Kim Jin-suk returns after a 309-day miracle on the precipice
Posted on : Nov.11,2011 10:27 KST Modified on : Nov.11,2011 10:29 KST
By Kim Kwang-soo, Busan Correspondent
After ascending Crane No. 85 at Busan’s Yeongdo shipyard 309 days ago to launch an aerial protest against mass layoffs, Kim Jin-suk’s feet finally touched the ground yesterday. It was the site where former labor union head Kim Ju-ik took his own life in October 2003.
The 51-year-old Direction Committee member with the Busan office of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) descended the ladder of the crane Thursday afternoon after the HHIC union approved a provisional labor-management agreement.
Kim, who joined the company in 1981 as the country’s first-ever female welder, was composed on the morning of Jan. 6 as she chained up the entrance to the crane and climbed to the driver’s seat 35 meters up in the air. Her actions, which she undertook independently and without any prior discussions with the union leadership, were criticized as needless risk-taking. Some observers said her recklessness would prove a stumbling block to labor-management negotiations.
As her protest dragged on, people began to forget about her. Labor-management negotiations were a tug-of-war. Unable to take the hardships, union members succumbed one by one to coaxing and pressure from the company, leaving their protest at the Yeongdo shipyard.
Kim kept in touch with the world by mobile phone. But even this ended when her battery died. In the pitch-black darkness of night, she was seized by fear. Her only friends were passersby and the cars on the road that she saw from her 35-meter perch. Once the lights on the street were out, she found it impossible to sleep, never knowing when police or security workers might break down the door and drag her down.
As her solitude deepened, Kim faced the siren call to extreme action. The former chapter head even considered hanging herself 129 days into her lone protest.
“The toughest time for me was when I could sense the anger from HHIC union members who were annoyed about my calls for a withdrawal of the layoffs,” she said.
When the protest wore on beyond its 100th day and Kim could feel her body and spirit flagging, a ray of sunshine came upon her: the Hope Buses. Communicating through Twitter, citizens around the country took a two-day, one-night trip to see her at the shipyard. Seeing this, Kim felt her courage redouble. She looked down at the riders arriving at the shipyard, overcoming heavy rains and police barricades and walking four to ten hours from Busan Station, and she was able to recover her weakening spirit.
The caravans came each month. Every time Kim saw the riders, people she did not even know who came from far away out of the goodness of their hearts, she wept tears of humility and gratitude. In particular, she felt pained to hear news of arrest warrants being issued for poet Song Kyung-dong and others who proposed the Hope Bus caravans, or of riders being carted off by police after marching in the streets.
Around the third change of seasons in September, Kim received a phone call that left her stunned. She was told that Lee So-son, the eternal mother of the workers, had passed away, joining her son, martyr Jeon Tae-il. At the time, she turned down a request from the Hankyoreh for a piece in Lee’s memory. She was too heartbroken to write, she said.
Kim was also anxious about the labor-management negotiations, news of which was relayed to her from the ground. She kept quiet after a provisional agreement was reached between the two on Wednesday. With a vote coming up on the agreement, she knew that it could influence the dismissed workers and union members if she made her views known. The agreement included rehiring of 94 dismissed workers within a year’s time, acknowledgement of the period before the layoffs as a period of continuous service, payment of 20 million won ($17,694) in living expenses for the dismissed workers, withdrawal of all civil and criminal suits, accusations, and petitions between labor and management, and minimization of damage claims.
At a welcome ceremony held at about 4 p.m. on Thursday in front of the shipyard’s main office, Kim said, “I knew I would come back alive. Not for a minute did I let go of my belief in all of you and the union members. You saved my life. Thank you.”
She went on to call out to actress Kim Yeo-jin, who was arrested and freed during the first Hope Bus caravan, and an individual named Hwang who provided her with meals from under the crane, and asked them to stand beside her. She then proceeded to recite the words, “Fight to the end with a smile on our face.”
As she was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, Kim Jin-suk smiled broadly and waved at the citizens who saw her off. It was just as she had done for the strangers who came to see her in the crane during her 309-day stay.
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