Podcast episode about two extremely influential South Korean worker organisers, Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun, and the autonomous self-organisation of women textile and garment workers in the country from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Jeon Tae-il is widely known in South Korea as a labour martyr after his protest self immolation in 1970. His mother, Lee So-sun is less well known, despite her decades of activism, and even less spoken about are the unnamed masses of textile and garment workers, mostly women and girls, who self organised in sweatshops across the country, despite a brutal military dictatorship.
We speak with Rachel Min Park, a member of the Heung Coalition, about these events, in the first of an intermittent series of episodes about Korean history.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
You can listen to our podcast embedded on this page, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.

E51: Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun Working Class History

More info

Our episode graphic is a collage of a photograph of the funeral procession of Lee So-sun, 2011, where mourners carry a painting of a photograph of her at Jeon Tae-il’s funeral clutching his photograph (credit in acknowledgements below). Right is a photograph of workers in dispute at YH Wigs in 1979.

WCH Sources

Rachel’s sources

  • A Single Spark/아름다운 청년, 전태일 (1995, dir. By Park Kwang-su): https://youtu.be/tTvVq_aeC6g [with English subtitles]
  • 전태일 평전 (Critical Biography of Jeon Tae-il) by Jo Yeongrae [only in Korean]
  • My translation of an excerpt from his posthumously published writings: https://www.heungcoalition.com/writings/jeon-tae-il-labor-movement
  • N. E. P. A. L (Never Ending Peace and Love) (dir. By Park Chan-wook). This short film is based on the true-life story of Chandra Kumari Gurung, a Nepalese woman in Korea and tackles the racial prejudice and economic exploitation of immigrant workers in South Korea. https://youtu.be/5mqjC3Z_Qnc
  • Global Nonviolent Action Database: “Korean women textile workers fight for Fair Union Election, 1976-1978): https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/korean-women-textile-workers-fight-fair-union-election-1976-1978
  • 전태일의 시간, 공간, 생각” (Jeon Tae-il’s Time, Space, and Thought), Hankyoreh 21 (November 2010) [only in Korean]: http://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/special/special_general/28419.html
  • Jeon Tae-il Memorial Foundation: http://www.chuntaeil.org/?ckattempt=1
  • 여기는 기계의 도시란다” (They Say This is a City of Machines) (a collection of poetry by Nepalese migrant laborers in South Korea) [only in Korean]
  • Chang, Paul Y. Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement, 1970-1979. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
  • Choo, Hae Yeon. “In the Shadow of Working Men: Gendered Labor and Migrant Rights in South Korea.” Qualitative Sociology 39 (2016): 353–73.
  • Chun, Jennifer Jihye. “Legal Liminality: The Gender and Labour Politics of Organising South Korea’s Irregular Workforce.” Third World Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2009): 535–50.
  • Chun, Soonok. They Are Not Machines: Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970s. Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003.
  • Doucette, Jamie, and Robert Prey. “Between Migrant and Minjung: The Changing Face of Cultural Activism in Korea.The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 8, no. 12 (March 2010).
  • Kim, Mikyoung. “Gender, Work and Resistance: South Korean Textile Industry in the 1970s.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 41, no. 3 (August 2011): 411–30.
  • Kong, Gina. “Are Women-Only Trade Unions Necessary in South Korea: A Study of Women Workers’ Struggles in Korea’s Labor Market.” Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business 29, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 217–44.
  • Kwon, Jaok. “Forging Feminism Within Labor Unions and the Legacy of Democracy Movements in South Korea.” Labor History 59, no. 5 (2018): 639–55.
  • Lee, Jin-kyung. Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Lee, Namhee. The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.
  • Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon. “Minjung Feminism: Korean Women’s Movement for Gender and Class Liberation.” Women’s Studies International Forum 18, no. 4 (1995): 417–30.
  • Park, Sunyoung, ed. Revisiting Minjung: New Perspectives on the Cultural History of 1980s South Korea. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2019.
  • Shorrock, Tim. “Welcome to the Monkey House.” The New Republic, December 2, 2019. https://newrepublic.com/article/155707/united-states-military-prostitution-south-korea-monkey-house.

South Korean organisations

Links to those organisations mentioned by Rachel at the end of the episode:


Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, analscubahive, James and Ariel Gioia. Thanks also to the Heung Coalition for additional assistance with this episode.
Photograph used in episode graphic courtesy 민주화운동기념사업회 Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kdemo/6123327876/.
Music used in this episode under fair use was “Marching For the Beloved” by Baek Ki-wan, Hwang Seok-young and Kim Jong-ryul.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.


Listen and subscribe to WCH in the following ways: Apple Podcasts | RSSSpotifyAmazon Music | AnchorCastbox | Google Podcasts | OvercastPocket CastsPodbean | Radio Public  | StitcherTuneIn 


WCH: On 13 November, 1970, South Korean garment worker Jeon Tae-il, after trying to organise for better conditions, poured kerosene on his body and set himself on fire in front of Seoul’s Peace Market. After his death, his mother Lee So-sun dedicated her life to continuing his work, organising amongst garment workers under the brutal, US-backed military dictatorship. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

Hi, and welcome back to the Working Class History podcast, which is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. More support we have, the more frequently will be able to release episodes. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

Today is the first of several episodes we have planned on Korean history. Specifically we going to be looking at struggles in the South Korean garment industry, and in particular at the lives of Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun, two really central figures in the workers’ movement, one of whom is very well known in South Korea, and one of whom is not so well-known, for reasons we will explore later.

I would like to thank my friend, Steven, from Seoul, for suggesting this as a subject for an episode. When I was in South Korea couple of years ago Steven also very kindly showed me around and translated a new exhibition space dedicated to Jeon Tae-il.

As a content note, this episode contains descriptions and discussion of suicide, as well as a few brief mentions of sexual violence.

We are very pleased to be joined by Rachel Min Park, a member of the Heung Coalition.

