activity under existing law) and held education seminars and rallies to press for "economic democracy" through revision of labor laws and other reforms. Notwithstanding the increasing ability of labor to organize and to present economic demands, however, the government continued to suppress leftist labor groups that appeared to have broad political goals or that questioned the legitimacy of the government, such as the National Council of Labor Unions (Chonnohyop), which was formally established in early 1990.

In early 1990, the government announced new measures to support its return to more restrictive policies governing strikes. The number of intelligence agents at key industries was more than doubled (from 163 to 337) and a special riot police task force--sixty-three companies in strength--was deployed against "illegal" strikes.

During the postwar period, articulation of workers' interests had been weakest for South Korea's farming population. In 1946 the government used the Korea Federation of Peasants to mobilize the rural population against leftist peasant unions. The Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives, established in 1957, was also largely funded and administered by the state. Its purpose was not to represent farmers' interests, but to facilitate government control over the purchase and sale of grain and farmers' purchases of fertilizer.

Although most South Korean farmers continued to belong to cooperatives, two pressures converged in the late 1980s to change the way in which farmers' interests were represented. First, as rural-urban income disparities grew in the late 1970s and 1980s, farmer dissatisfaction with the government cooperatives' role in setting crop prices and the costs of agricultural supplies also increased. Some farmers turned to independent organizations, such as the Korean Catholic Farmers Association or the Christian Farmers Association. These groups, which were viewed as dissident organizations by the government, performed a variety of services for farmers and also took public positions on government agricultural and price policies, sometimes using mass rallies. The second change, which affected larger numbers of farmers, was the result of South Korea's growing trade surpluses in the late 1980s. As the government responded to pressure from major trading partners, such as the United States, to open South Korea's domestic markets, farmers became increasingly active in large-scale protest rallies against both the government and the major political parties. As the 1990s began, it was clear that the traditional harmony of political interests between a conservative rural population and conservative governments had ended.

More about the Government of South Korea.

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