“Mass-based dictatorship”? A little info on S. Korea’s welfare policies in the 1960s

In South Korean academia, one of the most long-standing and productive discussions (I have been following it for around 3 years now, but it may have begun even earlier) is that between Prof. Lim Chihyŏn (임지현, 한양대학교), who maintains (to make a very complicated story as simple as possible) that Park Chung Hee’s regime was a “mass-based dictatorship” (대중 독재), which managed to obtain quite active consent from the mass of the ruled by showing the results of economic growth and cleverly manipulating them with nationalist rhetoric, and his opponents (prominently, Prof. Cho Hŭiyŏn 조희연, 성공회대학교), who view Park’s regime as primarily an oppressive one (without denying the fact that it used the Bonapartist tactics of socio-political maneuvers).

If we accept Prof. Lim’s views, it will basically mean that Park’s regime should be perceived as identical to, say, the fascisms of the 1930s in the more or less well-developed European countries, for example, Germany or Italy, where (not really that generous) welfare packages were supposed to placate the working classes deprived of any opportunity to pursue their own politics. Or otherwise, if we follow Prof. Lim’s line of reasoning, we will begin making analogies with the post-1956 Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, where workers were much more thoroughly co-opted by “free” housing, pension benefits and some prospects of upward mobility for the most talented and conformist minded. Of course, that Park employed some state capitalist methods with close analogies from the Soviet experience, is quite undeniable. But when it comes to the relationship with the ruled, I begin to seriously doubt whether any “cooptation by welfare” ever took place in the stone jungles of Kuro and Yŏngdŭngp’o in the 1960s and 1970s.

Look, for example, at the data given in a very interesting article by Pak Chunsik (박준식), entitled “1960년대의 사회환경과 사회복지정책” (in 1960년대의 정치사회변동, 백산서당, 1999). He shows that, for one thing, the real wage in manufacturing, although it did grow, was growing painfully slowly for workers in the 1960s – it reached a level matching the minimal monthly expenses for food (월별 최저 음식물비: 9390원) only at some point between 1968 and 1969. It was possible to pay these below-survival-level wages because there was still an enormous pool of “excess” labour – the unemployment rate in the non-agricultural sector was 16% in 1963, and still around 8% in 1971. The huge “informal” sector remained a part of slum and semi-slum life in the early 1970s, and around 15% of all formally employed were hired on a daily/short-term contract basis – a very precarious sort of life in a semi-starving society. The real wages (adjusted for inflation) grew at an annual rate of 8.5% in the late 1960s, but labour productivity grew much quicker – at a rate of 16%. If we add that prices grew at 15% annually, the picture of quite a vicious over-exploitation becomes very clear.

Since much of the Labour Standard Law (근로기준법) sounded like stories from the Arabian Nights against the backdrop of what really took place on the ground, the only tangible form of welfare was probably the workplace accident insurance – still company-based, and it applied only to 7% of all workers in 1971. State servants and army officers got their separate state pension systems in 1960 and 1963 respectively, but for the toilers of Kuro that was a story from another world. So, was Park’s kingdom really that “mass-based”? I suggest that passive (and very passive) consent was “obtained” through a combination of repression, all-out militarization, nationalist demagogery (helped by the spread of TV-sets and very high literacy by the end of the 1970s) and some limited opportunities for individual upward mobility through education in a rapidly expanding economy. The last feature does resemble the really “mass-based” Soviet model of the 1960s-70s, but the Soviet-type welfare was nowhere in sight. And the degree of the viciousness of repression was incomparable with Eastern Europe – much closer to the Latin American experience.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.