Korea's leaders fail in their duty to the people

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 1998, 12:00am

Today is the day in South Korea of a nationwide general strike called by the country's two largest trade-union federations.

Your first reaction to this is probably that they must be mad.

Korea is in the depths of a recession caused by years of investment in a wide range of projects that never had much chance of paying off their costs.

The won has tumbled, corporate finances are in a precarious state and unemployment is at record-high levels. Surely those in work must be happy to have jobs at all.

But now look at the chart below. It shows that since 1990, the growth of labour productivity in Korea has steadily outpaced the rise in real wages, and has done so according to the latest figures, possibly by the highest margin on record.

Admittedly, the latest productivity figures are only up to December last year and later numbers will certainly show a decline. But real wages, estimated here for last year and the beginning of this year on the basis of nominal monthly wage earnings, will also be down further.

Contrary as these figures may seem to the widespread perception of Korean labour as strike-happy and over-indulged, these are the South Korean Government's own figures. It is time to hoist that government on them.

The official talk is all about belt-tightening but there is a well-known story that applies here. It is the one of the boy who cried wolf too often while tending a flock of sheep.

Why should the workforce pay much heed to the Kim administration's pleas that they must tighten their belts when they have been told for as far back as they can remember that times are hard and they must all pull their belts in another notch? As the productivity figures attest, so far this decade Koreans produced more and accepted lower growth in real wages than the output increase.

What is more, they did it in working conditions that few would care to share. Only a few years ago, Hyundai's car plants in Ulsan were unheated and perhaps they still are.

In the middle of bitter Korean winters, employees were left to blow on their knuckles to limber them up enough for the job of bolting on the metalwork.

What wonderful job satisfaction this must give.

But their politicians only urged them to do even more in the cause of national pride.

They heeded these calls to the flag, trusting the leadership to steer them in the right direction and confident their patriotism would ultimately bring monetary reward.

Well, it has all gone wrong. South Korea has become an industrial power that can make almost anything any other industrial power can make except just one thing.

That one thing happens to be money. Korea's leaders in government and industry have the magic touch here. They have proved they can make money vanish.

And so there is reason for some sympathy with the wage slaves that will gather on the streets of the main industrial centres today.

They may be mad. They are also angry and they have some right to be. Their hard work has been betrayed.