Day 5 (Let’s Sum Up)

No myth, only truth today.

Flying home at whatever time it was, I felt my phone vibrate.  The readout screen showed we were over Alaska and, after some fumbling, I was able to pull my phone out of my pocket.  I’d received a text from a friend and while I was reading it I heard a pinging noise in the front of the aircraft.  I ignored it only to hear another and another in succession.  In a wave of computer generated beeps, bloops and whistles, we received notification that a missile test had been performed by North Korea.  If it had been successful, the missile was apparently capable of reaching the area of Alaska we were flying over.  Those of us that were awake had the normal variety of shocked reactions to the news that at any given moment, Alaska could be hit with a nuclear blast.. and we were basically in Alaska.  

For a moment, I thought of my family and friends.  I thought about all the people in Alaska I would never meet that would be (mercifully) obliterated by the blast immediately.  I thought about the countless lives (human and non-human) that are forever impacted by the radioactive fallout.  Those minutes seemed to stretch for hours.  

Then I remembered the place I’d just left hours before.  South Koreans have probably felt this flavor of fear (or something similar) for a long time.  But eventually it comes back around to what you’re prepared to do to make life livable for yourself and those you love.  Fear, eventually, is replaced by a deep desire to prevent disaster and you recognize your role.  Maybe you become a more focused parent.  Maybe you change careers to better suit your talents.  Maybe you get in the streets for peace.  Maybe you join a union.  Maybe you just live your life and try to be whatever kind of good person you can be.

But you don’t stop living your life.  The experience certainly will shape you, personally and culturally, but you recognize that you’re still alive.

I wrote myself a note.  It just says “Remember to center whatever we do next around life.”

This is a long one.  I apologize for nothing.

This was our last day, so we actually did a bit of summing up with our coalition hosts and said some goodbyes.  It was hard to leave but I felt hopeful.  We had a briefing with our coalition allies at our usual place in the union hall, but I won’t really detail that here.  Instead, I think it is important to talk about learnings and things that seem important to take away from the experience.  I also want to talk about the recommendations I made to our leadership based on what I saw in SK, but that will likely come next week.

Because I’m apparently in love with small prime numbers, I think there are three “big idea” lessons that have proved sticky enough to remain in my memory.

1.  If we’re going to be a Left force in the West, we need to get comfortable with the idea of palatable foreign policy (and diplomacy!) really quickly.

Before I left, I noticed just how few voices there were on foreign policy that cared about my intended audience.  Most of the people that write or talk have a tone that one could call… academic.  There tends to be a lot of name-dropping and seven syllable words.  The articles tend to be really long and the social media arguments remind one not-so-faintly of crotchety hecklers  Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.  Don’t get me wrong:  I get that this is a serious issue that people study, building entire academic careers around it.  Political education is a deep requirement to engage the subject and our folks should read more about other places and peoples.  We should know our neighbors so much more than we do.

But we don’t and frustration won’t make it go away.

In fact, we know so little about one another that we can’t talk about other places without confusion.  There are scores of studies showing just how small the number of countries the average American has visited, how few languages we speak, and how when we look at a map it may as well just read “here lies dragons” every place other than North America.  I’d list them but it doesn’t matter.  We ALL know just how much we don’t know about everyone else as Americans.

What we don’t see and don’t know is how we appear to other countries, unfortunately.

That plays out in situations like the one I found myself in entering South Korea.  I could see that there were many parts of our history and international relationships that were clear for folks in Seongju, for example, who were proud farmers who probably didn’t spend the majority of the day reading The Economist or Foreign Policy but were aware of the impact of what we do in the United States.  Their lived experience was produced by our policy decisions (and budget line items) so familiarity became a part of survival.  What proves to be missing in this picture, framed by our action and inaction, is our dissenting voices. It is true that we put out statements through organizations and make online petitions saying we oppose X policy of horribleness… but past that, we move on with our lives and hope that someone somewhere will do something.  Our online petitions aren’t felt or seen.  There is no real impact from a statement of opposition that will be followed up with nothing but guilt and arguments on Facebook.

The end result is a gulf where on one side sit a select few who argue (with knowledge and passion, both good things) while the majority of people watch from across the room and avoid the conversation because it looks and sounds “too complex.”  I know this response well having spent the past two years listening to union members talk about this problem in great detail.  This often means a deafening silence and leads folks like the residents of Seongju to think that we’re happy with (or don’t care) about what our warmongering means for their lives.

