‘My Last Stand’: In South Korea, a Protester’s Lone Fight Against Samsung

‘My Last Stand’: In South Korea, a Protester’s Lone Fight Against Samsung

SEOUL, South Korea — Overlooking the busiest intersection in Seoul is an 82-foot traffic camera tower. At the top is Kim Yong-hee, a 60-year-old man with a sleeping bag, plastic sheeting and placards denouncing Samsung, South Korea’s most powerful conglomerate.

He has been there for 315 days.

“Things can hardly get worse than here, but I am ready to fight Samsung in worse conditions,” Mr. Kim said by telephone from his midair protest camp, from which he can see the soaring towers of Samsung’s headquarters. “This is my last stand against that evil behemoth.”

Mr. Kim said Samsung fired him in 1995 for doing what many others, before and since, have tried to do: organize an independent labor union. He has spent the past quarter-century trying to get his job back, as well as compensation and an apology from the company, whose influence is so pervasive that many see it as untouchable.

Known around the world for its smartphones, Samsung is the biggest of the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy. And it stands out for another reason. Massive strikes have crippled operations at other chaebol, like the shipbuilding and automaking giant Hyundai, but Samsung has never experienced serious labor strife.

Two court rulings in December cast some light on the reasons. Thirty-nine people, most of them current and former Samsung managers, were convicted of conspiring for years to sabotage efforts to organize independent unions at two affiliates and their subcontractors, and plot ways to keep the entire group free of union activism.

Prosecutors who indicted the executives in 2018 said they were revealing “the truth that everyone knew but could not confirm​” — that Samsung had deployed a “shopping-mall list of union-busting stratagems,” ​such as firing labor activists, slashing their wages and bribing a police detective to gather information from them under false pretenses. One sentencing judge compared the executives to Josiah Bounderby, the callous factory owner in the Charles Dickens novel “Hard Times” who ridicules his workers for wanting too much.

Several top Samsung figures — including Lee Sang-hoon, chairman of Samsung Electronics’ board of directors and widely considered the No. 2 figure in the conglomerate’s hierarchy — were sent to prison.

“We humbly admit that our past view on labor unions fell short of people’s standards and society’s expectations,” Samsung said then.

It took prosecutors more than six years of investigation and trial to win the rare convictions. Top Samsung executives, like other chaebol leaders, have been found guilty of felonies over the years, but have spent little time behind bars. Lee Kun-hee, the ailing chairman, was convicted twice of bribery and other corruption charges but has never spent a day in jail.

His son Lee Jae-yong, who has essentially run the conglomerate since a heart attack incapacitated his father, was sentenced to five years for bribery in 2017, in connection with a scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, who was convicted of collecting millions of dollars of bribes from Samsung and other big businesses, leading to her ouster and eventual imprisonment. But Mr. Lee was released after less than a year. (The father and son are not related to ​Lee Sang-hoon.)

“When you think of Samsung, you may first think of its modern image​ from its smartphones,” said Ha Sung-ae, a religion scholar who has helped organize a support group for Mr. Kim. “But few cases can ​better ​illustrate what ​can happen when you challenge Samsung over its dirty underside than that of Kim Yong-hee.”

Mr. Kim began organizing workers soon after he joined Samsung’s aerospace unit in 1982. He said he was attacked by thugs and kidnapped by Samsung officials, but that it only hardened his determination​.

“Knowledge is power,” ​Mr. Kim wrote by hand in a pamphlet he distributed to workers in 1991, ​urging them ​to stand up for their right to unionize, which South Korea’s Constitution guarantees.

That year, ​Mr. Kim said, ​a 20-year-old Samsung employee told him she had been raped by her boss, and asked that he help expose him. But Samsung instead accused Mr. Kim of sexually assaulting the woman and fired him, according to court documents.

The woman said in a notarized statement that Mr. Kim had not assaulted her, and he sued Samsung, demanding his job back. The company eventually reinstated him, on the condition that he drop his lawsuit and spend a year at a Samsung construction site in Russia.

In a letter ​home from Russia — a copy of which he gave to the National Human Rights Commission last year, as part of his campaign against the company — Mr. Kim said he feared for his life. He wrote that Samsung employees had tied him up with rope, pressured him to renounce his activism and told the South Korean Embassy that he was a North Korean spy​.

Samsung declined to comment on any of Mr. Kim’s claims, but it said the affiliates ​that had employed him in Russia were no longer part of the conglomerate.

Mr. Kim said that after he came home in 1995​, Samsung said he could not return to work unless he disavowed his activism. He refused.

Since then, his life has been an endless series​​ of sit-ins and hunger strikes near Samsung headquarters. He has distributed pamphlets saying he wanted to “murder Samsung” and likening the company to hell. Samsung officials have pressed defamation, blackmail and other charges. Mr. Kim was arrested twice and released with suspended prison terms.

Meanwhile, sorrow befell his family. His father went missing. His mother suffered a stroke while he was in jail. In 1992, his wife was sexually assaulted, and an unsubstantiated newspaper report speculated that the attacker had a connection to Samsung.

Mr. Kim​ blames the conglomerate for what happened to his family. At ​the bottom of the tower where he is carrying out his protest, a slogan reads: “My life has been ruined just because I tried to organize a union at Samsung! ”​

Vigils like Mr. Kim’s are something of a tradition in South Korean labor activism. In 1990, Hyundai workers barricaded themselves for two weeks at the top of a shipbuilding crane, ​ in one of the first organized anti-chaebol protests.

“They are driven to ​these so-called​ up-in-the-air protests in their last attempt to catch attention, even if it’s just a couple lines in news media, after​ all else failed,” said Lim Mi-ri, a professor at Korea University in Seoul who has written a book about labor activists.

Mr. Kim’s hopes rose when he joined the huge crowds that filled central Seoul in late 2016 to protest corrupt ties between South Korea’s then-president, Ms. Park, and Samsung and other chaebol. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto Samsung chief, was convicted of giving Ms. Park $7 million in bribes.

Ms. Park was removed from office and jailed. But Mr. Lee’s release from prison in February 2018 — after a judge cut his five-year term by half, then suspended it — was a bitter disappointment to Mr. Kim, another sign that Samsung was untouchable.

Mr. Kim climbed the tower on June 10 of last year, with the help of supporters who had hired a crane. He has threatened to jump to his death if the police tried to dislodge him, prompting the authorities to place air cushions at the foot of the tower.

His allies send up food, books and cellphone batteries by rope. ​His wife collects his waste once a week, also by rope. Sometimes he stands up on his platform with a megaphone, railing against Samsung.

“A week before I came up here, a Samsung security guard as young as my sons spat in ​my face,” Mr. Kim said in an interview. “That was the moment I realized that I had done everything I could on the ground, ​but nobody cared, and decided to take my protest up ​here ​in the air.”

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