Rachel: Thank you so much for having me here today. My name is Rachel and I currently work as a freelance researcher, translator and film critic. Broadly speaking, I research modern Korean history with a focus on cultural representations of Communist women during the Korean War and the immediate post-war period. I also wanted to thank my friend, Hanbit Lee,  who introduced me to a lot of organisations doing important work in the labour rights’ movements currently in South Korea.

Before we got into the interview, Rachel wanted to make a bit of a disclaimer, which I hoped wouldn’t really be necessary but we are including it just in case anyone would make the mistake of mistaking one individual of being representative of a much larger group.

Rachel: Before we begin, I just wanted to note that I am Korean American. I was born and raised in the U.S., though I did recently live in South Korea for about three years for grad school. I wanted to mention this because I think there is a general trend in media where Korean Americans can sometimes be presented as experts on Korean culture and society solely by merit of this shared ethnicity but there’s a huge difference between the two countries. I think it’s really important to recognise all the commensurate privileges that I’ve had as a U.S. citizen, such as fluency in English or access to a lot of these institutions. In that sense, I do want to emphasise that I don’t speak for all Koreans, nor should I be taken as a representative or authoritative voice of any kind on behalf of Koreans as well.

Before we get going, we just wanted to give a super brief bit of background on Korean history. The events are complicated, so to fit this into the available time, we are going to be simplifying a lot in order to explain the necessary context, so don’t take this as a full and definitive history. As always we have links to sources and further reading in the show notes.

In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire, who set up a brutal colonial regime and attempted to eradicate Korean history, culture and language. They banned the Korean language, burned books and historical archives, enforced Japanese Shinto religious practices. They implemented forced labour for hundreds of thousands of Korean workers, and sexually enslaved large numbers of Korean women for the benefit of Japanese soldiers: people commonly referred to as “comfort women”.

This was not something which was passively accepted by Korean people, especially poor and working class people. Although some Koreans, including the ancestors of many rich and powerful Koreans today, became extremely wealthy by collaborating with the Japanese. There developed a militant and powerful anticolonial movement, which fought against Japanese forces in Korea as well as in Manchuria, north-east China, and the Japanese mainland.

In 1945, Japan was eventually defeated at the end of World War II, and Korea was then occupied by the Allied forces, with Soviet troops taking over the part of the country north of the 38th parallel, and US troops taking over the south. They agreed, alongside Britain and China, to a 5 year trusteeship, leading to independence. Some in the Korean independence movement demanded immediate independence, but the influential Korean Communist Party, which was allied with the Soviet Union, supported the trusteeship arrangement.

People’s committees set up across the Korean peninsula then set up a provisional government, the People’s Republic of Korea in September 1945, which had a progressive 27 point program including things like land redistribution, rent controls, nationalisation of major industries, guaranteed human rights, universal suffrage, equality for women, a ban on child labour, workers’ rights and an eight-hour maximum working day.

This perhaps unsurprisingly was not to the liking of US authorities, who soon disbanded and outlawed it, instead setting up a military dictatorship in the South, staffed by the former Japanese colonial officials. After huge public outcry, they replaced some Japanese bureaucrats with US bureaucrats, but enlisted the deposed Japanese officials as “advisers”. Workers and peasants rose up against the regime in 1946 and were violently repressed.

Meanwhile in the North, land reforms did begin to take place, with land owned by Japanese colonists and wealthy Korean collaborators generally peacefully and equitably redistributed among poor farmers and the former owners, although many of the former owners decided to leave for the South rather than live on an equal level with their neighbours.

US-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly after the end of World War II, as the Cold War began to heat up. In 1947 the USSR propose that both its troops and US troops leave, allowing Koreans to form their own government. This was rejected by the US, presumably because they feared that it would be won by communists or left nationalists. The United Nations (UN) then decided it would supervise elections. But USSR didn’t trust it to hold fair elections, and so boycotted the decision, meaning that it was only to be held in the US-occupied southern zone. Korean workers began huge strikes against the plan, fearing it would lead to the country being divided, and residents on Jeju Island rebelled as well. These were violently crushed by the South Korean military, who killed up to 10% of the population of Jeju.

Eventually the election took place, and, being boycotted by opponents, Syngman Rhee, who was backed by the US, emerged victorious and soon gave himself dictatorial powers.

This was the tumultuous situation into which Jeon Tae-il was born.

Rachel: Jeon Tae-il was born September 28, 1948 in Daegu, Gyeongsang Province, as the was the oldest of two sons and two daughters. He was the eldest son of Jeon Sangsu, a poor labourer and tailor from Daegu, and his wife, Lee So-sun, whose father had been an independence fighter during the colonial period and had been killed by the Japanese authorities. At the age of 13, Lee So-sun had been taken by Japanese authorities as part of their ‘forced labour’ programme and worked in a factory that manufactured uniforms. He came from a very poor, underprivileged family background but that was also, sadly, a rather common background during these times.

Rachel: Jeon Tae-il grew up during a time that was generally filled with extreme hardship and suffering for most Koreans. Korea had been liberated from Japanese colonial rule for only about three years when Jeon was born and by that time, the Korean Peninsula had been carved up along the 38th parallel into the North and the South. There was extreme chaos, with power struggles all across the peninsula and this was only exacerbated by the ensuing Cold War tensions and the direct interventions of the United States and the Soviet Union. On June 25, 1950, the Korean War broke out which subsequently plunged the entire country into great poverty, violence and suffering.

Violent conflicts had begun to erupt at the border between the North and South, which eventually developed into the Korean War after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel in an attempt to reunify the country. Now, this is typically referred to as a North Korean invasion of the South, for example by the British Imperial War Museum. Although I kind of have a feeling that if, say, southern Britain had been occupied by Germany after World War II, who then set up a puppet government, British troops from the North trying to kick out the Germans wouldn’t be described as an invading force by that same museum.