A lot of people bristle when I use the words “diplomacy” or “foreign policy,” especially my hard Left homies who hear oppression when I say it.  My usage inspires a lot of explanations of settler-colonialism, dreams of borderlessness, and I respect and hear their analysis. But I also know that the words really just mean how we relate to other people who live someplace else.  I’m fine with replacing it with another set of words and/or phrases, but we need to be something like diplomats because we need to relate to other people in a meaningful and thoughtful way while acknowledging that we have desires of our own as human beings.  I really think the thing we have now, the State Department, is part of that solution.  Having a State Department has often been a vehicle for all kinds of utter bullshit and horror, but I’m not really convinced that the solution is to demolish it.  I think that whatever we decide we want to be, we need to recognize and deal with the fact that we exist on a planet with other people and, like it or not, we’re all over here having done some awful shit to be what (and who) we are.  That means having an organized presence that we devote resources toward. Call it what you want, but we need someplace that allows us to come to terms with what we’ve done.  

The current budget of the State Department is 37 billion dollars for 2018.  Imagine what 37 billion dollars of solidarity looks like.  I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty great to me.

This leads to my next point.

2.  Peace begins with us, not our government, and peace doesn’t mean an absence of conflict.  In fact, if we’re doing it right there is going to be some turmoil.

Reece, middle, not holding up a peace sign.

There are many pictures of the South Korea trip where people are flashing peace signs and I’m not one of them.  At one point, with the students, everyone was doing it except for me.  It’s not that I don’t desire a world free of warfare, I’m just against the common conception of what it means to be peaceful and the peace sign is part of that for me and my lived experience.  There’s this awful, blanched pablum of political meal that we keep getting fed where somehow all we need is love or silence or something to produce this fantastic new world… and it makes me so angry.  Peace has been swallowed by this as well, engulfed in an idea where all we need is flowers and a pizza party and we’ll magically all be (fake) sister and brother that never fight.  I think part of it is the natural revisionism that comes with the passage of time but I also think it is completely in line with the political needs of a ruling class that wants us meek and afraid of being in conflict with each other.  

There’s an ugly truth that exists in the space of conflict, but also tremendous power.  Sometimes, we don’t agree as people and societies and it is something we must deal with.  It’s not always convenient or clean, in fact many times it is dirty and inconsistent.  People and societies make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and react from a place of irrationality.  But when you care about the other person or society in the conflict, you stay at the table and work it out.  You apologize for the stupid thing you said or did.  You work on your mistakes and treat them like things that can be fixed.  North and South Korea, as complex as their relationship is, have engaged each other as labor movements even in the tumultuous “now,” with war games and nuclear standoffs.  Our time together with SK trade unionists demonstrated that it is complex, but not something they can ever afford to walk away from.  When you share a peninsula and want a future where you are united again, the only way out is through.

More than ever, in a time where we’re arguing about what it means to be non-violent, we need to be clear in the recognition that our fear of conflict is what is leading us farther and farther down the path of totalitarianism, not guns or bombs or Klansmen.  Defeating white supremacy or any other problem requires engaging it directly and being honest with each other, and that is not clean work.  It takes recognition, true, but it also takes a sharp (and often painful) reckoning.  That reckoning, like a flooding river, doesn’t need your permission to be what it is.  All we can do is prepare and rely on community to get through it.  As Frederick Douglass said, those who want progress without struggle desire lightning without thunder.    

I’d also add that while my fantasy State Department will fulfill all of my hopes and dreams, it certainly won’t without me… or us.  Our work as US Labor Against the War to meet with our counterparts in the labor movement in South Korea is an essential part of creating space for agreements to be reached.  Sometimes that will mean taking great risks and doing things that are not in our comfort zone or require resources we can’t quite see on the horizon.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  It just means that we need to do the dirty and inconsistent work.  It isn’t just the right thing, it’s what we owe.  Quoting Douglass again, we don’t always get what we pay for but we sure as Hell pay for what we get.

Speaking of payment…

3.  The movement that ends our abusive relationship with militarism must be intergenerational but also powerfully rooted in a future full of tenacious hope, power and dignity.

I work every day for a labor movement, specifically for an organization built to engage the labor movement, but my work is for my son.  He will grow up to be a combination of effort and care that I hopefully provide with my wife, so I take time with him to teach but also to learn.  Since he is 3 years old, I do my (imperfect) best to be aware of his needs in terms of agency.  The more he grows, the more independent he wants to be.  He’ll get into trouble in that independence and he’ll call for me.  In those moments I’ll need to decide how I’m going to show up.  Will I try to fix every problem or will I make an effort to help him learn how to solve the problems himself?  In that engagement, what resources and tools will I show up with?  What person will I be?

