South Korean workers at August protest. [Source:]

Part of mounting popular disaffection against South Korea’s conservative leader whom the RAND Corporation branded as a “perfect partner” for the U.S.

South Korea is hitting the headlines again but not for the reasons that its leaders would like.

Protests have erupted in the wake of a new law supported by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol that would allow an employee work even 21.5 hours per day so long as the total number of hours did not exceed 52 hours in that week.

The South Korean Supreme Court ruled in December 2023 that no amount of overtime was illegal so long as the total number of working hours in a week did not exceed 52 hours, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor changed the administrative interpretation of overtime work accordingly

These measures do not sit well with Korean labor unions and many in the public who worry about the potential for exploitation.


The legislation and protests dent the carefully crafted media image of South Korea as a“liberal human rights paradise.”

Not only is it passing anti-labor legislation, but South Korea has been continuously ruled by regimes which subordinate the interests of South Korea to the U.S.

Many on the left have long seen through the façade of South Korea, recognizing it as a neo-colony of U.S. imperialism synonymous with slums, destitution and prostitution centering on the many U.S. army bases.

One of many U.S. military bases in South Korea. [Source:]

The country’s deep internal contradictions are more and more coming to the surface in the form of the mounting labor protests, which are predictably being ignored by most Western media outlets.

South Korea is a society with deep class and social divisions. The huge gap between the rich and the poor is typified by films like Parasite, a thriller about a poor family who infiltrates a very wealthy family, and television series Squid Game, about young people facing financial hardship who risk their lives to win a billion-dollar prize.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, high rates of mental illness, and a declining birth rate.

The society values conformity as well as competitiveness which can be a toxic brew and the lives of workers in South Korea can be miserable. South Korea is well known for subcontracting and acting as a base for the transnational corporations to cheaply assemble goods. Even prior to the passage of the new law, South Korea had some of the longest working hours in the world, with its workers having fewer holidays than other workers. Labor safety is also appalling.

In 2017, the UK’s Financial Times, an authoritative voice for business, reported:

“The country has among the highest industrial death rates in the developed world, and a culture of covering up accidents, say lawmakers, workers and experts. The issue points to yet another governance problem in the east Asian nation that entangles its biggest groups and the western companies that use them as suppliers. “ [Financial Times, June 12, 2017]

Among other perils, South Korean workers face high housing costs.

In Seoul, the price to buy a studio flat or small apartment can be as much as $200,000

Additionally, there are high food costs and high costs for education and medical treatment.

Many South Korean workers are heavily in debt.

According to the Bank of South Korea, three million people spent almost all of their income on repaying principal debt and interest as of the end of the first quarter.

Yoon’s crazy plans to increase working hours will inevitably meet strong opposition from organized labor in South Korea.

Since it has taken power in May 2022 after replacing the more liberal Moon Jae-in government, Yoon’s regime has been rocked by protests and strikes.

Yoon is a far-right conservative and former Prosecutor General of South Korea whom the RAND Corporation identified as a perfect partner for the U.S.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden arrive for a state dinner at the National Museum of Korea, in Seoul, South Korea, May 21, 2022, photo by Lee Jin-man/Pool/Reuters
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden arrive for a state dinner at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul on May 21, 2022. [Source:]

Geopolitical analyst Ben Norton wrote on Twitter that “this South Korean administration [led by Yoon] is one of the most right-wing, anti-worker, pro-US, and anti-China governments in modern history.”

Yoon’s party is bizarrely named the People Power Party, which makes it sound like a left-wing party when, in fact, it is a party of the far right (a continuation of previous ruling parties in South Korea which have existed in one form or another since the late 1940s).


Almost as soon as he was sworn into office, Yoon went on the warpath against workers and trade unions in South Korea. Yoon declared that he would not tolerate ‘unlawful activities” of trade unions and announced an increase in the workweek from 52 hours to 69 hours. The proposal elicited such outrage that it was quickly withdrawn.

Also, Yoon pushed for restructuring of industries and for job cuts. Arguably, the Yoon government is more aggressively pro-business than previous South Korean administrations, or it may be the case that he is simply more open about it than previous South Korean rulers.

It did not take long for Yoon to come into conflict with the trade unions in South Korea which consist of two main bodies: the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU), with the KFTU being the more conservative and passive of the two bodies.

In November 2022, six months after Yoon became president, the KCTU started organizing mass protests against the anti-labor measures he was pushing.

What to make of the large-scale protests against Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul
Protests urging Yoon to step down. [Source:]

On November 12, 2022, 90,000 trade unionists marched in Seoul, chanting slogans that included “Stop anti-worker reforms,” “Reform Articles 2 and 3 of the Labor Union Act,” and “Halt privatization.”