But anyway after initially overrunning much of the south, the UN, led by the US, backing the Rhee regime, was eventually successful in pushing North Korean troops back to the 38th parallel, leaving 5 million dead, mostly civilians, and leaving the Korean peninsula divided as it was before into North and South.

Rachel:  One year after the armistice was signed in 1953, his family moved to the capital of Seoul when Jeon was 6 years old. This was fairly similar to the migration patterns of most people after the war, who moved to urban centres to try and find work. However, in Seoul, his family experienced homelessness They lived under a bridge for most of their first year there and had to frequently resort to begging. They only managed to survive because Lee So-sun sold food in the streets. His father eventually found a job doing sewing work and they were able to find a small room to live in a slum in the Itaewon district. However, because of Park Chung Hee’s earlier slum clearance programmes, their home was demolished and they were eventually forced to return to their hometown of Daegu.

Park Chung Hee was a military officer, allegedly the son of a wealthy collaborator with the Japanese, who became president in 1961. More on him in a moment.

Rachel: For Jeon, this meant that he was forced to leave school and do sewing work by his father and the family’s poverty ultimately caused them to split up, with Jeon taking charge of his brother and youngest sister and then going up to Seoul later on. In a lot of ways, I think Jeon’s life is inextricably intertwined with modern Korean history and the war on colonialism.

The Rhee dictatorship was overthrown by a mass movement in the April revolution of 1960, ushering in a brief window of democracy. But conditions for working class families, like that of Lee So-sun, remained extremely difficult.

Rachel: To put it simply, things were generally awful for workers in the 1960s, pretty much for everyone. The Korean War caused immense devastation and in the immediate post-war years, the DPRK (or North Korea) was actually better off economically, in some ways, than the South. Not only that but you have Syngman Rhee, who was the President during the war, who was highly corrupt and growing increasingly dictatorial, especially in his anti-communist actions. With the April 19th revolution in 1960, Syngman Rhee resigned and was replaced briefly by Yun Posun but on May 16, 1961, Park Chung Hee staged a military coup and then ushered in a new era of what is commonly thought to be a developmentalist military dictatorship. He would go on to restructure South Korean society along highly militaristic lines that focused on industrialisation. For workers, there was, theoretically, the Labour Standards Law (근로기준법) which had been enacted in 1953 and was supposed to protect workers’ rights. However, this was really no more than a translation of a similar law that had been imposed previously by the U.S. military government in Japan.

The Labour Standards Law was supposed to limit working hours to 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, with mandatory rest times of 30 minutes every 4 hours of work. Like most Korean laws, it was written in Chinese characters, which many Korean people, especially amongst the working class and poor, were unable to read.

Rachel: Under a military dictatorship that prioritised economic development, none of these laws (as you might have guessed) were followed. The Korean War, I think, also critically influenced the situation for labourers in that the growing anti-communism after liberation, which was formalised and institutionalised through the state, was used to justify suppression of workers or any kind of dissident voices. The two goals of Park Chung Hee’s government could then probably be summarised as the elimination of any kind of leftist elements in the country and the creation and revitalisation of the national economy. This emphasis on economic growth was dependent upon the control and exploitation of a precarious labour force, so that any opposition or pro-labour stance would then also be classified as ‘communist’. So anti-communism, the Cold War and suppression of labour rights started to merge in this immediate post-war period. What this meant in the labour sphere specifically was that there were two strands of trade unionism in Korea at the time. One was represented by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) which was the kind of national umbrella organisation for all unions but their leaders were always appointed either directly by the military government or by the managers of individual companies and so they were not very sympathetic to the plight of everyday workers. The other strand in Korean labour unionism, at the time, was the democratic trade union movement which were the more informal, unofficial and grassroots movements that consisted mainly of branch unions in textiles, electronics and the garment sectors. This, I think, was a curious time in that women’s participation in the labour force also increased quite significantly. This trend had started during the Korean War where, like a lot of other countries during wartime, the women began entering the labour force in large numbers to make up for the men who had gone to battle. However, I don’t think this trend stopped after the ceasefire. The proportion of women in the labour force kept increasing across the decade; around 29% in 1960, 35% in 1970 and then 37%, approximately, in 1980. Women mostly worked in agricultural production and industrial manufacturing but they were excluded from the most capital intensive industries, such as shipbuilding, chemical and automobiles, and they didn’t have any access to vocational training. By the 1970s, women comprised about 55% of the workforce in electronics, 72% in textiles and 52% in rubber footwear. These industries accounted for almost two-thirds of South Korea’s exports during the early 1970s. Basically, women were only able to enter labour-intensive industries marked by insecure employment, low skill levels and low ages. A lot of these women were also from the countryside, so there was a high rate of rural to urban migration during this time. With all these conditions, exploitation was almost inevitable and conditions were atrocious but I think especially so for women who were oppressed both under capitalism but then under patriarchy as well. Holding education levels constant, women workers in manufacturing received about 56% of the wages paid to their male counterparts. These young women migrants then just became a part of this rising proletarian class in South Korea’s industrialising economy. They created an easy and abundant supply of cheap and exploitable industrial labour but this also worked with an extra mindset where daughters were then used by their families for profit. Families would often send daughters to work in a factory somewhere and then use those wages to send their sons to schools or maybe prioritise their sons in ways that daughters were not allowed.

So this is the general situation Jeon Tae-il found himself in as he began his working life. South Korea, like the North was a very quote “underdeveloped” country at this point, and so the government wanted to rapidly industrialise to grow the economy at the expense of super exploited industrial workers, who could be crushed by the military dictatorship if they complained.

