Building Ships, Building a Nation

Korea's Democratic Unionism Under Park Chung Hee

Hwasook Nam

  • Published: 2011
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Korea; History
  • Bibliographic information: 336 pp., 14 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
  • Contents

Building Ships, Building a Nation examines the rise and fall, during the rule of Park Chung Hee (1961-79), of the combative labor union at the Korea Shipbuilding and Engineering Corporation (KSEC), which was Korea's largest shipyard until Hyundai appeared on the scene in the early 1970s. Drawing on the union's extraordinary and extensive archive, Hwasook Nam focuses on the perceptions, attitudes, and discourses of the mostly male heavy-industry workers at the shipyard and on the historical and sociopolitical sources of their militancy. Inspired by legacies of labor activism from the colonial and immediate postcolonial periods, KSEC union workers fought for equality, dignity, and a voice for labor as they struggled to secure a living wage that would support families.

The standard view of the South Korean labor movement sees little connection between the immediate postwar era and the period since the 1970s and largely denies positive legacies coming from the period of Japanese colonialism in Korea. Contrary to this conventional view, Nam charts the importance of these historical legacies and argues that the massive mobilization of workers in the postwar years, even though it ended in defeat, had a major impact on the labor movement in the following decades.
Hwasook Nam is assistant professor of history and international studies at the University of Washington, where she holds the James B. Palais professorship in Korea studies.

"This is an impressive piece of research. The extensive consultation of a large volume of archival records provides a rich source of historical narratives regarding postwar labour history in Korea."
-Gyu-Jin Hwang, Asian Studies Review, Vol. 35, March 2011

"This is a superb work. In its appreciation of the dynamic character of the politics of labor at the plant level, it has no peer."
-Andrew Gordon, Harvard University

"This first-rate scholarly work throws light on a period of South Korea's labor history that has received little attention and has been largely misunderstood. Hwasook Nam demonstrates the historical linkages connecting South Korea's contemporary labor movement to the labor activism during the immediate postwar period as well as to the colonial legacy of labor mobilization."
-Hagen Koo, University of Hawai'i


Part One The Legacies of Colonialism and the Early Cold War Years
1. Worker Militancy in the Postwar Years
2. Anticommunism, Labor Rights, and Organized Labor: The Early 1950s

Part Two The Emergence of a Democratic Union
3 KSEC Workers in the 1950s
4 The KSEC Union in the Political Upheavals of 1960-61
5 Consolidation of a Democratic Union
6 Rationalization and Resistance

Part Three Development Over Democracy
7. Development versus Democracy: The Late 1960s
8. Privatization and the Suppression of Labor, 1968-69
9. Shipbuilding Workers under Authoritarian Rule: The 1970s
10. Shipbuilding for the World Market and Resurging Labor Militancy

Appendix A: The KSEC Union Archive Document File List, 1960-79
Appendix B: The Labor Charter of 1948
Appendix C: A Comparison of Two Contracts, 1968 and 1971

"."A pioneering work on contemporary Korean history, Building Ships, Building a Nation will occupy a central place in the emerging literature of the post-war period.... Nam gives voice and agency to a segment of society and a period of time that were relegated to silence for many years, and in the process profoundly alters our understanding of South Korean state and society."
-Asian Studies Association, in awarding the 2011 James B. Palais Book Prize

"Overall, the account is a reminder that economics that fail to capture cultural and historical, and even emotional, context is rather senseless....His comments on labour in Korea bring to life the decades of labour-capital tensions that were, and still are, the backdrop for Korea's economic miracle."
-International Journal of Maritime History

"Apart from presenting a case study of a union and its members with microhistorical depth, Building Ships, Building a Nation fills a lacuna of knowledge on workers in the twentieth century, serving as an indispensable contribution to scholarship on labor relations in contemporary Korea and East Asia."
-Journal of Asian Studies

"This wonderful book restores a buried history of union activism in the Korea Shipbuilding and Engineering Corporation (KSEC) . . . and situates it in the larger context of militant and democratic labor movements in Korean society since the colonial period. . . . It is a welcome addition to the body of critical studies on modern and contemporary Korea that convey nuanced analyses of Korea's social history."
-American Historical Review

"Focuses on the mostly male heavy industry workers at the shipyard and on historical and sociopolitical sources of their militancy."
-Journal of Economic Literature