Being a part of this delegation made me think a lot about that relationship and tension.  The labor movement is just like the peace movement in the US in that it struggles to understand how to relate to a newer generation.  There are big, juicy fights in labor spaces about getting young people into the room and there’s some sparse effort to attract a younger generation to struggles against militarism.  I’m approaching 37, so I’m less a part of the “youth” and more a part of whatever this phase of my life is now and I’ve been exploring this idea through the lens of my past engagement as a young person.  I try to remember what friendly spaces looked like and I recall that usually what I really needed was presence but also power and respect.  I wanted to see my own reflection (of sorts) and for that person to be seen as part of the table.  The folks who weren’t like me in terms of age needed to be present and generous, but also smart about engaging me.  The relationship required care that didn’t need to be perfect, it just needed to be present and authentic.

In an honest space, we need to be aware of what is real.  Looking at who we are as movements, do we show care?  Are we consistent in our belief in the power and agency of the young people we work with?  If we’re not, are we honest about where we are in that consistency (or inconsistency?)  I think we’d find, if we were honest, that mostly we’re about tokenism and fake power relationships.  We put a minimal amount of effort into real engagement and are furious when it (surprise!) doesn’t produce lasting effects or burns us (and our target) out.

Look at the Movement for Black Lives, wildly successful yet avoided and/or tokenized even as it quietly revolutionizes everything from organizational development to electoral politics.  

Look at the youth-led climate justice movement (at this point too grand to name) that made climate change widely known to more than nerds and middle school students doing a unit on global warming despite the pushback from larger, whiter, older organizations.

KCTU leadership was pretty clear with me that the problem was present in their movement as well, so they’re not being held up here as a glittering and perfect example of what to do.  But what I did see was that the power of young people was present and linked to the struggle because they were a respected part of the fight.  You can’t tokenize someone that has had to realize their power independent of your acceptance of it and being a literal part of millions of people facing down their own government and hordes of police will definitely change your perception of what you are capable of.

I’ll close with a story about grapes.

My wife and I took a trip to Spain some years ago and traveled to the wine region.  On a tour of a beautiful winery, we were walking and listening to a presentation about the grapes being grown in the field we were walking through.  One of the tourists noticed that there was little covering of the grapes and he wondered out loud about exposure to the elements.  The tour guide acknowledged the question and admitted that they don’t on purpose.  The reason, he explained, was that a protected grape that hasn’t been through anything lacks the flavor necessary for good wine.  The frost of winter, the heat of summer, rough wind… all of it shapes the flavor profile.  My wife, at this point, was translating for me (the tour was totally in Spanish) but as the guide started talking about this particular thing I think I told her to stop (or at least stopped listening to it.)  The reason was that even with my rough Spanish comprehension I could totally understand what he was saying.  You see, the guide was talking about struggle.  His language was insistent and descriptive, so much so that I could feel what he was saying even without getting all of it.  The meaning, the idea that struggle is inherent in good grapes, felt universal.  I’ll never forget the look on his face, even now.

Whatever we do next, it’ll need to happen while acknowledging the future as something we serve instead of a finite thing that we can control. At best we shape what moves forward and grows without us and it is an honor to be a hand that does that shaping, even as our time as gardeners remains brief.  We need to respect that honor and put resources behind it. We need to treat young people with respect, understanding that while they are smarter than us (it’s true, stop denying it,) we know more things than they do. Our experiences have value but without care, they will end up unused or worse, opposed because we were careless. I prefer the alternative: a movement built on solidarity and struggle but also care.  Just like the wine, we want our movements full of flavor and life.

We’re not done.  More next week!

Day 4C

The last meeting of the day with KCTU was with the Unification Department.  This department is concerned with peace on the Korean Peninsula and other issues related to peace and justice.  Their mission is intense, with nuclear war looming on the political horizon.  They also want to see a united Korean Peninsula, a topic that is up for much debate (as we previously discussed.)  This meeting would be the most difficult for me as it pushed on the boundaries of what agreements I could make on behalf of my organization.

Sungmin Park, chair of the committee, started us off with some history and it was pretty damning.  As he outlined all the ways that the United States had royally screwed over both North and South Korea, I admittedly felt the room rising in temperature.  He noted that most of the responsibility for the division of the country lies with the United States.  He talked about the San Francisco treaty that, in addition to splitting the country in two, pardons the Japanese for all crimes toward Koreans.  He also mentioned a national security law that permanently places North Korea as an enemy, limiting the ability for South Koreans to engage them.