Rachel: When he was in Seoul, Jeon did a variety of work, like peddling newspapers, polishing shoes and so on. He finally started to work as a sewing assistant at the Seoul Pyeonghwa or the Seoul Peace Market with the sewing skills that he had learned from his father. When he turned 17, he was promoted to a ‘shida’ or a ‘helper’ of the sewing machinists and garment cutters at the sweatshops there. I think also, perhaps, this is revealing of Jeon’s character and what he was like. There are a lot of stories that mention how he spent most of his wages, which was a pittance, either helping out his family and taking care of his younger siblings but then also, later on when he was at the sweatshop, he spent a significant amount of money just trying to help the poor, young women workers there with things like buying them medicine or food. In a way, I think although he was so young, we have a really good glimpse of what kind of person he was.

A Christian, Jeon often spent his bus fare on food for his colleagues who worked through their lunch breaks, hungry, and instead walked his three-hour journey back home on foot. Sometimes on the way he would be caught by military curfews, and have to spend the night sleeping at a police station.

But he came to realise that individual acts of generosity like this weren’t enough. Seeing the extreme suffering of those he worked with, mostly young girls, he made a resolution:

[Voiceover quoting the words of Jeon Tae-il]

“In this horrible world where human beings are stripped of all that is human, I will never compromise with any iniquity. I will not remain silent before any injustice, but pay heed and work to rectify it.”

Jeon Tae-il’s words here are voiced by another member of the Heung Coalition.

Rachel: Going back to Jeon, after he started working as a tailor, he started to more closely witness the awful working conditions in the Seoul Peace Market. In particular, he was moved to action after seeing how the young, female workers there were treated. In an entry from his diary, he notes that workplaces were no bigger than eight pyeong, which is about 4.5 square metres, with about 32 workers crammed into a tiny room. Workers had no room to stretch whatsoever while performing extremely physically taxing work for hours with no rest. There were chemicals everywhere and there was extreme dust that was very toxic to breathe in. 85-90% of those employed in the Peace Market were women with around 60% of them between the ages of 14-24. They would sometimes work up to 16 hours a day, would be lucky to have one or two days off a month and earn less than $30 with most of them ultimately suffering from diseases, such as tuberculosis and ulcers. Jeon Tae-il saw all this and he was very understandably horrified. Eventually, in 1968, he discovered the Labour Standards Law and started educating himself about it. This led to him form the first labour union in the Pyeonghwa Market called the Babohoe, or Society of Fools, in 1969. It aimed to inform workers about this law and the unlawful conditions they were working in and advocated for workers’ rights, such as an eight-hour workday and days off. He eventually lost his job for his organising activities but he later returned to the same market and started working again as a garment cutter. This led him to create yet another union, the Samdong Gathering.

The name “Society of Fools” had a couple of meanings: one being their view that garment workers up to that point had accepted being treated like machines rather than humans in silence, like fools. And another being that a senior garment worker, hearing that Jeon Tae-il wanted to set up a union, called him a fool, to which he responded “so be it”.

Rachel: I do believe that the name was in reference to the fact that to live and work in these conditions was foolish and absurd. So it was kind of an almost playful, sarcastic jab towards the utter lack of protection that workers faced and the horrific conditions that they were living in.

The tool Jeon Tae-il first decided to use in his organising efforts is one which I personally have used on many occasions at work, as I’m sure is the case for lots of our listeners as well. Probably unknown to Jeon Tae-il was that it was a tool also used by pioneering communist Karl Marx in the late 19th century: a workers’ survey.

Rachel: Apart from working on education and general awareness about workers’ conditions, Jeon and his comrades conducted, admittedly, a rudimentary survey of workers in the textile sweatshops there but it was the first of its kind. They created and disseminated questionnaires to the workers and then submitted the findings along with a signed statement to the Labour Office asking for a change in working conditions. Throughout this time, they also continuously led protests and agitated for change. They would petition various institutions, such as the Ministry of Labour, the City of Seoul and the mass media.

The survey, it was the first of any kind and the first time anyone, I think, demonstrated a desire to listen to workers and to try and have their voices publicised.

Moving from a survey to action would have been extremely difficult. As outlined, the main union federation, the FKTU was run by the government, and generally more concerned with preventing wildcat strikes and rooting out agitators than advancing the interests of workers. On top of that, the Park regime had set up a huge secret police force, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which was not only concerned with national security but also with protecting business interests. They sent hundreds of agents into factories to uncover workplace militants. Employers could also rely on state police and privately hired thugs to persecute activists.

Independent union organisation then could only happen outside the law, and a web of restrictive laws made organising strikes effectively illegal, even though it was technically legal. So for example strikes could only be held 3 months after the start of a dispute, and the government could order a strike to end at any point.

Despite all this, Jeon Tae-il continued to try to organise. In addition to his gruelling work schedule, his long commute, and his activism, he also somehow found the time to develop a detailed plan for a humane garment enterprise, one run cooperatively by its workers.

He put together a 25-page document sketching out how it could work. It would consist of 50 sewing machines run by 157 workers, and would cost $30,000 to set up.

He was fired a couple of times from different jobs in the garment industry for his organising efforts, and ended up working as a construction labourer, while still trying to agitate on behalf of garment workers. And, being a poor worker, he was unable to raise the necessary start-up capital for his co-operative.

Employers and the government ignored his survey results, despite the terrible conditions for workers it exposed, and the breaches of the Labour Standards Law. And with his unionisation and cooperative efforts proving fruitless, at some point he decided to take drastic action.

This is his diary entry dated 9 August 1970:


“How much time have I spent hesitating and agonising after initially making my decision? At this moment, I am almost perfectly determined. 

            I must die.

            I absolutely must die.

To return to the sides of my poor comrades, to the hometown of my heart, to those young innocents of Pyeonghwa Market who form the entirety of my ideals, I, who have vowed to lay down my life in those endless stretches of time and daydreams, must die to join those fragile beings that need my protection and care.

            I must throw myself away, I must destroy myself. Just wait and hold on a little longer. So that I will never leave your sides, I devote the entirety of myself, weak as I am, to you. It is all of you that are the hometown of my heart.


