Democracy Without Workers: The “Work Society” in Korea After Democratization

  • Su-Dol Kang
Part of the Critical Studies of the Asia-Pacific book series (CSAP)


In this chapter, the author discusses the thesis of “democracy without labor” in relation to democratic quality in South Korea. The chapter deals with the following questions: Why there is no democracy for workers even after democratic transition in 1987? And what would be a possible way to bring about democracy for the working people? First, the chapter traces historical processes in which Korean workers experienced traumatic collective memories. For example, the developmental state in Korea long suppressed and controlled labor, treating it as a threat to security. This labor control did not much change under the democratic governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Rather, many Korean companies recently adopted a new way of controlling workers, by using civil and criminal law, rather than labor law, in response to labor union strikes. Many private companies are using “compensation suits” and provisional seizures against labor unions. Under these conditions, many workers have committed suicide not only as result of overwhelming despair but also as a final act of resistance. This aggressive labor control was in parallel with the tendency of politics to “commercialize” under a liberal democracy. The author argues that this tendency inflicts considerable damage on the quality of democracy. Therefore, the author suggests that a “democracy with workers” should go far beyond workers’ entitlement to social rights. Because of the long-lasting consequences of historical and societal trauma for workers, democracy should not be a mere set of institutions, but should rather be understood as a way of social life in which workers are not stigmatized and can take part in the economic process while enjoying more autonomy, solidarity, and spirituality.


  1. Bachrach, P., & Baratz, M. R. (1970). Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Choi, J. J. (2004). Han’kukminjujuŭi-ŭi ch’wiyakhan sahoegyŏngje-jŏk kiban [Fragile Socio-economic Basis of Korean Democracy]. Aseayŏn’gu, 17(3), 17–36.Google Scholar
  3. Choi, J. J. (2010). The Democratic State Engulfing Civil Society: The Ironies of Korean Democracy. Korean Studies, 34, 1–24.Google Scholar
  4. Choi, J. J. (2012). Nodong ŏmnŭn minjujuŭi-ŭi in’gan-jŏk sangch’ŏdŭl [The Human Injuries of the People in Democracy without Labor]. Seoul: Politheia.Google Scholar
  5. Crouch, C. (2004). Post-Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  6. Cumings, B. (1999). The Asian Crisis, Democracy, and the End of “late” Development. In T. Pempel (Ed.), The Politics of the Asian Economic Crisis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Dahl, R. (1981). Democracy in the United States: Promise and Performance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  8. Diamond, L. (2008). The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. New York: Henry Holt and Company.Google Scholar
  9. Diamond, L., & Morlino, L. (2004). The Quality of Democracy. An Overview. Journal of Democracy, 15(4), 20–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. London: Polity.Google Scholar
  11. Ferguson, M. (1980). The Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angels: Tarcher.Google Scholar
  12. Ha, J. G. (2007). The Deep Meaning of the Workers’ Great Struggle in 1987. Retrieved at:
  13. Hahm, C. B. (2008). South Korea’s Miraculous Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 19(3), 128–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Heide, H. (2000). Schumpeterian Dynamics in Crisis? The Case of Korea. In T. Hozumi & K. Wohlmuth (Eds.), Schumpeter and the Dynamics of Asian Development. Münster: LIT-Verlag.Google Scholar
  15. Heide, H. (2009). Globalization of the Work Society. Proposal for a Re-Interpretation of the Work-Society as a Post-Traumatic Syndrome. Trans-Humanities, 1, 9–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Heide, H. (2011). Angst und Widerstand. Respektive, 2, 12–23.
  17. Heide, H. (2013). Crisis-Resistance-Defeat: In Search of a Way Out of this Fatal Work Society. Unpublished Manuscript for a Conference on Marxism in Stockholm, Sweden. Access:
  18. Huntington, S. (1991). Democracy’s Third Wave. Journal of Democracy, 2(2), 12–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jang, S. H. (2004). Continuing Suicide in Korea. Labor History, 45(3), 271–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jeong, S. I. (2014, May 23). The Invisible Hand Will Cause the Second Sewol Ferry Tragedy. The Pressian. Google Scholar
  21. Kang, S. D. (2000). Labor Relations in Korea Between Crisis Management and Living Solidarity. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 1(3), 393–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Lee, W. B. (2005). The History of Korean Labor Movement. Seoul: KLSI.Google Scholar
  24. Marshall, T. H. (1950). Citizenship and Social Class: And Other Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Møller, J., & Skaaning, S. E. (2013). Regime Types and Democratic Sequencing. Journal of Democracy, 24(1), 142–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Olsen, T. (1978). Silences. New York: Delacorte Press.Google Scholar
  27. Park, J. S. (2015, August 24). The Modern History of Labor Movement. MaeilNodong News. Google Scholar
  28. Polanyi, K. (1944/1957). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
  29. Schaef, A. W. (1988). When Society Becomes an Addict. New York: Harper.Google Scholar
  30. Schaef, A. W. (1998). Living in Process: Basic Truths for Living the Path for the Soul. New York: Ballantine.Google Scholar
  31. Schaef, A. W., & Fassel, D. (1988). The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces. New York: Harper.Google Scholar
  32. Thompson, E. P. (1967). Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Past and Present, 38, 56–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Zelik, R. (2015, September 24). Im Multiversum des Kapitals (Teil 3): Radikale Demokratie ist ein Lernprozess. Die Wochenzeitung, 39.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Su-Dol Kang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Business AdministrationKorea University, Korea University Sejong CampusChochiwonSouth Korea

Personalised recommendations