Protests Greet South Korea’s Union-Busting President in Boston and Cambridge

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CAMBRIDGE – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, a union buster, warmonger, and avowed “anti-feminist,” was met with a series of protests in Massachusetts on Friday.

Here on a six-day state visit to the United States, earlier in the week, Yoon had charmed Washington by serenading President Joe Biden with a rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Yet Yoon sings a different tune at home, where he is fresh off of breaking a truckers strike in December and arresting labor leaders in more recent months.

Rolling out the red carpet

With part of Beacon Street closed off by police, Yoon’s motorcade pulled up to the State House sometime after 12:15 p.m. on Friday. A planned ceremony for Workers’ Memorial Day, a labor event that honors fallen workers, was unceremoniously, yet fittingly, displaced from the front of the building to make way for his arrival.

A red carpet is rolled out before the front steps of the State House on April 28, 2023.

A literal red carpet had been rolled out for Yoon, and he was met by a special honor guard and by Gov. Maura Healey (D), who has come out against public sector workers’ right to strike.

Protesters from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were also gathered on the opposite side of the street despite the best efforts of the South Korean Secret Service to ward them off or physically block them from being seen — “You can’t protest!” one admonished, while another spat out “You need to leave!”

After a Boston cop shrugged off entreaties to remove the protesters, two Secret Service agents resorted to taking turns making graphic threats of violence under their breath in Korean.

Yoon looked back perturbed as loud boos punctuated the air and then awkwardly accompanied Healey in ascending the steps while repeated cries of “Strikebreaker!” followed them all the way up.

Inside, Yoon was treated to a state luncheon in a room adjoining the Massachusetts Senate chamber. Among those present was Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), who has refused to recognize Senate staffers’ union-card majority.

After meeting with Yoon, Healey hailed their “shared values and historic commitment to freedom and democracy.”

Spilka called the visit “wonderful.”

Driving Yoon out of Cambridge

Later in the afternoon, Yoon headed to Cambridge, making a stop at the Harvard Kennedy School around 4 p.m.

Invited by Harvard’s Institute of Politics to speak about freedom, Yoon focused his remarks on criticizing North Korea in the last public event of his U.S. trip.

With a tighter security setup this time — albeit one that a shirtless jogger unwittingly evaded — a door opened and the South Korean president’s motorcade sped out of a loading dock onto Eliot Street.

There he was met by an even larger assembly of three dozen pro-worker and anti-war protesters, alternating chants between “Union buster Yoon Suk-yeol!” and “Warmonger Yoon Suk-yeol!”

Asked why he would show up for a protest against a foreign leader many Americans have never heard of, Ruy Martinez, a member of Harvard YDSA, stated that “The struggle for workers’ rights is international and so is our solidarity — we’re no stranger in the U.S. to how workers and unions have been suppressed.”

A member of Worcester DSA said, “The president of South Korea is a strike-breaking piece of shit.”

Ryan Black, a member of Boston DSA’s Coordinating Committee and the next co-chair of the chapter, added, “There’s no way DSA was going to allow someone like this to pass through our area undisturbed.”

Among those there for the protest were the incoming president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) Evan MacKay and Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who are both DSA members.

This protest again demonstrated the ability of DSA and allied groups to plan and mobilize for an action on short notice, even in solidarity with workers on the opposite side of the globe.

An assortment of peace organizations — including Mass Peace Action, Boston Candlelight Action Committee, and the New England Korea Peace Campaign — had also brought out a large number of attendees to protest Yoon’s hawkish North Korea policy and the Biden administration’s closeness to Yoon.

Seung Hee Jeon, an associate professor at Boston College present at the protest, told Working Mass that her group hoped to dissuade Biden from supporting Yoon, who they see as undermining the potential for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Jeon also mentioned Yoon “threatening to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and… ruthlessly suppressing the freedom of the press.”

Full interview with Seung Hee Jeon who teaches at Boston College and is a member of Candlelight Action Boston and New England Korea Peace Campaign

Deal-making between capitalists

South Korea is the world’s tenth-largest economy and a substantial trading partner and market for the United States. Accordingly, Yoon’s visit to Washington served as an opportunity to unveil and discuss a handful of large business deals between capitalists in both countries — with accompanying ramifications for workers.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos joined Yoon on Monday to disclose plans by the streamer to double investment in Korean content to $2.5 billion. Conveniently, the announcement came ahead of a then-looming and now active strike by the Writers Guild of America, whose 2007–09 strike lasted 100 days. The announcement also follows the British and Canadian Writers Guilds urging their members not to cross U.S. writers’ potential picket line.