            Today is Saturday. The second Saturday of August. The day I have resolved my heart. In this moment, when innocent lives are withering—O Heavenly Father, please grant me your mercy and compassion so that I may become a single drop of dew.”

Rachel: Jeon, at this time, had become really discouraged by the government and society’s apathy towards workers, despite all his efforts, and how this was just resulting increasing control of factory owners over sweatshop workers. He was also discouraged by a lot of internal strife within these unions themselves because organising is hard work and there are inevitably a lot of conflicts between people. At a public demonstration on November 13, 1970, one that Jeon and his comrades had planned, they had aimed to burn a copy of the country’s Labour Standards Law as a kind of symbolic protest against the working conditions and the government’s neglect. They were basically saying, ‘Look at this law. It’s really just letters on a piece of paper.’ This protest plan had been leaked to the police and factory owners and so they prevented a lot of workers from attending. The police had already swarmed the protest site, so that anyone who did manage to come was separated and then directed back to the factories. On the brink of the protest’s failure, Jeon ended up pouring the flammable paint thinner that had been planned for the event over his own body and set himself on fire. He then ran through the streets, yelling, ‘Abide by the Labour Standards Law! Workers are not machines! Do not let my death be in vain!’ Since then, those words have become immortalised and very well-known throughout South Korea. Allegedly, a copy of the Labour Standards Law had been thrown onto his burning body and so, in a very dark and morbid way, the original plan to burn the law had been accomplished. He was then rushed to a hospital but died about nine hours later and surrounded by his mother and his friends. He was only 22 years old at the time of his death.

[Musical interlude]

At this time, Jeon Tae-il’s suicide was the first such protest suicide connected with the workers’ movement in South Korea. It had a huge and immediate impact around the country. However, it is extremely important to point out that since then, there have been significant numbers of other suicides in South Korea for similar reasons, and none of them have led to any kind of resulting social change. We’re going to talk more about this later.

Rachel: Broadly speaking, Jeon-Tae’s death unified a series of disparate groups and solidified a lot of the alliances that would prove crucial to the later democratisation movements in the 1980s. A lot of students actually felt ashamed and guilty in light of the fact that Jeon had really wanted to receive higher education and he had expressed a desire for university friends that could help him with the classical Chinese characters that were necessary to understand the labour laws. So five days after his death, 200 students from the Commerce Department at Seoul National University, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, staged a hunger strike and demanded improved working conditions and vowed to support workers. On November 20, students at major universities, such as Seoul National, Ewha, Korea and Yonsei organised a rally to commemorate his death and adopted a resolution stating that they would establish their own ‘truth’ or ‘fact-finding’ commission regarding the working conditions of labourers. This all led to a closer alliance between the students or intellectuals, workers and Christian organisations, as Christian organisations were spaces where these students or intellectuals could most easily meet workers and also find programmes that had already been set up for them. One example is the Urban Industrial Mission in the 1970s, which was an interdenominational ministry created in the late 1950s to spread the gospel to the workers. After Jeon’s death, from 1972-1979, the Urban Industrial Mission’s purpose shifted to become more about the ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ of workers. Education and reaching out to workers really became a crucial tenet of the 1970s and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was actually a very widely circulated text during this time within social movement groups.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, was published in 1968 and quickly became extremely influential. Freire was writing from a socialist perspective of someone involved in grassroots efforts to teach adult literacy and working class communities, and advocated upending the traditional relationship between student and teacher. Rather than a teacher being someone to simply bestow information on a student, teaching should begin by coming together with the understanding that both have things to teach to and learn from the other.

Rachel: Jeon’s death, I think, also became the catalyst for transforming night schools from just a regular, supplementary school system to a place for a conscious social movement that engaged in social issues and political education. For the workers themselves, one of the most immediate after-effects was the 1970 Peace Market Protest, which was directly sparked by Jeon’s death. Until then, most of the women workers in the sweatshops there had been quite understandably preoccupied with mere survival and had perceived themselves primarily as individuals rather than belonging to a larger group of workers and having this kind of class consciousness.

Two weeks after Jeon’s death, these women workers formed the Chonggye Garment Workers’ Union at the Peace Market and with increased pressure on the government and public awareness caused by Jeon’s death, this union was soon officially recognised.

One of the people who was involved in the establishment of the Chonggye Garment Workers’ Union was Jeon Tae-il’s mother, Lee So-sun.

Rachel: Cho Young-rae, the author of a biography of Jeon Tae-il, noted that Jeon had requested that his mother carry out what he had failed to do at his deathbed. While Jeon was alive, she had been pretty apathetic and rather hesitant about Jeon’s organising activities because, from the position of a mother, she was understandably concerned about his safety. However, after his death, she really took his words to heart and became an organiser herself and became directly involved in the labour movement. In fact, I actually think Lee So-sun was just as critical to the labour movement, if not more, than Jeon Tae-il. The difference in the ways that Jeon and Lee are remembered are that Jeon is widely celebrated and there are all sorts of memorials for him. However, Lee So-sun, while she is also equally well regarded, she’s often frequently referred to as ‘Jeon Tae-il’s mother’ or always ‘his mother’. She’s always referred to as something in relation to him, despite her activism in her own right. This speaks to the kind of ways that patriarchy can sometimes operate and has left its lasting legacy on the labour movement. To go back to what happened right after his death, the Park Chung Hee government had offered to pay 70 million won in compensation for Jeon’s death to his mother which was an enormous sum at the time. However, she refused the money and the funeral offered by the state and instead, asked them to demonstrate their goodwill to all the workers and not solely to the family of Jeon Tae-il. She presented the delegation with a list of eight conditions that reflected her son’s wishes, such as creating a trade union in the Peace Market; reducing the work hours to eight hours; every Sunday off; health checks; and adequate ventilation in the buildings. Barely a week after her son’s funeral, she officiated the ceremony marking the formation of the Chonggye Garment Workers’ Union which was the first democratic union in Korea.

