Rethinking Class and Labour through the Works of Hagen Koo

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Monday, July 16th, 2018

Monday, July 16, 20189:30AM - 3:00PM208N, North House, 1 Devonshire Place
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9:30-10:00am – Coffee

10:00-10:10am – Opening Remarks: Yoonkyung Lee (University of Toronto)

10:10-11:30am – Keynote Speaker: Hagen Koo (University of Hawaii), Rethinking Working Class Formation in South Korea, followed by Q & A

11:30am-12:45pm – Lunch Reception

12:45-2:30pm – Panel Presentations

Chair: Yoonkyung Lee (University of Toronto)

Panel Speakers:
Jennifer Chun (University of Toronto), Religion, Ritual and Spaces of Worker Protest in South Korea
Veda Hyunjin Kim (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Hagen Koo’s Korean Workers and Marxism in the Third World
Namhee Lee (UCLA), The Democratic Transition, Working-Class Identities, and the Current State of Research
Hwa-Jen Liu (National Taiwan University), Comparisons as Conversations
Gay Seidman (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Honouring Hagen Koo: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Rethinking Working Class Formation in South Korea
South Korea has experienced one of the world’s most interesting and dynamic working-class movements during the past half century. Hagen Koo, author of the award-winning book, Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Cornell University Press, 2001), discusses the distinctive aspects of this movement and examines their broad theoretical implications, from a retrospective perspective.

Hagen Koo is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Born in Korea, he received his BA in Korea and worked as a journalist before coming to America. He started his graduate program at the University of British Columbia but completed his Ph.D. degree at Northwestern University. He published extensively on the political economy of development in East Asia and social transformation in South Korea during the period of rapid industrialization. His major work includes State and Society in Contemporary Korea (1993), and Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (2001), which received a book award from the American Sociological Association and has been translated into several languages. He continues to work on the issues of inequality and changing class relations and is now completing a book on the demise of the middle class in South Korea in the neoliberal era. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at Free University of Berlin.

Religion, Ritual and Spaces of Worker Protest in South Korea
This talk revisits Hagen Koo’s classic insights about the role of religious actors in supporting grassroots labour struggles in South Korea. In particular, I discuss the ongoing visibility of religious actors and religiously-inflected spectacles in the landscapes of worker protest, particularly for laid-off workers and workers in precarious jobs. Why do religious leaders continue to play such visible solidarity roles in the struggles of striking workers? How do ritualized protest acts, such as “prayer protests” and Buddhist prostration rituals, shape the aesthetic and ideological spaces of public protest?

Jennifer Jihye Chun is Associate Professor in the Asian American Studies Department and the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She has published widely on the changing world of work and politics, focusing on the intersections of gender, race, class and migration. She is the author of the award-winning book Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (Cornell University Press, 2009) and has recently co-edited a double special issue in Critical Sociology (2018) entitled, “Care Work in Transition: Transnational Circuits of Gender, Migration and Care.” She is currently writing a book monograph on space and public cultures of protest in South Korea.

Hagen Koo’s Korean Workers and Marxism in the Third World
I base my talk on a critical theory of imperialist capitalism and Hagen Koo’s (2001) book, Korean Workers. I argue that we can re-read our dear book of Koo, Korean Workers to re-calibrate our intellectual endeavour to pursue the programme of Third World Marxism in studies on Northeast and Southeast Asia. The South Korean political economy has been subjugated by the West—as the Asian Financial Crisis and subsequent neoliberal policy imposition starkly demonstrate—and the South Korean state’s foreign affairs are reliant on US-empire. In consequence, the South Korean social sector became Manichaean in a hegemonic/ambivalent manner (as opposed to the violent/absolute one in Fanon’s theory) and hence people’s lifestyles were creolised. I present two precariatisation experiences. Specifically, I examine SsangYong Motors’ laid-off workers and Daechuri displaced farmers, which starkly display 1) forced social changes resulting from the exertion of imperial power, 2) social isolation of the grievance groups, and 3) united resistance against power by partaking in counterpublic formation. The narrative structures in my presentation of two precariats’ resistances and class formation processes in Korean Workers are commensurate. Korean Workers is a keystone of Third World Marxism, if we take the following principles: Marxist perspective (in whatever variant), global perspective, and the close scrutiny of people’s responses.

Veda Hyunjin Kim bodily learnt about the dialectics between the imperialism and colonised lives, while he resided in UK as a poor coloured folk. He earned an MA degree from the University of Chicago and now studies for a doctoral degree in University of Massachusetts Amherst. His current concentration is on democratisation dynamics in the context of post-WWII neo-imperialism and Marxist democratization theories.

The Democratic Transition, Working-Class Identities, and the Current State of Research
Abstract: One of the key arguments in Hagen Koo’s pathbreaking Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation is that Korean working-class formation has been closely associated with broader socio-political processes, particularly with the democratic movement of the 1970s and the 1980s. Given the deeply transformed sociopolitical reality of South Korea since the late 1980s—the democratic transition, the collapse of the “actually existing socialism,” the global neoliberalism and the institutionalization of market and labour flexibility, and the influx of migrant workers from the 1990s, among others—what is at stake in the formation of working-class identities? What is the current state of research; in particular, how has the “cultural turn” in the field engaged with, expanded, or limited our understanding of the shifting grounds of and re-formatting working-class identities in South Korea?

Namhee Lee is associate professor of modern Korean history at UCLA and her publications include The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea (Cornell University Press, 2007). She is currently working on a book about social memory of the 1980s in the context of the persistence of the cold war in Korea as well as the global context of neoliberalism.

Comparisons as Conversations
Abstract: Based on Koo’s “condensed industrialization” thesis and its negative consequence imposed on organized labour, I was inspired to further explore different types of damages that condensed industrialization has had on labour and environment and the subsequent solidification of social powers countering and moderating such damages. Through the double comparisons of Korea and Taiwan, of labour and environmental movements, I conclude that, though these two movements may seem diagonally opposite, each has certain strengths that complement the other and hence the making of a labour-environment alliance is a worthy endeavor in the new millennium.

Current project: I’m currently working on a “polluters” project. This project compiles a list of polluting corporations from historical records, and surveys their unions’ various responses and actions in environmental disputes. I will select specific pollution cases and interview workers involved in an attempt to understand how the act of pollution itself changed workers’ standing in their communities.

Hwa-Jen Liu teaches sociology at National Taiwan University. She specializes in social movements, late industrialization, and comparative methods and is the author of Leverage of the Weak: Labor and Environmental Movements in Taiwan and South Korea (the University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Honouring Hagen Koo: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Like many researchers who focus on labour movements in the global South, I have long turned to Professor Koo’s work for insight into the dynamics of South Korea’s labour movement. My remarks will highlight some of the lessons I have taken from his work, and some of the questions his work raises for broader discussions of labour dynamics in the twenty-first century going forward.

Gay Seidman is the Martindale Bascom Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Focusing mainly on labour and social movements in the global South, her books include Manufacturing Militance (Univ. of California Press, 1994) and Beyond the Boycott (Russell Sage 2007). Her current work explores refugee experiences in Cape Town’s divided labour market.


Hagen Koo
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Hawaii

Jennifer Chun
Associate Professor, Asian American Studies Department and the International Institute, University of California Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto Scarborough

Veda Hyunjin Kim
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Hwa-Jen Liu
Associate Professor of Sociology, National Taiwan University

Gay Seidman
Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Namhee Lee
Associate Professor of Modern Korean History, UCLA

Main Sponsor

Centre for the Study of Korea


Asian Institute

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