T2: Day 3

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I went downstairs to the lobby at breakfast time and walked through the press conference and afternoon meeting for those involved.  When the group was assembled, we filed out into the street for a short walk to the park where we’d be meeting.

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The press conference itself was pretty great.  We had representation from a variety of Korean unions in addition to our own wide-ranging spectrum of labor folks from back home, making our presence feel broader and more powerful in the face of the plaza we stood in.  I’ll let you see the press conference video for yourself.

The next meeting was where my mind was focused, however.  It was one I’d been researching and planning around for almost a year.  Our next meeting was with the KCTU Unification Committee.

By far the most memorable experience I had in 2017 was with my counterpart in the Unification Committee. 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 was the most difficult for me as it pushed on the boundaries of what agreements I could make on behalf of my organization. In that meeting we decided on a great many of the things that I would be working on for the following year. Everything from the creation of a Korea Task Force within our organization to the trip we took across the ocean in May of 2018 sprang forth from this relationship.

But this time was different.

Sungmin Park, my connection from the previous administration in KCTU, was replaced by Mikyung Eom when there was an election. At this point, Mikyung Eom and I had never met and our connections with the new administration were solely through staff. We didn’t know how well we’d be received and for good reason. Trump’s impact on the international landscape in terms of relationships made for an interesting situation for a lot of organizations. Strategically, looking at what few threads connect us to our governmental bodies at home, it’s clear that our impact on what can be moved went from slim to none with the 2016 elections. As labor organizations, we can petition our government all we want… but it is abundantly clear what this new presidential administration at home listens to and it certainly isn’t working people.

This issue makes situations like the one we find ourselves in with our friends in South Korea particularly sticky. Their labor movement can claim recent victories that included ousting a sitting president. Our movement, in contrast, has taken serious hits and has learned very few lessons. With that thought in mind, I wondered what we can really offer them in terms of our solidarity beyond some sympathy? Would they take us seriously?

So the morning before, we spent some time preparing. I made the call to put our newest and youngest union leaders up front, taking a fairly large risk. They’d be the ones to ask questions first and be shown as leading all discussion from our end, which runs afoul of cultural norms for both our organization as well as in Korean labor. Respect and deference to elders is so important in South Korea that even a year’s difference in age has significant impact in a relationship. Doing what I did – putting our young people in a position to have authority and power over the room – was intended to send a deeper message to our comrades that the future was more important to us than ever, but also demonstrate that we needed to be focused on changing our labor movement into one that can fight back against the fascist infection that has caused so much damage.

When the meeting finally happened, I was filled with a great deal of anxiety. But things moved forward quickly. The young folks in the room did a great job of figuring out how to get questions answered about the nature of South Korea’s labor struggles, dealing with our awful orange leader, and building relationships with the North Koreans.

A few important items came out of those discussions that are worth noting here.

1. When asked about their relationship to President Han and Secretary General Lee, both incarcerated at the time for their role in the General Strike in 2015, their response was worded differently than previous experiences. KCTU leadership expressed a kind of organizational shame around the continued imprisonment, identifying it as something that needed to be rectified right away.

2. When asked about relationships with political leaders, there was a pronounced pause before it was noted that the government hasn’t stopped being a hostile force. KCTU leadership then announced, to our astonishment, that they intended to go on general strike because “our government does not yet belong to us.”

Overall, the meetings went well and we walked away knowing that this was just the start of a new relationship.

Admittedly, the meaning behind the room setup and leadership of young people was murky for those involved on the Korean side. Later some would confide in me that it was unclear the reason behind decisions that we were making. Why weren’t more conventional leaders part of this delegation? Why were we so dead set on pushing for a diverse group?

My reply at that point was simple: if we want this to grow beyond who we normally see and bring a new internationalist spirit, we needed new people. Organizationally, we’d been working to build a new vessel for some time and now it was time to fill it with the new wine we’d been so waiting for.

T2:  Day 2

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Someday I’ll be damn near blind, I think.  Or at least wearing a much stronger prescription, though neither of these things are desireable.  I like to imagine that my afro will be mostly graying if not completely gray.  I like to think that I’ll be myself, just ordering my steps with a little more rhythm and a little less pace.  I won’t be in a hurry and when that time comes, I’ll tell a story.  That story will go something like this.

In May of 2018, 20 of us trade union devotees boarded a bus early in the morning.  We were headed for Seongju County in South Korea, something like four or five hours away from our original destination.  Seongju, in addition to being a beautiful farming community, is a place of great struggle for a number of people.  If we were coming to South Korea, Seongju is where we needed to be.

