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.
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.