The president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was sentenced by the Seoul High Court for "leading a violent protest” in November last year.
Han Sang-gyun was sentenced to five years in July. After an apppeal, the sentence was commuted on Monday 12 December from five to three years in jail, with a fine of 500,000 won (US$ 430). The court dismissed charges related to a May Day rally held this year.
Han was charged because he was one of the organizers of a People’s Rally for democracy and against anti-labour legislation on 14 November 2015, which saw riot police clash with protesters. Police used excessive force against largely peaceful protesters, killing farmer Baek Nam-gi with a water cannon.
Although no one has been charged with Baek Nam-gi’s death, more than a 100 cases against participants in the rally have been processed, with more than a dozen sentenced to jail.
Han and five other KCTU activists remain in Seoul detention centre, where they were recently visited by a solidarity delegation from the international trade union movement, including IndustriALL Global Union general secretary Valter Sanches.
In recent weeks, there have been mass protests and a general strike against the government of President Park, who was impeached on 9 December. Park has refused to resign, and is challenging the impeachment.
Park was impeached due to a corruption scandal involving the chaebols, the powerful Korean family-run multinational corporations that dominate economic life. Unions accuse her of repressing labour on behalf of the chaebols.
The chaebols, including Samsung and Hyundai, have a history of violently repressing unions. A report released by IndustriALL and the ITUC demonstates the medieval conditions at Samsung, which has a no-union policy.
The impeachment of Park and the commutation of Han’s sentence is seen as a partial victory by Korea’s unions. However, the work to tame the power of the chaebols and end the repression of trade unions is far from over.
Valter Sanches took part in a march of more than a million people in Seoul on 12 November to demand the resignation of Park. Commenting on the sentencing of Han, he said:
“Due to the strength and commitment of the Korean unions, and the huge outpouring of international solidarity, we are beginning to make progress.
“But the fact remains that Han and others are in prison for leading a peaceful protest, and union activists face severe repression at the hands of the chaebols.
“The trade union activists must be unconditionally released so that Korea’s unions can continue in their work of containing the illegitimate power of the chaebols.”