Evolving Socio-Political Coalitions and the Neoliberal Restructuring of the South Korean Labor Market

Friday, 3 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
CLM.3.07 (Clement House)
Pauline Debanes, EHESS, Paris, France
Juntae Lee, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea
Evolving socio-political coalitions and the neoliberal restructuring of the South Korean labor market

This paper analyzes the neoliberal restructuring of the South Korean labor market since the Asian crisis underlining the political contradictions among social groups that have resulted in a widening gap between permanent worker and irregular worker. South Korea experienced a fast track industrialization followed by almost two decades of financialization that has curbed institutional and social processes towards unequal growth. While dual labor market is a common feature of post-industrialized countries, increasing labor market segmentation in Korea can be traced back to the peculiar structures favored by the State in coalition with big business during industrialization.

Drawing from political economy literature and institutional analysis this paper considers the socio-political coalitions the key to understand the specificities of today’s Korean labor market. Institutions are seen as an unstable socio-political compromise. It is stressed that the inheritance of the “developemental state” period fostered predatory industrial relations among big conglomerates and put the seed of a dual labor market. The neoliberal restructuring that has started in the late 1980s and bloomed in the following decades has constituted a spatio-temporal fix to the contradictions of the declining Park system and the workers’ movement that led democratization.

First, the paper put into historical perspective the characteristics of the labor market in Korea with regard to state intervention and predatory industrial relations. Key institutions and political support of labor market segmentation are put forward in order to track institutional continuity. Then, it outlines how the neoliberal restructuring has impacted the socio-political coalitions showing how neoliberal elites have been leaning on developmental institutions and elites to prevent evolution of workers’ rights and to promote even more labor market flexibility. Finally, based on interviews with workers’ movements it addresses the current status of coordination between the State, business and labor and discuss the stability of the socio-political coalition.