The section of the exhibition I visited about Lee So-sun after Jeon’s death was absolutely heartbreaking in particular, it contains a photograph of her son’s funeral, clutching a photograph of him, with a look of incredible anguish. In particular, her story made me think of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina – mothers of mostly left-wing, anarchist and radical workers disappeared by the military dictatorship – who demonstrated outside the presidential palace every week, never giving up the idea of getting justice for their murdered children.

Jeon Tae-il probably couldn’t have imagined just how much Lee So-sun would take his words to heart, and continue his fight.

Rachel: This is my speculation but because Jeon Tae-il had such a deep love of education and learning but had always been denied any kind of opportunity to pursue it in a formal way because of poverty, Lee So-sun also greatly emphasised education in her organising activities. In an interview with Tim Shorrock, that he generously shared with me, she mentioned that –

“After I was released from prison, I thought about what I should do for the workers. My conclusion: nothing else but educational work to recover what the workers lost with severe sacrifices. Support for a classroom is the best way to support the Korean workers’ movement. It is not just for me or for the Peace Market workers but all Korean workers against the government and the enterprises.”

To that end, she was crucial in setting up educational programmes for workers which included both vocational and basic academic courses, as well as instruction in trade unionism and labour law. She served as Director of the Labourers’ Classroom, also sometimes translated as Workers’ Classroom, which is a school and centre for young textile workers. In 1971, the Chonggye Union also organised a canteen at the Peace Market that provided free lunches daily to approximately 500 workers. As I mentioned, the 1970s was a really difficult time for anyone even remotely anti-government. This Peace Market canteen was closed down because it was accused of being a front for pro-communist propaganda. The government continuously attempted to bully and coerce the Chonggye Union, particularly by shutting down their education programmes. So Lee So-sun would protest this and in February 1975, she led a sit-in strike of about 250 workers to protest against the government’s constant interference. In July 1977, about two years after, she was arrested and the labour education building that was rented by the Chonggye Union was raided by the police and finally shut down. She ended up spending about 14 months in solitary confinement in Suwon’s women’s prison. While she was there, opposition to Park Chung Hee’s increasingly dictatorial regime grew.

As well as the formation of the Chonggye Garment Workers’ Union, an autonomous movement of South Korean workers, particularly women workers, began to re-emerge.

Rachel: The Peace Market protests were also a vital catalyst for the South Korean labour movement which had been suppressed by the developmental regime and the tight union between the state and national labour unions. This started a more public questioning of who this economic growth was precisely for in this supposedly booming economy. For me though, I think it’s most interesting that even though the 1970s is seen as this ‘dark period’ because of the Yushin Constitution, which had been passed by Park Chung Hee’s government and pretty much established him as a dictator president for life, it was also a time where organising activity by women greatly increased. There was this intersection of what scholar Seungsook Moon has called a ‘militarised masculinity’. The militarisation of society had increased the state’s power and reach into its citizen’s lives and then carved out these very specific gender roles for men and women along patriarchal lines. Along with that, there was this stringent anti-communism used to prosecute any kind of labour organising activity and then an alliance between the state and national labour unions, such as the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), which sought to crush any kind of local grassroots unions or organising activities.

Yet despite the tremendous risk that labourers faced, especially women labourers, it was precisely the 1970s that witnessed all these momentous events. In fact, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a greater proportion of women belonged to labour unions than men. Some of the more famous unions, formed mostly by women workers during this time, included the unions at Soyo Enterprise, Wonpung Textile, Control Data, Dongil Textile, Namhwa Electric, Suh Trading and Y.H. Trading. Korean women, in other words, were at the forefront of establishment autonomous grassroots unions in the 1970s and paving the way for future democratic trade unions in South Korea.

This history is, perhaps, not so widely known and talked about but I think it is very important and it counters a lot of the stereotypical images that people may have, both at the time and a little bit now, of Asian women as being somehow inherently passive or weak or that Asian cultures are somehow more amenable to being controlled by authority.

For instance, in February 1972, you had the Dongil Textile Company which elected a woman leader and the first woman to take over an already established union. On April 15, 1974, women led the formation of a branch union at the Bando Textile Company. Just a year later, you also had the creation of another union at the Y.H. Wig and Garment Company. From 1976 to 1980, you had the Dongil Textile strikes and the 1979 Y.H. Trading strike which were all primarily led again by women. Here, I think it’s also worth mentioning the brutal sexual violence that many of these women labourers were also subjected to as intimidation tactics. These acts would include, but not limited to, stripping, fondling, threat of rape and rape itself. This was used both as a way to control women’s work to keep them in line and as ‘productive’ worker but then also as a way to discourage any organising activities.

It also wasn’t just limited to the male bosses in the company or other male workers. Riot squads and policemen will later use sexual assault in labour disputes at the Cheonggye Textile Union in 1976, the Dongil Textile Company in 1978 and the Y.H. Trading Company in 1979. There were also these more insidious practices of spreading rumours that a woman worker was not a virgin or that she was doing something that people might have found scandalous in order to further inflict social ostracism. This would similarly compound the silence and suffering of victims of sexual violence.

Some union leaderships also used similar tactics against rank-and-file workers’ organising efforts. For example at the Dongil Textile Company in 1978, the head of the National Textile Workers Union sent around 200 thugs to attack women workers voting in union elections: smashing the ballot boxes and smearing the women with faeces.

These disputes by women workers sparked further protests and events which contributed to the downfall of the Park dictatorship.

Rachel: Park Chung Hee was eventually assassinated in 1979 but Chun Doo Hwan quickly ascended to power and brought in another military dictatorship regime in 1980. His government basically destroyed almost every single independent trade union. They would rewrite South Korea’s labour law to forbid ‘third party intervention’ and then would strip industrial unions of their power as well. The government also reorganised the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) and many leading figures were expelled from the labour movements. I believe formal union membership, at this time, drastically dropped from about 1.2 million members in 1980 to less than 800,000 by 1983-85.

