Cultures of Worker Protest in South Korea: Space, Infrastructure and the Politics of the Body

Dramatic acts of resistance and solidarity are a mainstay in South Korea’s political landscape, especially for protesting workers and the broad base of union activists, students, religious leaders, progressive party members and human rights proponents that support their struggles. While many labor and social movement scholars have examined the instrumental, organizational and structural factors that promote strategic forms of collective action, much less attention has been paid to the embodied, spatial and infrastructural dimensions of public protests. Why do people engage in extreme acts of protest, particularly acts that involve exceptional sacrifice and a high level of social suffering? How do extreme protest acts utilize the built environment, including the streets, the public squares, the transport systems, and the capitalist infrastructure itself, to express and carry on oppositional cultures of resistance and solidarity over time and place? What does the dynamic character of protest cultures reveal about the expectations and aspirations of dissenting political subjects? This talk seeks to advance knowledge about the shifting dynamics cultures of protest among South Korean workers by sharing findings from extensive field research conducted over the past decade.

Jennifer Jihye Chun is Associate Professor in Sociology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Korea, housed at the Asian Institute in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. 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) as well as numerous book chapters and journal articles on gender, labor, migration and social movements. Currently, she holds a SSHRC Insight grant for a collaborative project with Professor Ju Hui Judy Han on “Protesting Publics in South Korea.” She is also engaged in research collaborations on immigrant women workers and care worker organizing in California and global comparative approaches to studying informal and precarious worker organizing. In 2017, she was named a Research Excellence Faculty Scholar at the University of Toronto Scarborough.