Chun Tae Ils Legacy Lives On: Fanning the Flame of an International Labor Movement
By: Michelle Cheung
On November 3, 1970 the slogan, We are not machines! forever pierced the silence of South Korean streets. Chun Tae Il, the father of the South Korean labor movement, brought light to the dark, gray factories when he set himself ablaze as an act of protest to the inhumane labor conditions of that time. Female workers experienced the brunt of abuse, being forced to work 16-20 hours a day, crammed in poorly ventilated rooms, all while under the threat of physical and sexual assault. Ironically, the sacrifice of one life, led to the deliverance of millions. Chun Tae Ils act of courage sparked the largest Korean labor movement that eventually established independent labor unions and led to the first democratic election in 1987. Although many long years have made Chun Tae Ils life but a memory, his sister, Dr. Chun Soon-Ok continually strives to make his dream a reality.
Her two books, A Single Spark: The Biography of Chun Tae Il, and They Are Not Machines: The Birth of Democratic Trade Unionism in Korea are now the tools being used to keep Chun Tae Ils vision alive. In April of 2003 Dr. Chun Soon-Ok launched her tour to promote A Single Spark while awaiting the release of They Are Not Machines due out this summer. With a doctorate degree in industrial relations from the University of Warwick, UK, Dr. Soon-Ok blends her knowledge of the British and South Korean labor movements to form the best solution to the current problems faced by Korean labor activists. She is especially in tune to these problems, for upon completing her PhD Soon-Ok returned to South Korea as a textile worker living and breathing the harsh realities of factory life. At present, Soon-Ok believes that industrial globalization is responsible for the continued maltreatment of workers. A growing South Korean economy has resulted in a greater demand for factory goods, and thus the need to increase production- at any cost.
Although the book has just been translated into English, the film documentary of Chun Tae Ils legacy has already touched the lives of many generations. In fact Derek Elley of Variety regards the film as such:
"Well-crafted, sincere, solid... Park manages the tricky task of melding the fictional Kim with the true-life story of Chun, a complex character whose death, at only 22 is still only partly understood".
Although the legacy of Chun Tae Il and the accounts of labor abuse still seem like something that could only stem from a movie, the stories of these people are very real. Dr. Chun Soon-Ok put it best when she said, Although South Korea has shown economic growth, there still remains a dark side to the economy.
April 23rd, 2003