There also is the larger, deeper problem of devastation through sanctions in North Korea.  For those of us in the West, we see sanctions as the result of threats but (not surprisingly) make no connection between the escalation and our own behavior.  In the past year, I actually think this has changed somewhat.  One result of 45’s (Donald Trump) presidency has been a removal of the veil on political processes that actually have gone on long before he ever took office.  The main difference has been, in my opinion, that 45 is without diplomatic language that can obscure the violent truth of our foreign policy.  A magnificent dullard and brute, he lays his intentions clear with every speech and doesn’t hide his violence with smooth talk.  Now, with such a villain in office, NK looks more reasonable by comparison.  It’s easier for people to see that the aggressor can be (and often truly is) us.  With that veil removed, it’s easier to see things like the difference between Kim-Jong and his people.  But also, it’s easier to see why war games can be provocative when the US president is a notorious provocateur.  SK, it could be said, has been waiting for us to recognize this for some time and was wondering when we’d join the conversation rationally.

The conversation turned to a back-and-forth with some Q and A.  I was asked about 45, specifically whether he was under the influence of neoconservatives.  I then had the heartbreaking task of describing the cabal of super-villains our president had assembled to a group of people who probably really didn’t want to know just how bizarre and problematic our Executive Branch had become.  I let them know that neoconservatives, while certainly present in the House and Senate, weren’t the ones mainly advising the president.  I did my best to illustrate the strange dark alliance made between “men’s rights” true believers, hardened white supremacists, paper tigers, and hucksters that struggle to get the attention of a thin-skinned man in a role he is unprepared for.  Just thinking about that conversation even now makes me sad.

We then began talking about North Korea, specifically the lack of involvement of the American labor movement in conversations between trade union organizations.  It was again expressed that our opinions about North Korea seemed strange given that as a labor movement we had so few interactions with them.  I was encouraged to let labor leadership in the US know that the best course of action could be to engage NK labor in conversation somehow.  I asked a question that had been on my mind for some time:  how do they know that the NK unions they are meeting with are legitimate?  How can we be sure we’re not just meeting with a labor organization made up of nothing but spies?

The committee chair replied that KCTU has had this relationship with North Korea because they worked at it.  They’d been in communication since 1999 and had spent time together enough for him to recognize that the people he was meeting with were workers.  If they were workers, he said, then we should respect them as our comrades and talk to them.  I asked how this was possible and he told me that their meetings are (amazingly) centered around a soccer match.  When possible, the North Koreans and South Koreans get together and play a game and around that discussions are had.  I was happy to hear this, particularly as pressure was again placed on us to come to the proverbial table as Americans and talk to the North Korean labor movement.  It was there that I did something I was, up until that point, not thinking would be possible.

I agreed to work hard to make a conversation happen between our labor movements, specifically to get American labor to the next soccer game as long as we can nail down details.  There were audible gasps and a look of astonishment on some faces.  I cautioned that these details were going to take work and that I really hadn’t committed to more than talking, but I think folks knew better by that point.  I’d basically started us down a long road toward American, South Korean, and North Korean trade unionists being in the same room together.

We’ll do Day 5 somewhat differently.  It’ll be a kind of wrap-up. 

sunset in seoul

Day 4B

Many developments in the past week, so I’ll apologize with the caveat that I’m really happy with how things went.  We’ll end the travelogue strong this week and, next week, we’ll start off with next steps.  That’s right… everybody gets a little homework.

My meeting with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unionists started a little late but, by that point, it was to be expected with our crew.  We arrived for our sit down in the now familiar KCTU hall, this time in a conference room.

From left to right, we were greeted by:

Sungmin Park, Chair of the KCTU Unification Committee

Sangjin Lee, KCTU Vice President

Jongjin Choi, KCTU Acting President

Youngju Lee, KCTU General Secretary (due to her role in the general strike, she is actually on a form of house arrest.  Rather than allow them to break the union by jailing so much of leadership, Lee remains in the union hall all the time and can never set foot outside.)

Kungja Kim, KCTU Vice President

I was clear with my comrades on the trip that during these meetings I was going to be quite greedy and a little rude.  I needed to make the most of my time, ensuring that I would spend it talking about issue areas that I knew would matter to labor unions back home, so I started with my own questions.

Since I know Korean trade unions aren’t exactly a subject people study in school these days, I’ll do you the solid I hadn’t done my fellow delegates and give you a little background.

KCTU really came to be in the mid-1990s, but its origins come from the Democratization movement that basically came to an astonishing head in the summer of 1987.  Prior to that, South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship.  To overcome it, there needed to be a wide coalition across all social movements.  Folks came together (forgive me as I’m really truncating this story) and after a long fight, there were elections that summer.  From this movement, many groups emerged including trade union organizations.  Between July and September of that same year, over 1000 labor unions were organized.