When we visited, we definitely had a great time.  There’s video of us chanting and singing along but also contributing songs from our own American tradition.  Folks on the trip got to meet people from the village and share stories. But the real hit, the thing that folks still talk about, was experiencing the fresh produce – the strawberries especially.  A tray of beautiful ripe berries was passed between the group and I still get a big smile on my face from the looks of pleasure on their faces as they took a bite. Two delegates (April and Rebecca, I think) were looking at each other and the tray, wide-eyed, while April made the comment:

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“Up until now, I think it is a very real possibility that I have never had a strawberry before.”

April was laughing as she said this, of course, but I held onto that comment and you should too.  We’ll return to it a bit later.

The fight against THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) in Seongju has been widely covered by a variety of news sources over the years, so I don’t feel the need to go too far into details but I think it is important to review the basics.  The villagers of Seongju are deeply opposed to the placement of a high-altitude missile system and their reasons are just. The system, in addition to being a polluter with unknown side effects, isn’t really doing much to protect anyone despite being touted as protection against nuclear missile strikes.  In fact, its presence seems to have a negative effect on tensions. In an article about Seongju’s fight to remove THAAD, the mayor of the village said:

“We are worried that we are now a North Korean target,” said Seongju’s mayor, Lee Seok-joo. “But there is also a strong element of political theatre in all of this. To get the votes they need, the main candidates in the presidential election are pandering to conservative voters – and that means not outwardly opposing Thaad.”

When I first visited South Korea a year ago, I made a promise to the villagers of Seongju as well as myself that I would come back with more members of the labor movement so that they could see for themselves the strange yet familiar position that residents of the village find themselves in.  Political figures on multiple levels are playing with the lives and livelihoods of these residents, a fact that likely resonated with many of the people in our delegation. Be it the very real threat militarized police pose to the lives of Black folks while politicians play to their bases, or the struggle of immigrants to be seen as more than fuel for the economic machine, or the crude and bitter war conservative forces have decided to wage on women… the folks who decided to suspend their lives to fly 14+ hours to be here in this moment knew exactly what this kind of manipulation felt like.  

So when we arrived in Soseongri Town Hall, the display of solidarity that was decided upon by the delegation was different than what would normally be expected from a group of trade unionists from the United States.  The songs that they sang and the way that they sang them came from that place of strength despite opposition and political duplicity. Both adapted from the US Civil Rights tradition, their words were meant to be love notes to comrades they’d never met and the passion was clear.  If you watch the video, the chant “I Believe That We Will Win” was done with hothouse fervor that moved the crowd into participation despite a clear language barrier. During “Whose Side Are You On?” there was even an addition to two Korean freedom fighters, recognizing that struggles were truly linked.  

This was a different kind of solidarity that was being formed, as many of our delegates would later identify.  Previous to our journey, we’d had complex discussions about the nature of relationships between the US labor movement and South Korea.  It’s not that we couldn’t have a good relationship full of learning and support… it’s that without an acknowledgement of the effect our expanding military-industrial complex has on the rest of the world, it’s hard for other countries to truly take us seriously as movements for justice.  After all, THAAD didn’t fall from the sky mysteriously. It is a weapon system (one of many) that we sold to their country, machined and assembled right in the USA by workers that could have been members of a union. A challenge to this industrial complex, then, is more than just fighting the good fight.  It’s a step toward being a labor movement that feels complete and ready to heal the wounds it has been a part of inflicting as an active ally of American capitalism. That is real solidarity, built not just of interlocking promises to support one another in struggle but also of chances to see atonement as opportunity for growth.

So when it was all over and all the pictures had been taken, seeing the villagers offer part of their harvest to their new comrades seemed so much more than a friendly gesture.  Those strawberries symbolized a new chance to look at something that seemed so familiar to our movement – the notion of international solidarity – and maybe see it with new eyes.  April was right on so many different levels, it would appear. The looks on faces, Korean and American, as they enjoyed the proud work of the farmers in that small village said so much.  The flavor of movements that recognized the importance of confronting militarism was sweet and delicious to all those present, and just like the strawberries of Soseongri, left those new to its flavor wanting more opportunities to experience it.  Our delegates, still fresh from flights home, were quick to message me after the trip was over. Their messages, almost to a person?

“What’s next?  When can we go back?”

It seems the harvest, in more ways than one, was successful.  

Next:  Day 3… and it’s a biggun.

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