With the Korea Times reporting that “The newly elected president of [the UAW] is unnerving Korean battery manufacturers,” GM on Tuesday revealed the news, also timed for Yoon’s visit, of a $3 billion investment with South Korea’s Samsung SDI to jointly build its fourth electric vehicle battery plant in the United States. The U.S. automaker’s existing joint venture with South Korea’s LG Energy Solution has been complicated by a series of disagreements, including over the process for workers to form a union at their Ohio plant. Workers there overwhelmingly voted to unionize one month before GM started looking for a new partner, 

On Wednesday, Yoon then met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at Musk’s request to continue discussions of the potential for building a Tesla gigafactory in South Korea.

The meeting follows a video call between Musk and Yoon in November, when Yoon told Reuters he had promised Musk he would “minimize any risks posed by militant unions,” which he described as “a serious problem in South Korean society.”

Less than a week after that call, Yoon had moved to crush a South Korean truckers’ strike for fair pay. Threatening three years in jail and fines of over $20,000 for those who would not comply, Yoon issued a back-to-work order within three hours of President Joe Biden’s call for Congress to impose a rail contract — one voted down by unions representing a majority of rail workers.

Cozying up to the United States

Just 10 days after Yoon took office in May of last year, Biden had jetted off to Korea to meet him.

Yoon is now paying back that visit, with his trip being only the second state visit of Biden’s presidency.

Biden honored Yoon with a lavish state dinner at the White House on Wednesday, which was attended by a range of Washington guests, including two past Republican governors of Massachusetts — Charlie Baker (R) and now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

At the bipartisan invitation of Democratic and Republican leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, Yoon addressed a joint session of Congress Thursday. He is the seventh South Korean president to do so.

In his speech, Yoon gave a nod to the four members of Congress of Korean descent — Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel, as well as Democrats Andy Kim, a former national security official, and Marilyn Strickland, who infamously fought efforts to tax Amazon as CEO of the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Painting South Korea as a nation “rooted in freedom, democracy, and market economy,” Yoon referenced American missionaries’ early work in the country and cast the United States as the world’s defender of freedom and democracy and the bringer of peace and prosperity.

Yoon spoke of South Korea’s graduation from the global periphery to fighting “side by side” with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq and becoming “the only nation in modern history” to go from a net recipient of aid to a donor. He contrasted this with sharp criticism of North Korea as a “regime determined to pursue a wrong path” outside the U.S.-dominated world system.

Yoon’s visit left Washington “swooning” and seemed unaffected by Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira’s leaks of classified information which showed the US was spying on allies like South Korea. Included in that leak was information that Yoon’s two top foreign policy and national security advisors had discussed circumventing South Korea’s own longstanding policy against providing lethal aid to countries at war — including Ukraine — by laundering arms shipments through Poland.

Ultimately, Yoon’s visit secured the Washington Declaration, which includes a U.S. commitment to regularly deploy nuclear-armed submarines in South Korea for the first time in decades, a meaningful nuclear escalation directed at North Korea. This result seems to be viewed as insufficient in South Korea, though, with editorials in the country’s leading liberal and conservative dailies attacking Yoon’s nuclear agreement with Biden as “‘America First’ diplomacy” and panning it as “tightening Korea’s nuclear shackles,” respectively.

Their dissatisfaction stems from Yoon giving up South Korea’s interest in the permanent basing of nuclear weapons in the country, whether through renewed development of its own nuclear armament or the redeployment of U.S. weapons. This was done while initiating a more full-throated embrace of the United States’ camp that seems likely to provoke a response from China, which is South Korea’s largest trading partner, as well as Russia and North Korea.

Continuing the war on workers

Meanwhile, Yoon’s labor crackdown continues.

On May Day, a local leader within the Korean Construction Workers’ Union attempted self-immolation outside a court where he was to face a detention hearing on the charge of “obstructing business.”

In his suicide note, he wrote “I was glad to have been in this together with you. I will stand at the side of my comrades eternally.”

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) shared further that he was being accused of intimidating employers by “requesting collective bargaining on employment security” and that 15 other construction workers are currently in jail on the same charges.

Tweets by Working Mass from the day of the protest garnered over 300 retweets including many from Koreans. This quote tweet was retweeted nearly 3,000 times. The caption translates from Korean as: “There was an action against union-busting President Yoon Suk-yeol’s Harvard speech.”

Our Korean comrades are in our thoughts, and we will continue to follow new developments. We are proud to have quickly organized Friday’s actions in solidarity with them and hope that Korean workers know workers on the other side of the world stand with them.

Hong Doo-jung (홍두정) is a Korean American and a DSA member in Massachusetts.

Featured image credit: A group of DSA members and other protesters gathered outside the Harvard Kennedy School hold signs in Korean and English that read “노조탄압 중단하라,” meaning “Stop suppressing unions.”

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