This annual rally, commemorating the anniversary of the death of Jeon Tae-il, a 22-year-old textile worker and activist who committed suicide by self-immolation on November 13, 1970, to protest the brutal conditions in sweatshops under the pro-American Park Chung Hee’s authoritarian regime.

South Korean hospital, railway and subway workers and truckers have been among those to mount strikes against Yoon since he took office.

Yoon’s regime, using draconian anti-labor legislation that was amended in 2004, ordered the truckers to return to work.

A failure to comply with a return to work order without “justifiable reason” is punishable by up to three years in jail or a maximum fine of $22,400 (£18,200). On December 3, 2022, thousands marched in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to denounce the government’s attempts to force striking truck drivers back to work.

A group of people holding signs

Description automatically generated
Thousands marching in Seoul in support of the truckers’ protest in December 2022. [Source:]

Faced with mounting discontent among workers and opposition from trade unions, Yoon turned to the old tactic of red-baiting while stepping up repression against the dissenters.

On January 18, 2023, the South Korean police combined with the hated National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Korea to raid the offices of the KCTU and the Korea Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMWU).

Investigators from the National Intelligence Service and police search the Korean Metal Workers' Union's local chapter in Changwon, about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, on Feb. 23, 2023. (Yonhap)
Investigators from the National Intelligence Service and police search the Korean Metal Workers’ Union’s local chapter in Changwon, about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, on February 23, 2023. [Source:]

This was supposedly on the grounds that the KCTU had violated the National Security Law of South Korea, a law inherited from the era of Japanese colonialism that forbids any unauthorized contact with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or sympathy for the DPRK by South Koreans.

The KCTU leaders were accused of being in “contact with North Korean agents overseas, possibly in Cambodia and Vietnam, and receiving orders from them.”

The allegation is ludicrous and almost certainly a frame-up by the South Korean authorities.

In the past there were many “spy ring cases” in South Korea, often resulting in those accused being sentenced to death.

One notorious example was the People’s Revolutionary Party cases in 1965 and 1975. In the latter case, eight South Koreans were sentenced to death for treason—listening to a North Korean radio broadcast—in a blatant show trial; they were executed 18 hours later.

Most of the spy cases of the Cold War era were fabricated by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), a creation of the CIA, in order to suppress dissent.

Defendants in the 1975 People’s Revolutionary Party case that was a blatant show trial. [Source:]

Clearly, the charges against the KCTU leaders had nothing to do with any “spying” for or “orders” from the DPRK, but everything to do with a desperate attempt to stifle mounting labor protests by arresting trade union leaders on false charges.

At the same time Yoon’s regime pushed forward the revision of trade union and labor laws in order to further restrict trade union activity.

However, despite McCarthyism and repressive measures, strikes and protests by trade unions in South Korea have continued unabated.

One shocking incident that was airbrushed by the mainstream media was that, on May 1, 2023, Yang Hoe-dong, a leader of the Construction Workers Union in South Korea who had been arrested on trumped-up charges of “racketeering” by the South Korean authorities, set himself on fire and died the next day.

Yang wrote before he set himself on fire: “I am setting myself afire today because my rightful union activity is regarded [by the government] as an obstruction of business and racketeering…My self-worth can’t tolerate this.”

Yang’s death was reminiscent of that of Jeon Tae-il’s some 23 years earlier.

Yang Hoe-dong [Source:]

If this incident had happened in Russia, Belarus, the DPRK, China or Iran, the mainstream media in the West would never let us forget it. But because it happened in South Korea, a puppet state of the U.S. empire, it was barely mentioned by the mainstream media.

Yang’s death galvanized South Korean workers into organizing more protests with daily candlelight vigils taking place as well as protest rallies and strikes by workers in different sectors. In July 2023 South Korean trade unions staged a two-week general strike calling for the resignation of Yoon. Some 400,000 workers went on strike until July 15th. Because of censorship by the South Korean state, it is hard to know how successful the general strike was.

What is clear is that the protests by South Korean trade unionists, including demonstrations and strikes, will not only continue but will intensify as Yoon tries to both crack down on trade unions and attempt to increase the workday and week.

Yoon’s repressive tactics have not worked. We can expect to see widespread industrial unrest and mass protests in South Korea in the coming months, putting the continued existence of the Yoon regime in jeopardy.

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About the Author


  1. This story about a 21.5 hour work day seems like a major news story, and yet there was no mention of it in any of the major Newspapers in South Korea. It only appears in a few small online news web sites such as Koreaboo and also was mentioned by someone named Ben Norton in his twitter account.

  2. This article shows pictures of two protests that occurred in 2022. Why is there no picture of the more recent protest related to the headline “‘Protests Erupt in South Korea Over Plans to Increase Work Day”‘

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