Labor activist from South Korea's dark past finally finds justice

Elizabeth Shim
South Korean assembly line workers formed labor unions to protest unfair working conditions. Here, in this 1980 photo, women workers at a wig factory celebrate a union member's birthday. Photo courtesy of Bae Ok-byoung
South Korean assembly line workers formed labor unions to protest unfair working conditions. Here, in this 1980 photo, women workers at a wig factory celebrate a union member's birthday. Photo courtesy of Bae Ok-byoung

SEOUL, July 27 (UPI) -- On May 18, 1980, Bae Ok-byoung, a South Korean assembly line worker in southern Seoul, was taken into police custody and tortured for leading a labor strike that would alter the course of her life.

"The skin on my chest peeled away from being forced to crawl naked on the jail floor," Bae said in a recent interview with UPI, her eyes filling with tears.


The punishment was part of what South Korea's authoritarian regime referred to as "purification education" for activists like Bae, then a 23-year-old worker at Seotong, one of South Korea's largest producers of wigs for export.

South Korea's peaceful transition to a civic democracy more than two decades ago should have removed the past charges. But Bae said state-sponsored injustices against her remained uninvestigated until 2005, when a group of former union leaders requested a newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the historical crackdown on their activities.

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Bae has filed court cases in the past, but it was this year -- on July 5 -- that she was finally acquitted of the false charges after a retrial at a Seoul High Court.


The victory is personal for Bae, who still carries the traumatic memory of jail torture from age 23.

Bae's brush with the dark side of a past autocratic regime is part of South Korea's incredible growth story. But tales like hers have been tucked away from public memory. Now, she has contributed artifacts from her past working life to an ongoing exhibit at the Seoul Museum of History highlighting the lives of unsung factory employees.

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From a country with a GDP per capita in the 1960s comparable to the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, South Korea has grown into a trillion-dollar economy that boasts cutting-edge technology and a high standard of living.

Inside Seoul's clean and efficient subways, young South Koreans in skinny jeans tap away on their glassy Samsung smartphones. Some head to work while others plan to meet with friends – and no one lives in fear of government reprisals.

But the spectacular rise of South Korea's industry and the emergence of a civic society was sustained by workers like Bae, who began factory life at age 18 and toiled for a pittance at a factory in the Guro Industrial Complex, a manufacturing base in southern Seoul.

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In its heyday, Guro's factories employed more than 120,000 workers to churn out apparel and consumer electronics. Bae devoted 14 to 16 hours a day in her late teens and early 20s to the painstaking work of wig manufacturing.

Factory girl

A typical workday began at 3 a.m. Like other workers, Bae was incentivized to work long hours because compensation was based on the number of wigs completed.

But even as the future dissident worked painstakingly on wigs that mimicked the blonde locks of '70s-style icons Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs, the best she could earn was a monthly wage of $36.

The artificially low wages enabled the factory proprietors to expand. In the 1970s, wigs were a top export item – the third-largest source of revenue for South Korea, after clothes and plywood.

According to Pusan National University's Korean Studies Institute, one-third of wigs worn by North Americans in the 1960s and '70s were manufactured in Korea. Exported wigs were earning over $93 million in annual revenue by 1970.

Bae told UPI that 90 percent of the wigs made at Seotong were bound for the United States.

In the factories, a poor safety net meant industrial accidents were common, as was the disciplining of workers who failed to follow orders.


Kim Won, a historian at South Korea's Academy of Korean Studies who has written about factory conditions in the Guro Industrial Complex, has said verbal disciplining of workers for the slightest mistakes occurred every day on the assembly line, as did assaults on their personal dignity. Workers even lost their names and were reduced to epithets like "hemline" or "stapler," based on job function. In other instances, they were simply reduced to an identification number.

Fight for labor rights

Bae and her fellow workers were not even aware of labor protection laws until she attended night school, where teen workers could supplement their busy factory lives with a high school education.

It was here Bae met with university students in 1978, some who taught the classes but also educated the workers – daughters from impoverished rural families – on their rights.

"I didn't develop a labor consciousness until I met with student activists," she said.

Through their vigorous campaigning and educational outreach to workers like her, Bae realized she was substantially underpaid, and that she had a right to protest unfair working conditions.

By early 1980, when Bae was organizing a labor union at her factory, her monthly wage of $73 was barely sufficient to keep up with the living costs outside the factory dormitory and cafeteria.


But as dissatisfaction fomented among employees, Bae and her colleagues were confronted with another obstacle, when her company created a pro-corporate labor union.

Angered by the company's calculated move, workers staged a three-day strike demanding better wages. The standoff with management resulted in Bae's arrest on trumped-up charges of violating a South Korean security law and inciting violence against the chief executive of Seotong.

Bae served an 18-month prison sentence that involved one month of dehumanizing torture, but the punishment did not stop after her release.

South Korea, then under the dictatorship of President Chun Doo-hwan, had blacklisted dissidents like Bae for unauthorized union activities. Not only was she banned from being hired nationwide, but her younger sister at a neighboring factory, marked with guilt-by-association, also was dismissed.

South Korea transitioned to electoral democracy in the 1990s, but Bae has had to wait until 2005 for investigations to begin on her case. Then, ten years later, a Seoul court dismissed the false charges that led to her imprisonment.

The court case the former dissident won on July 5 is a personal victory, but her past activism in a difficult time period informs the present decisions of the mother of two in ways that reach closer to home and South Korean families.


"I now campaign for better food quality in school cafeterias," Bae said, smiling proudly.

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