Seoul — For nearly two years, Chang Kwan Shik (not his real name) worked quietly among 170 other hard-working Koreans in an auto parts factory in the industrial city of Inchon. Last August, along with hundreds of thousands of other South Korean workers, the men at Mr. Chang's plant went on strike demanding a fairer share of what is called the Korean economic miracle. For five days, Chang led the strike for higher wages and the right to form a trade union. Only during the strike did he reveal to his fellow workers the truth he had so carefully concealed.
He was a former university activist, sent in as a underground organizer.
The government refers to activists like Chang as ``disguised workers,'' accusing them of spreading ``leftist'' and ``subversive'' ideas in the factories.
Unquestionably, Chang appears to belong in the book stacks of a library, not alongside a metal press. The soft spoken, bespectacled young man entered a Seoul university in 1980, where he became involved in the student movement. In 1983 he was jailed for organizing antigovernment demonstrations on campus. He was released the following year.
Chang was barred from completing school but was determined to continue in the cause of what he calls ``social change'' and ``economic self-determination.'' Because of his appearance he was advised to play a role as a teacher in the widespread network of campus study circles which recruit students by teaching from banned neo-Marxist and Western radical books.
Chang instead chose to be a labor organizer. ``In order to change society, you have to work with the masses,'' he says.
The Korean government forbids such ``outside'' organizers and any open activity along these lines brings immediate arrest. There are a number of loosely linked underground groups - many affiliated with Christian churches, others with Marxist sects.
After a period of training by veteran underground organizers on how to avoid revealing his true identity, Chang entered the factory in early 1986. His immediate goal was to organize a trade union. He worked alongside other laborers, earning their trust while he searched for the natural leaders in their ranks. To his surprise, he ferreted out another ``disguised worker,'' sent in by another organization without his knowledge.
Together, along with three others, he planned and sparked the August 1987 strike. The strike was a partial victory. The workers won a raise but the union organizers were fired.
``Through those five days of the strike, they shared their unity and they achieved something out of it,'' reflects Chang. ``The monetary gains are secondary to the consciousness they gained,'' he insists. He adds with a smile, ``Of course, the workers would give priority to the money.''
Activists are expected to again play a small but catalytic role in the next wave of labor disputes expected to take place through the end of April when factory contracts are traditionally negotiated. However, these ``disguised workers'' have had little success, say experts on the labor movement, in attracting workers to wider political struggles.
South Korea's remarkable economic growth, pushing the country so rapidly into the ranks of the industrial world, has been based in part on low industrial wages and a growing gap in income distribution. But it has also meant rising living standards, putting color televisions, refrigerators, and even cars within reach of most average workers. So far the Korean working class is satisfied to gain a bigger piece of the pie without seeking a fundamental change in the system.
Labor activism is being channeled into an invigorated trade-union federation more than into any form of radical organizations. But the government is sufficiently concerned about the possibility of a linkup between the student and labor movements that the recent reform of the labor law still forbids the involvement of ``third parties'' in union organizing.
Chang has had a brief period to ``study'' and work at a small publishing company. He says he has no regrets about his choices. ``I believe the movement will succeed. Therefore I will try again.''