Traditional clothes market in Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Bundo Kim/Unsplash.

Traditional clothes market in Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Bundo Kim/Unsplash.

Hyung-a Kim on the forces driving inequality in South Korea

13th May 2020

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Dr Hyung-a Kim, Associate Professor of Korean politics and history at the School of Culture, History & Language, reached out to let us know about her new book, Korean Skilled Workers: Toward a Labor Aristocracy. Expected to be released this month, this book tells the story of the development of an elite class of Korean skilled workers whose ‘collective selfishness’, especially notable in the past two decades, has become a major contributing factor to socio-economic inequalities in contemporary South Korean society. Dr Kim discusses how the selfishness of this working elite exacerbated income inequality, how it might be possible to move beyond this polarisation and why it is critical to do so.

Can you please describe ‘labour aristocracy’ of South Korea?

The labour aristocracy of South Korea encompasses mainly the regular skilled workers of large chaebŏls, or family-controlled conglomerates, and their unions in heavy and chemical industries (HCI).

The Korean labour aristocracy has two defining characteristics. One is the development of a collective attitude together with the growth of the labour aristocracy’s employment status. Regular workers of large chaebŏl firms have superior wages, job security and—above all—the privilege of so-called “employment inheritance”. This means that the children of regular workers who retire with over twenty-five years of service inherit their parents’ employment, in accordance with their qualifications.

The other defining characteristic is their collective socio-political trajectory over four decades. The labour aristocracy transformed from the “Industrial Warriors” of Korea’s state-led heavy and chemical industrialisation during the 1970s; to the self-proclaimed “Goliat Warriors” leading the Korean working class movement during the democratic transitional period from 1987 to the early 1990s; and finally to a “labour aristocracy” in the post-restructuring Korean society, especially after 2005.

How has the rise of the labour aristocracy impacted South Korean society and community?

Some of the most serious effects of the labour aristocracy on South Korean society include worsened economic inequality and social polarisation due primarily to large wage gaps between regular and non-regular workers. The average wage gap between regular skilled workers of large chaebŏl firms and non-regular workers doubled from ₩780,000 ($1,104 AUD) per month in 2001 to ₩1.56 million ($1,816 AUD) per month in 2016.

So those whom I have called HCI workers prosper with high wages obtained through their union’s enterprise-based collective bargaining. Yet, about 90% of Korean workers—including non-regular workers, self-employed mums and dads, and workers of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)—struggle with low wages; little or no union protection; and are subject to economic, social and workplace discrimination.

These discrepancies are a manifestation of what you call ‘collective selfishness’. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The collective selfishness I discuss in my book mainly refers to the insular and parochial attitude of the regular workers of large chaebŏl HCI firms and their collective consciousness as a labour aristocracy. The rise of the Korean skilled workers’ collective consciousness as a labour aristocracy was a result of Korea’s chaebŏl-led economic restructuring after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

How might South Korea overcome collective selfishness?

Korea could possibly overcome the collective selfishness of its labour aristocracy by changing its economic and social systems. Through institutional reforms focused on chaebŏl and labour, South Korea could improve its social safety net and welfare systems while also guaranteeing basic labour rights. In spite of the Moon administration’s promotion of a “labour-respecting society”, South Korea is one of 34 countries with “no guarantee of rights” for workers, according to the 2019 International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index.

Such far-reaching change reflects a core demand of the Korean people’s candlelight protests that led to the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye in March 2017. But to achieve this demand, President Moon Jae-in’s self-ordained “Candlelight Government” desperately needs to improve the struggling national economy, which, under Moon’s income-led growth policy, deepened economic inequalities in South Korea long before the global COVID-19 crisis.

Despite these challenges, why is it important for Korea to overcome collective selfishness?

One of the most assured benefits of reducing the labour aristocracy’s collective selfishness would be a narrowing of economic and occupational inequalities—between regular workers and non-regular workers, as well as between genders. This would reduce the increasingly serious social polarisation. The associated decrease in widespread workplace discrimination can also contribute to making Korea a more harmonised society, especially in this unpredictable and uncertain global pandemic era.


Dr Kim’s book, Korean Skilled Workers: Toward a Labor Aristocracy, will be released in May and is now available to order.

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