In the 1980s, with this new dictatorship, women workers particularly struggled because South Korea started to move away from the light manufacturing industries they were in to more heavy chemical and manufacturing industries, such as steel, auto and shipbuilding, which were mostly comprised of male workers. Simultaneously, trade unions shifted from being these autonomous grassroots unions, like the Chonggye Union, to large enterprise unions controlled by male leadership, such as the FKTU which was essentially just a government organ that would pass government policies down to national level unions.

Despite all this, Lee So-sun continued to serve as a vocal advocate and ardent organiser, along with many others across South Korea. In 1980, you had the Gwangju Uprising but in 1987, a crucial year where many underground unions developed, there was also the June Democratic Struggle which was a nationwide democracy movement in South Korea that created massive protests for weeks in June. It eventually succeeded in forcing the ruling government to hold elections and other democratic reforms. I think her activism can be seen as part and parcel of this larger stream of organising and democratisation movements that were going on in Korea during this time.

We are currently working on an episode about the Gwangju uprising, and have a couple of interviews with people who took part in it, so do make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. The Gwangju uprising followed other uprisings in Busan and Masan in 1979, and just a few years later came the June Democratic Struggle in 1987. This was sparked by the killing of a student demonstrator who was tortured to death by police, as well as the police sexual assault of a woman labour organiser from Seoul. The fall of the dictatorship was quickly followed by a massive, unprecedented strike wave called the Great Workers Struggle involving up to 1.2 million workers, a third of the regularly-employed workforce, affecting most major industries and winning significant increases to pay and conditions.

Lee So-sun continued her activism through this period, until the end of her life.

Rachel: Lee So-sun passed away at the age of 82 on September 3, 2011. Because of her frequently repeated phrase where she would say, ‘Every worker is my son now,’ she earned the title of ‘Mother’ (“어머니”) from a lot of workers. I have slightly mixed feelings about this because I do believe we should see women as just beyond their ability to be mothers, daughters or wives but I do think it is a term that indicates the high respect and regard that many people had for her, especially labourers, and a recognition of her efforts on their behalf. She was very active. I mean she died at an old age but even up until her death, she continued fighting for workers and not just for labourers but the rights of all those that were marginalised in society.

Lee So-sun was also a vocal advocate for irregular workers, casual workers, who are often sidelined by the regular labour movement. She also cofounded and helped lead the Association of Bereaved Families for Democracy (전국민족민주유가족협의회), a group run by relatives of those killed in the democratisation movement, as well as a participant in the People’s Movement Coalition for Democracy and Reunification (민주통일민중운동연합) in the 1980s.

Despite her central role in the South Korean working class movement, and the fact she was involved for so many decades, Lee So-sun is not nearly as well-known as her son. Just walking around in Seoul, my friends and I happened upon a statue of him by the Peace Market. And when I asked a couple of non-activist Korean friends, both of them had heard of Jeon Tae-il, and were aware that he was a labour movement martyr, but neither had heard of Lee So-sun by name.

But she was the subject of a documentary in 2012.

Rachel: The title of the documentary is Mother, so I think this kind of remembering is not just limited to individuals but it is promoted on a mass, wider cultural scale too. I have mixed feelings about it but hopefully, we’re moving in a different direction and someday, we’ll have a statue of Lee So-sun.

Now one thing we mentioned earlier briefly, we need to look at in a bit more detail. This is the question of protest suicide. We have spoken about Jeon Tae-il and his suicide and spoken about positive social outcomes that it had. However, it’s really important to point out that this does not mean that this is a good tactic, or one which is worth anyone ever repeating.

As we stated earlier, in South Korea at the time this was the first such suicide of its kind, and as such it had more of an impact on public opinion than any subsequent suicides. Since Jeon Tae-il, over a hundred other South Koreans have killed themselves as some sort of protest, none of them inspiring anything similar. And elsewhere around the world, many hundreds of people have done the same, mostly to no effect. One slight exception to this would be the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which sparked the 2011 revolution and the Arab Spring. But again this was a fluke. Since then hundreds of people in Tunisia have set fire to themselves as a form of protest with nothing resulting from it. Similarly, in the UK numerous people killed themselves due to austerity programs, particularly cuts to sickness and unemployment benefits – mostly out of despair rather than protest as such – but again, this did not result in any sort of widespread sympathy for unemployed or disabled people, let alone any positive changes.

It’s impossible to tell if history could have happened differently. For example, it is quite possible that some other sequence of events could have sparked the growth of the workers movement in South Korea at that time. Jeon Tae-il himself may have even managed to go on to have concrete successes with organising, if he had not died at such a young age.

For most people this probably goes without saying, however because so many people suffer from mental ill-health, especially now, and because suicide is something which can be contagious, we just think it’s really important to spell out that if you want a better world, we need you to stay in it, and fight with us. Suicide is never a good idea from a social change perspective.

Going back to Lee So-sun and Jeon Tae-il, as a final question, I asked Rachel what she thought their legacy was today.

Rachel: This is my personal view but I think that Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun’s legacy presses us to grapple with the complicated ways in which gender, labour and social movements intersect. In contemporary South Korean society, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Jeon is almost universally beloved or respected, unless you belong to a chaebol or are a conglomerate and a part of the super-wealthy elite.

A chaebol is a big, normally family-owned industrial conglomerate in South Korea – Samsung and LG being particularly famous ones. Interestingly, both of those electronics companies were in the textile industry back in the 60s.

Rachel: At the same time, I would like to encourage people to question why it’s easier to remember and commemorate Jeon Tae-il than these countless women factory workers or the other nameless individuals that similarly lost their lives in the labour and democratisation movements in subsequent years. Why, in other words, is it easier to celebrate individuals and martyrs than to think about collectives and the messy work that goes into building them?