But there are some key differences that are worth considering.

First, this is a young confederacy and they are still in the streets.  The government is not their friend – even the guy they helped get elected recently – and there’s a considerable amount of challenge to the labor organization.  This means that their level of fight back is wicked strong and they spend a lot of time mobilizing membership against larger social movement issues.  While many imagine that to be an organizer’s paradise, there are disadvantages to constantly putting thousands in the streets for months or years at a time.

Second, in South Korea the election cycle is fairly different.  Once you file your certification cards, if you’ve got a majority that’s the proverbial ball game.  Further, two workers make a union and you don’t need to get recognition from the employer.  Unions make it known they are present early enough that it isn’t exactly a surprise but it is imaginable that this is an entirely different environment than organizing in the United States.  A lot of the unions that form are yellow (fake, fugazi, counterfeit) as a result but this can also mean huge successes.

After brief introductions, we got right into it.

For me, the biggest issue we’re dealing with is the age problem in the United States.  Union membership is on the decline so statistically membership data shows an aging base.  Within USLAW it is a pronounced problem that has required an incredible amount of energy to confront.  I was curious about how their organization was confronting this issue.  They informed me that they had the same problem.  Their approach, however, differed from ours in that they instead have focused on being a voice on issues that affect young people even if they don’t affect their base.  On the affiliated union level, each union has its own program that the KCTU supports strategically.

My next questions were about KCTU’s current political prisoners, the former president and acting president.  I was wondering why, if they got this new guy elected, why he didn’t let them out of jail.  The unsurprising response was that the Moon administration, even with its claims to be the fulfillment of the Candlelight Uprising, is limited in its power to come through on its promises.  To protect its ability to negotiate with conservatives in government, they sacrifice their alignment with a powerful labor movement.  This meant that the special pardons they thought were coming would likely not arrive without significant pressure.

One of my last questions felt like one of the easiest.  I asked about the idea of social movement unionism and wondered if this was something that they would subscribe to and, if so, how does that play out in South Korea?  The question was said, and after translation there were looks exchanged between the leaders.  One of the vice presidents finally spoke, the response astonishing Wol-San (our translator, guide, and best buddy.)

“They said they don’t identify with that term.  To be honest, I’m really surprised.”

She proceeded to communicate with them in Korean for a moment or two and, after much back and forth, they all raised their hands.  The explanation that followed was the best surprise I’d had so far.

When South Korea was going through the Democratization effort there was a great deal of redbaiting.  Naturally this was partly because of the war but also (maybe mostly) was because it was a useful tool to neuter workers looking to organize.  These charges were apparently leveled at unions in particular and, because of this, coalition-building became an essential part of the foundation of the organizations created.  When you’re in a fight to the death like the one they were in, backs against the wall, victory was to be found in solidarity.  These alliances have not been perfect, but they had survived Japanese colonization and years of military dictatorship while living under the specter of war prior to Democratization so they weren’t unfamiliar.  When it came time to be together, it just made sense.

Social justice unionism is about integrating labor into other movements so, after their explanation that the DNA of struggle in South Korea has always been defined by this need for solidarity, I understood why the phrase wouldn’t make sense.  For them it wasn’t about integration.  The connection had been there from the start.

And the hand raising?  Well, Wol-San had asked how they identify politically and one person said “radical syndicalist.”  Apparently the others agreed and showed that agreement with a raising of hands.


After we were finished with questions, I looked at Wol-San with a grin.

“Booze and pictures?”

“Booze and pictures.”

Before I left for Korea, I stopped at the local liquor store for some Kentucky bourbon.  That in itself is a good story that I’ll use later.  Getting it into the country was tricky but, after some negotiating, I managed to bring in two bottles.  The one I ended up presenting to General Secretary Lee was a bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean.


I informed her that this bourbon is special in that it crosses the equator multiple times by boat before it is ever sold, picking up the flavors of the world and integrating it with Kentucky bourbon.  I let her know that just like its flavor, it brings with it a world’s worth of solidarity and love.  There was no translation needed for what was communicated (“ooh” “wow” was what I heard from all the leaders) and she said under better circumstances we’d have a drink after hours together.  I laughed, knowing sneaking a six foot four Black man into a closed South Korean union hall was unlikely, but informed her that I’d be back (hopefully with more of us) and I’ll gladly take her up on that when I do.

We took some photos together and then it was time for the next meeting:  KCTU’s unification committee.