InustriALL assistant general secretary, Monika Kemperle, at the Seoul union rally on 23 January. Photo: IndustriALL/Jun Michael Park

Monika Kemperle with KCTU general secretary, Lee Youngjoo, who is living in the trade union offices for fear of arrest if she leaves.

Kemperle joined 5,000 people in a Seoul rally on 23 January. Photo: IndustriALL/Jun Michael Park

Trade unions in South Korea oppose proposed reforms to the labour code which would make it easier to fire unions. Photo: IndustriALL/Jun Michael Park

Overlooking the rally were two Kia subcontract workers who have been occupying the top of a Seoul skyscraper since June 2015. They are demanding the car company makes temporary workers permanent. Photo: IndustriALL/Jun Michael Park

South Korea trade unionists holed up in offices


Lee Youngjoo has not left her Seoul trade union offices for several weeks. If she does, she is afraid she will be arrested and put in prison like her colleague, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) president, Han Sang-gyun.

Instead she eats, sleeps and lives there while her family must travel to the offices to see her, so tells IndustriALL Global Union assistant general secretary Monika Kemperle who met Youngjoo in the KCTU offices last week. Youngjoo’s fellow trade unionists are also holed up in the offices.

Kemperle also visited Han Sang-gyun in prison during the IndustriALL solidarity mission to South Korea. Sang-gyun is accused of organizing illegal rallies and has been indicted with eight charges of the Criminal Code and the law on assembly and demonstration.

Sang-gyun became a target after thousands of people took to the streets of Seoul on 14 November protesting against proposed labour reform that would make it easier to fire workers.

After the rally, Sang-gyun took refuge in the Jogye Temple until he finally surrendered to police on 10 December.

“Han remains strong,” said Kemperle, who told how ten minutes into their meeting, loud music was played over a speaker making it almost impossible to talk. “We were not left alone and our entire conversation was written down and recorded.”

The KCTU strongly refutes the charges against Sang-gyun:

"The police and prosecution jointly attempted to demonize the KCTU as a mob of rioters. Such malicious attempts will not succeed and the KCTU will continue its fight against the government to protect the nation's 20 million workers' basic right to live.”

The 14 November rally also prompted police to raid the offices of KCTU as well as those of IndustriALL affiliate, the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU), where they seized computers and other documents.

At least 16 trade unionists are being held in detention and more than 400 have been investigated by police in South Korea as the government intensifies its crackdown. Police have reportedly been investigating a total of over 1,000 unionists.

In another downward development, a Korean high court this month outlawed a teachers’ union affiliated to the KCTU for including dismissed workers as its members.

While in Korea, Monika Kemperle addressed a rally of 5,000 people in Seoul, organized by KCTU and other trade unions on Saturday 23 January.

“Desperate attempts by authorities to silence workers will not work. The brave trade unionists in South Korea refuse to be cowered by political persecution. The South Korean government must listen to its people and stop the suppression of democratic freedoms,” said Kemperle.