A labor legacy: remembering a martyr

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A labor legacy: remembering a martyr

Chun Tae-il was 22 years old when he burned himself to death on Nov, 13, 1970.
For 14 hours a day, he cut cloth in a murky closet in the Peace Market near Dongdaemun in northern Seoul.
Seven days a week, starting at 8 a.m., the clip-clopping sound of sewing machines and steam spouting from irons overwhelmed his senses, and those of the teenage girls who accounted for most of his co-workers. He got a break only two days a month.
After five years at a monthly salary of less than 7,000 won (190,000 won or $156 by today’s value) Mr. Chun was desperate. Long bent on committing suicide, he concluded that he must take action to stop this vicious routine.
On that afternoon, around 2, he initiated a workplace strike to seek fewer hours and more pay. Upon learning about the plan, riot police arrived on the scene and stifled the activists.
Minutes later, Mr. Chun doused himself by pouring a barrel of petroleum over his body, soaking himself thoroughly. Then he flicked a lighter and set his body afire. Running down the road, he shouted out, “We are not machines!” and “Do not let my death be in vain!”
While thoroughly burned, Mr. Chun remained conscious and was moved to a nearby hospital. Several hours later, he uttered his last words: “Mother, please promise me that in my place, you will complete what I could not achieve.” Around 10 p.m., he murmured, “I’m starving.” Then he died.

Thirty-three years have passed, but the name Chun Tae-il still rings loudly in Korean labor movement history. “Chun Tae-il is a martyr whose sacrifice marks a significant turning point in Korean history,” says Kim Jong-cheol, a member of the Korea Democracy Foundation, a group founded to commemorate civic movements of the 1970s and 1980s. “Since his death, every class of society began to be aware of the dangers of an economy driven by development.”
Kim Gwang-oon, a researcher with the National Institute of Korean History, adds “It was not only a labor movement but the very first human rights movement in Korean history. Mr. Chun tried to retain his very basic human rights, at a period when the economy was the No. 1 priority and human rights way down on the list.”
The book, “A Critical Biography on Chun Tae-il,” has been a bible for college students as well as labor union activists. The biography, written by the late human rights lawyer Jo Yeong-rae, ranks up alongside Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” as the first book upperclassmen recommend to a freshman. “I cried on and on, while digging into the book,” says Lee Hyuk-seung, 24, a college student. “I burned the midnight oil to read the book over and over.”

Mr. Chun’s death now belongs to the history books, but no matter how much time has passed, the memoir still brings fresh pain to his family members. His mother Yi So-sun and younger sister Chun Soon-ok are still making history to keep Mr. Chun’s spirit alive. Ms. Yi labors to keep her promise at his deathbed by staying involved in the labor movement. Ms. Chun, whom her brother took picnicking one spring day, is now 48, and also a labor activist.
One of Ms. Chun’s biggest regrets in life is that she could not visit the deathbed of her dear brother. “I was on my way back from public night school and heard the news around 10 p.m,” says Ms. Chun, her voice trembling. “Then I ran all the way to the hospital, but my brother already belonged to the other world.”
With May Day at hand, Chun hustles about endlessly. Earlier this month, she translated her brother’s biography into English, giving it a new title, “A Single Spark” (it is now available at major downtown bookstores for 18,000 won or $15). After the book came out, Ms. Chun founded the Women’s Labor Welfare Center in Dongdaemun, near the site of her brother's suicide.
Her office provides some shelter, but little else in the way of luxury. To find this tiny workroom, you must climb a hill, passing humble shops with signs like “Sew buttons at cheap prices.” Once you find the building, you must navigate a worn stairway, scooting past stinky garbage bags in places.
The neighborhood represents the flip side of the hipness conveyed by the latest clothes fashion magazines. Sewing machines churn away at adjacent clothes factories, their endless humming filling the air. But Ms. Chun picked this corner of town on purpose. “I wanted to be in the heart of the most isolated people in society,” she says.
Seated at her office on a recent weekday, Ms. Chun says, “While translating the book, I had to take some time off, for digging into my memory hurts badly.” The Korea Democracy Foundation helped Ms. Chun financially, in the first project translating a book on Korean democracy.
Although Mr. Chun’s suicide did stir up societal concern, the world changed little. Despite her brother’s protest against poor working conditions, Ms. Chun had to take up the same sordid work as her brother. “I simply did not have any other choice,” Ms. Chun says. “It was a matter of life and death.”
One year later, Ms. Chun clocked the same 14 hours a day for a measly 7,000 won a month ― a condition that went on for six years. Like her brother, who had been thrown into the battle of life as a newspaper boy, Ms. Chun had a single wish: to go to a school. Unlike her brother, Ms. Chun decided to study abroad, and flew to Britain in 1989.
In Britain, she began her research into world history of the labor movement at the University of Warwick, while working as a part-timer to earn the tuition fee. She started by digging into the British labor movement, but was let down by British labor activists’ energy.
“Their morale was low; they had no specific driving force to do something,” Ms. Chun recalls. “And that was when I decided to share the story of my brother to motivate these activists. Every household of a labor union worker had the portrait of Che Guevara, but his spirit is all lost.”
She started by contributing articles to the Evening Standard, the local tabloid with progressive views. And Ms. Chun began translating the biography in 1991, a process that took longer than expected as it was only wrapped up earlier this month. “I also handed out free copies of the translated version to British labor union activists, to get good reaction,” Ms. Chun says. She has received e-mail requests from Americans asking where to find the book.
Back in Seoul, Ms. Chun taught at SungKongHoe University, but quit her post to dedicate herself full-time to improving labor conditions.
“There are just too many things to be done for Korean laborers,” Ms. Chun says. “What really amazes me is that hardly anything has changed in more than three decades.” After publishing “A Single Spark,” Ms. Chun has concentrated her time at the labor welfare center. In the past few weeks, Ms. Chun has found there are blue-collar workers who must still work 14 hours daily.
Ms. Chun remains quite subdued while talking, but her face perks up when the topic of her brother surfaces. “He was the one with leadership, always taking care of others before himself. His interest in the labor movement began after he experienced how horrible the working conditions could be, especially for the little girls at work.”
But Ms. Chun is not satisfied with the present commemoration of her brother. “Commemorative services take place every year but I still feel that something really important is missing. Everything is merely theoretical and abstract.”
Ms. Chun argues that the proper way to keep her brother’s memory alive is to continue what he began. “We have to link the past to the present. We are now losing the meaning of his death and this is one large debt that we all owe to my brother.” And Ms. Chun is ready for the long grind, to repay a debt to her brother and not allow his death to be a futile effort to illuminate laborers’ plight.

by Chun Su-jin
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