Assault Case in Ulsan Highlights Labor Hierarchy


Assault doesn’t exactly garner much attention in South Korea or most countries for that matter. Physical fights are common enough. Violence is universal.

But the recent assault case in Ulsan, an industrial hub, is tragic because it tells us something about South Korea’s labor hierarchy.

On Mar. 13 Ulsan District Court ruled that a regular employee at a Hyundai Motor Company factory should pay 5 million won in fine for assaulting an employee of a ‘cooperative enterprise.’ The accused punched the victim multiple times at a gym near work. He then threatened the victim with metal exercise equipment before making him kneel down. At that point, the attack resumed once again, according to a report in Seoul Gyeongje.

The accused, whom the company has fired, was apparently angered by the fact that the victim had been…looking at him. Before launching the attack, he reportedly said, “How dare you, an irregular employee, look at me?”

(Korea Exposé reached out to Ulsan District Court for more details but was unable to speak to its representatives.) 

In South Korea jobs are divided into two categories, no matter the field: regular and irregular. Regular employment entails higher salary, more benefits and stronger employment protection. Irregular employment, usually fixed to a term, entails much lower salary, few benefits and no significant employment protection.

Working for a ‘cooperative enterprise,’ a euphemism for small subcontractors that supply labor or parts to large firms like the chaebols, usually implies irregular employment. One can also be an irregular employee of a large firm itself.

Being an irregular employee is bad enough financially, but companies can also make workers feel inferior in other ways. Two years ago, a factory in Ansan near Seoul was widely condemned for providing two separate menus for workers on the day marking the company’s founding. One menu, much better, was offered to regular employees. The other, not too different from an ordinary meal, was given to irregular employees.

While the management’s discrimination against irregular employees surprises few — companies want to save money in whatever way they can — it is the discrimination against irregular employees by labor unions and regular employees that is attracting scrutiny.

Last year, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU), which some say is the country’s most powerful labor organization, refused to accept membership applications from 252 irregular employees of Hyundai Motors Company. Last month, the KMWU also delayed approval of membership requests from automobile salespeople on irregular contracts. The reason: objection from union members who are regular employees of Hyundai and Kia Motors, two large automobile producers.

Regular employees with union membership fear that accepting new irregular employees as members can jeopardize their own salary and benefit negotiations with the companies. But to go by the story from the Ulsan factory of Hyundai Motors, the problem runs deeper: At least one regular employee thinks nothing of treating irregular employees as inferior. And is he really the only one?


Cover Image: (Source: Pexels

Se-Woong Koo wrote this radar report. 

Update: Since an earlier version of this article was released, Hyundai Motors’ press department confirmed that the regular employee in question has been fired. 



Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.


  1. Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. That is, assaulting another person without provocation in a gym is a pretty anti-social act in itself, whatever the employment status of the victim. The offender could be suffering from mental issues. That doesn’t mean there’s a real divide between regular workers and temp contractors in Korea. It’s just that using an isolated example of outrageous, off-work premises conduct to illustrate the alleged indignity of being a temp worker draws a false equivalence. Now, if there was pattern of such attacks by other full time workers or the attack happened at a workplace by a supervisor, then there would be a stronger case to be made.

    Shoddy journalism, really.

  2. @David Kim, hardly isolated.

    Incidents / Fights / Arguments like this are reported regulary in the Korean press. Perhaps not all between regular and irregular workers but the underlying theme is always a perceived difference in social class / social standing which is the greater issue here

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