Women’s Labor Movement, State Suppression, and Democratization in South Korea

The impact of womens’ militant labour movements in South Korea and how they paved the way for later democracy movements – and how their pivotal role is typically played down by scholars. Click here. (can send pdf) – or read the notes made in this post!

Notes I done made:

  • In response to growing opposition to the repressive military government in South Korea in the 70s, President Park decided to legitimise his dictatorship by accelerating economic growth- this led to increased control and repression of workers
  • Despite this, women organised worker-led unions to replace company-led unions and protested against abuse (violence, torture, denial of organising) under this accelerated economic growth programme. This led to state retaliation and a violent shut down of worker-led movements
  • However, instead of compelling workers to give up on their activism, it instead led to the creation of full-time female activists who persisted in forcing the reinstatement of fired/blacklisted workers e.g. organising hunger strikes, disrupting labour day ceremonies, demonstrating at the broadcast of Easter Sunday Services.
  • As women protested, they were again met with state violence, which encouraged the involvement of other dissident groups who opposed the dictatorship, creating a link between the female workers’ struggles and the movement for democracy in South Korea. This transformed labour issues into a political issue, with issues of human rights violations against workers now being seen as an issue with the military dictatorship.
  • E.g. after being exposed to women’s poor working conditions, organisations began to provide materials and moral support to women’s labour activism, protesting alongside women, and became increasingly radical in their views
  • Womens’ labour struggles therefore led to increased consciousness among activists of the need to oppose capitalist exploitation, sexual discrimination and authoritarian rule.
  • Forming alliances with other activists increased the strength and impact of their activism
  • Female factory workers’ struggles led to the emergence of the minjung ideology- an ideology emphasising a mass of people, centred on the struggles of urban and rural poor women, and involved workers, peasants, and some of the middle class excluded from economic growth and power. This ideology was then adopted in the 80s for the democracy movement, forming the backbone of the mass-based democratic uprisings that took place and the coalition between workers and the middle class.
  • Female workers in the 70s also utilised inter-union solidarity strikes to resist opposition. This was also adopted in the 80s’ democracy movements.
  • Women fought for worker-operated unions, with unions that promoted women’s interests e.g. maternity leave. The 80s’ democracy movement in turn pursued a democratic labour movement as a result. There was also a rise in women workers’ movements who dealt with gender specific issues in the workplace.
  • Influenced expansion of concept of democracy to social issues e.g. implementation of childcare programmes, equal pay, sexual violence
  • Observations indicate young womens’ labour struggles set the stage and propelled the 80s movement
  • The 80s movements were overshadowed by men and their large-scale movements, but small and medium factories dominated by females organised into democratic labour unions- they continued the struggle.


  • Women played crucial role in creating the rise of the democratic movement in late 80s
  • They expanded the concept of human rights and democracy
  • Paved way for groups dedicated to feminism and democracy
  • 80s movements built on collective consciousness, ideology, strategies and personnel of 70s movements




  • Labour movements in the 70s in Korea were dominated and led by young female workers
  • Female-led democratic labour unions led the labour movement until early 80s, and aimed to improve workinc conditions, by replacing company unions with worker-led unions

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