Back to LabourStart home page.
Where trade unionists start their day on the net.

A meeting with Dan Byung-ho

by Eric Lee

I had the chance last week to meet the leader of South Korea's trade union movement, Dan Byung-ho. I met Mr. Dan, who is the Korean equivalent of John Monks, not in his offices in the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), but in the Seoul Detention Centre, where he is currently being held.

Dan is in jail because he led his union through a series of "illegal" strikes. At the end of his last incarceration, he was released two months early -- on condition that he never, ever lead a strike. And the very first thing he did upon release was lead a strike.

With me for the visit were the general secretary of the Geneva-based International Metalworkers Federation, an officer of the United Auto Workers in the USA, the international secretary of the Korean Metalworkers Federation, and the general secretary of the KCTU.

The hastily organized visit, held on one of the two days each week that Dan can receive visitors, meant that I came equipped with my laptop computer and its digital camera -- a cumbersome way to record an interview in any event. Friends assured me that there was absolutely no way the guards were going to let me into the prison carrying a laptop. But they did.

As soon as we entered the small, dark, window-less room in which we were to meet Dan, I turned on the machine and plugged in the camera. The guard who sat with Dan on the other side of a glass-and-steel-bars divider immediately began shouting and pointing at what I was doing over there. I turned the computer off and the guard sat down again. Next time, I'm bringing one of those miniature cameras.

We had a grand total of ten minutes with Dan -- just enough time for each of us to be introduced, to exchange pleasantries, to promise support and solidarity.

I was delighted to see the look of recognition on Dan's face when he was told that I was the editor of the LabourStart website. It turns out that he is quite familiar with our efforts.

The attitudes on the two sides of the barrier could not have been more different. On our side, we were asking practical questions of the kind one asks a fellow human being in distress. How are you being treated? Do you need anything? But Dan was answering us with the kind of defiant determination that got him jailed in the first place.

No, I don't need anything, he said. This is my fifth term in jail, he reminded us. I am used to it, he smiled.

We asked when he would be released and he told us that it would probably be during the first week in October. But maybe not. The prosecutor would decide.

We spoke about the need for a world-wide campaign to put pressure on the South Korean government to release Dan and all the other imprisoned trade unionists. Dozens of trade union activists are being held in jails around the country. South Korea's Nobel-prize-winning President, Kim Dae Jung, has broken all previous records for jailing trade unionists. Western journalists still see Kim as the "Nelson Mandela" of Asia. To Dan Byung-ho and other imprisoned trade unionists, President Kim is just another dictator.

We asked Dan what kind of message he'd like to convey to the labour movement outside of Korea. He told us that the struggle against neo-liberalism was a global one. Global solidarity -- that was his message.

After ten minutes, the guard -- who had been writing down every word that was said -- put an end to the meeting. We said our goodbyes and left for the drive back to downtown Seoul.

This article appeared in the Action for Solidarity.

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:31:46 CET

Back to LabourStart