G20 summit leaves unlikely lesson for Korea
Just because Korea hosted a successful Group of 20 (G20) summit in Seoul doesn’t mean that it has become an advanced country.
There are different sets of criteria that distinguish advanced countries from developing nations.
Korea may have bragging rights for being the first non-G8 member nation to host the summit of wealthy and emerging economies. The first summit was held in the United States, followed by London and Canada. France has been designated as the host of next year’s summit.
By the standard of protection of the underprivileged, there is still a lot of room for Korea to improve.
Don’t forget that some criticize the government for being like one of the series of “development dictatorships” that ruled Korea from the 1960s to the 1980s.
As a matter of the fact, some waste disposal services were put on hold and Seoul citizens were told to leave their cars at home on a “voluntary basis” during the three days of the summit in order to lighten traffic congestion. That may remind one of the days leading to the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Of course, we know there is little chance Korea will go back to the era of dictatorships, with society opened up and the media unbridled.
To ensure that this reversal of history doesn’t occur, it is important to remember things that happened during those difficult times. One is the example of a leading labor leader who killed himself fighting for worker’s rights 40 years ago.
On Nov. 13, 1970, a 22-year-old named Jeon Tae-il burnt himself to death to protest the horrible working conditions in sweatshops
Back then, many employees including teenagers were forced to stay up all night and work in factories all in the name of rebuilding the “fatherland” from the ashes of war and the backwater of development under a development dictatorship.
The sweatshops in the Seoul markets were especially notorious for assistant tailors, who crawled on their hands and knees along narrow paths carrying the clothes without stretching their backs almost all day long.
Jeon, a tailor himself, also saw the deadly combination of poor ventilation and malnutrition that claimed so many young lives. His efforts to have employees comply with labor regulations ended in a harsh crackdown.
To raise awareness of the terrible working conditions and protest against the collusive alliance between the employers and government officials, he killed himself.
Setting himself on fire, he ran through downtown Seoul with his final shout being, ``We are not machines, keep the labor regulations.’’
His tragic death ignited a nationwide response even under the iron-fisted dictatorship of then President Park Chung-hee, the army general-turned politician. Trade unions sprouted up and journalists started to cover related cases.
Ever since, Korea has chalked up fast growth and we are currently one of the most prominent emerging states in the world, and is on the brink of joining the rank of advanced economies. The rights of factory workers have substantially improved.
Some say that the G20 is a milestone that demonstrates our heightened status, following our time-honored initiative of becoming a developed country, under which so many workers have been exploited including Jeon.
Are our policies inclusive enough from the perspective of Jeon?
Would Jeon be happy with the large-sized trade unions at big companies, which are accused of just caring about their own interests?
To become a genuine developed economy, it is imperative to reduce the number of Jeon Tae-ils of our age as well as not allowing Nov. 13 to slip our minds next year.