This is a really good question. We are partly guilty of this here, because we’ve made a podcast episode specifically about Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun. We also touch on this issue in our first podcast episode, about the Grunwick strike of East African Asian women workers in London in the 1970s. That was very much a collective struggle, but often the media, and many historians, like to portray history as a story of “great men”, or occasionally women. And the Grunwick strike is often portrayed as being led by one person, whereas in reality, as in any industrial dispute or big struggle, it’s the mass participation of large numbers of people which is key to whether we win or lose. So not wanting to make excuses as such, we decided to name the episode as we did because Jeon Tae-il is a famous figure, and so people are more likely to find this through a search engine than something more abstract. Also he and Lee So-sun are not so connected to one specific strike or dispute which we could name it after instead. Hopefully though it is clear from how Rachel has told the story that they were just two participants in a much bigger story about large numbers of mostly women textile and garment workers.

Just a small point of information, Rachel is about to mention kichijon workers: these were sex workers or “comfort women” located near US military camps.

Rachel: With regard to those in leftist spaces, I believe there’s also a tendency to have a fixed and romanticised image of the struggling factory, farm or industrial worker who is often male. What is the kind of implicit moralising that we do when we limit our definition of labour and labourers? For instance, we might think of the kijichon workers, the U.S. military camptown sex workers at this time, who were left out of any kind of these labour movements. Simultaneously, Jeon reminds us that individual actions do matter and can have profound effects that none of us can really ever predict. For me, I think it’s Jeon’s motivations for his actions that I find most compelling. He was moved to action by seeing the suffering of these young girls working under atrocious conditions and of seeing those that were just utterly abandoned by society and that no one ever really cared about. I think a lot about his initial motivation in the context of South Korea today and of the migrant workers who are currently stranded and unable to get home because of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re constantly subject to precarious and ever-changing immigration laws that only value them for the profit that they can produce. I think, again, about these U.S. military camptown workers or any kind of sex workers right now in Korea who have so little protection from the law or really any sympathy from a lot of society. I think about the marriage migrants who are left vulnerable. They face abuse and are just isolated in this new-found society to them. My really good friend Anton once said something that I love which is ‘more than K-pop or Samsung, South Korea’s true legacy is mass resistance. From the March 1st Movement in 1919 to the more recent Candlelight Protests, South Korea has had a very vibrant civil society and protest culture. It is my hope that, in the continuation of such a legacy in this age of neoliberal capitalism and globalisation, we look beyond the borders of the Korean Peninsula and also embrace a more transnational solidarity with all the marginalised and oppressed people of the world. I think that, in the end, this kind of activity would most accurately reflect the spirit of Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun’s struggles and honour them.

[Musical interlude]

That concludes the main section of these episodes, however we did also speak to Rachel bit more about the Heung Coalition and their work.

Rachel: Heung Coalition is this collective that I’m a part of. It’s comprised of researchers, grad students, organisers and translators. We’re both in and outside the Korean diaspora and South Korea itself. We mostly got together because we were really unhappy with the way Korea is frequently discussed in media, in academia and just in a broader sense; how it’s often reduced to this object of study, which is historically tied to very specific political intentions, whether on behalf of the U.S. or the Japanese colonial period, as well as this ethnic nationalism that seems really pervasive among the diaspora right now. We just wanted to create a space for more nuanced discussions and maybe confront how meaning-making around Korea has been conducted through our own writing, translations and various events and organising. You can find out more about us on our website which is heungcoalition.com or on Twitter on @heungcoalition.

And we will pop links to those in the show notes on our website.

As well as Heung, Rachel told us about some other groups organising on the ground in South Korea right now.

Rachel: I want to shout out two organisations in particular. One is the 꿀잠비정규노동자쉼터 and in English, it translates roughly to ‘Sound Sleep’ or ‘Shelter and Rest Centre for Irregular Workers’. This is a centre that was built in Seoul. It is aimed at irregular workers who may be out of work or who may have been fired for any kind of protest activities but really just expanded to any kind of workers in precarious conditions. It’s aimed at providing a place for them to sleep, rest and to have a place to stay. Basically, it’s a shelter of sorts. The website link that I sent you is all in Korean but I think they’re doing a lot of important work, especially right now given the economic precarity caused by the coronavirus pandemic but then also the necessity of sheltering in a place and staying inside. Another organisation I also wanted to mention is 장애여성공감, the Women with Disabilities Empathy group. They’re not, I suppose, specifically tied to labourers or workers but they’re an organisation that is dedicated to promoting awareness and providing support for women with disabilities in South Korea. In the sense that we should address all the kinds of ways that any form of discrimination and marginalisation manifests. I think they’re doing incredibly important work for a group of people that often get overlooked in South Korean society. There’s still not too much awareness regarding disabilities in South Korea and so I do think in the same way that Jeon Tae-il was inspired by the young female workers in the factories, I think that it’s important for us to also expand who we care about and who we take care of in these times to those that we might not immediately see or know about.

We’ve put links to these organisations on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes. We’ve also got all of our sources, more information and links to further reading on the webpage for this episode, again link in the show notes.

As always, huge thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. If you enjoy our podcast, please consider joining us on patreon, where you can get exclusive early access to episodes, bonus episodes, free books and posters and more. Learn more and sign up at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, analscubahive, James and Ariel Gioia. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no worries, please just tell your friends and family about our podcast, and give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

Big thanks also to Rachel Min Park and the Heung Coalition for their assistance with this episode.

Theme music for this episode was the Marching For the Beloved, about the Gwangju uprising, by Baek Ki-wan, Hwang Seok-young and Kim Jong-ryul, link to stream it in the show notes.

Thanks to Jesse French for editing this episode.

And finally thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.

Interview transcribed by


If you value our work please take a second to support Working Class History on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!