The Korean proletariat – Korea Times


The Korean proletariat – Korea Times

The Korean proletariat


Courtesy of Hokman To
Courtesy of Hokman To

By David A. Tizzard

Thursday morning was spent discussing the plight of delivery drivers in Korea as part of a live radio show. “Not all heroes wear capes,” I exclaimed in an effort to draw even a small amount of attention away from the glitz and glamour of Marvel action figures and photoshopped gods and goddesses living an idolized curated existence.

The media likes to point to Korea’s economic pandemic performance as a source of pride; the achievement is also used to bestow a sense of legitimacy on the ruling party. While there is some truth to this, beyond the headlines of financial security and gain there lies a more disturbing and frightening reality. We have witnessed a huge transfer of wealth in society, perhaps the largest Korea has seen in its modern history.

Many corporations have emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic: some have recorded soaring profits and given their executives and chairmen even more millions than they had previously. Against this, row after row of streets in the capital bear witness to empty stores and the sad sight of those all too familiar red characters: “im-dae,” for rent.

The country’s economic success means nothing if it remains sequestered in the pockets of the already wealthy. The wealthiest 10 percent of the Korean population have an average monthly income of 11.35 billion won: ten times larger than the bottom 10 percent, and it’s growing. Because wages are the primary source of income, one of the major obstacles to greater financial fairness is more collective and individual bargaining power for workers. Unfortunately in Korea, there is sometimes a disinclination among political parties to associate themselves with labor and provide organizational support to the working class for fear of being branded sympathetic to communist causes. Let us also not forget how the current administration came to power amidst rallying cries and promises to tackle the country’s conglomerates and seek equality for all, only to then allow a pardon to the Samsung chief because it was of “benefit to the country.”

Are the 400,000 delivery drivers working 16-hour days, toiling under oppressive weather conditions, and facing danger at every turn to provide us our kimbap not of benefit to the country? Never one to shy away from the top of a list, the country has the longest working hours in the developed world. The consequence? Local unions say that 21 delivery drivers have died as a result from overwork during the pandemic. Overwork? As a cause of death? It really is both heartbreaking and unacceptable the more one stops to think about it.

We should be monitoring what happens to those who society too often ignores but relies so heavily upon. Take the story of
Seong-wook, for example. His 16-hour day earns him about 200,000 won but then he has to pay tax, petrol, bills and late penalties. He is also forced to work close to the logistics center and away from his two daughters so that he might keep them safe from the pandemic while he spends each day outside interacting with people. It has been six months since he has seen them. More than that, despite being one of the most important frontline workers in the country, he is treated with little to no respect by others. This is a point Hagen Koo’s study illustrates well: “Korean workers are deeply affected by the contemptuous treatment they receive from their superiors, as well as from other members of the community. Grievances and resentment are thus derived from multiple sources of oppression rather than simply from low wages and poor working conditions. Their most urgent demands are humane treatment and justice.”

Whether we call them the proletariat, the working class, the everyday person, or Hong Gil-dong doesn’t matter: These are just labels. What are the causes? The English historian E. P. Thompson asserts that, “Class happens when some people, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against others whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.” Thus we require shared experiences and shared interests, not conflicting ones. The country needs to find a way to combat the growing inequality and recognize the important achievements of those outside the conglomerate boardrooms, Gangnam plastic surgery clinics, and K-pop charts.

I’m not sure if my radio spot was successful in trying to create a shared experience, but as I made my way down to the car park after the show a delivery man was holding a door open with his foot while he tried to maneuver two large boxes on a creaky trolley. I was going the other way but turned around to help him and then made sure to talk to him as I did, wishing him well and good luck for the day ahead.

As I got in the car, free from boxes and a 16-hour work day, able to go and see my children, I wondered if it that small experience was the universe testing me. I then wondered whether I had passed or not. But no, this wasn’t about me. It was about the man working. “Not all heroes wear capes,” I said to myself but thinking of him.

Dr. David A. Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.


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