Thursday, July 28, 2005

What to do about industrial policy?

Or, why I wish my Korean was better...

Here is a review in the Korea Times of a new book from Ha-Joon Chang and Jeong, Seung-il which is sure to raise some positive controversy. The two economists published a book [only in Korean I think] last week titled Cutting the Gordian Knot of Korean Economy (Koaedo Nanma Hanguk Kyongje) which suggests that the reason why the Korean economy in the democratic period has failed to boost equality and maintain economic growth is not because of a cyclical economic slump caused by the 1997 crisis but a structural problem attributted to the new ruling block's adoption neo-liberalism.

I've attached an extended section of the review below which is interesting, particulary for the authors' distinction between financial and industrial capital and, the controversial bit, their appraisal of Park Jung-Hee's developmental policies. I'm curious what students of the developmental state will think of this one, and the need to think about industrial policy alongside progressive politics, particulary labor rights, environmental issues, and participatory democracy: How can these be reconciled with strong, state-initiated industrial policy? Post a comment if you have any thoughts, but you'll have to read the book to figure out exactly how the authors see these issues unfolding. Apparently they appraise the role of the labour movment. It's possible they might agree with labour's present strategy of fighting labour market flexibility, which took a new turn last week with the withdrawel of the FKTU and KCTU from a number of labor relations committees, you can read about that here and here.

Here is the rest of the book review:

[The authors] note that neo-liberalism is not suitable for an economy eyeing high growth. ``Conservative newspapers have long demanded that the nation adopt neo-liberal policies, including deregulation and flexibility in the labor market for economic growth. However, neo-liberalism is focused on low growth rate,'' Chang writes.

He relates that neo-liberalism is basically for financial capital, not industrial capital. ``It is a system in which financial capital takes initiative of industries. From the perspective of financial capital, economic growth is not very desirable. To insure returns from their investment, they want to stabilize the economy and lower the price increase rate,'' Chang notes. Thus, neo-liberalism and a high economic growth rate are incompatible.

``Since the economic reform (by Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun), Korea has entered a system in which people refrain from investment, which in turn has slowed economic growth.''

They note that the average investment ratio in 1990-1997 stood at around 37 percent, but it has hovered around 25-26 percent since 2000. ``It is not a cyclical phenomenon, but a structural problem,'' Chang writes.

As recent administrations adopted the low-growth-oriented policy, the nation's crippling economic growth rate is a ``successful'' result of the administrations' stance, the authors write sarcastically.

Discussing neo-liberalism in the nation, the two economists analyze Korean progressives' ``odd'' endorsement of laissez faire. For them, it is natural that the conservatives champion a freer market for the freedom of capital, but it is irrational for many progressives or the left to tilt toward market fundamentalism.

Then what is behind the progressives' strange stance? Chang and Jeong both point their finger at the Park Chung-hee regime, which masterminded economic growth but at the same time ruthlessly suppressed any resistance.

``Many progressives seem to believe that every bad influence stems from Park. As a result, they began to deny all Park-style economic policies, emphasizing a break with the past,'' they write.

For the author, the progressives made a serious mistake in believing that the key to overcoming the past regime was to go in the opposite direction of Park's policy. ``Because Park created a wide distance in the market, (controlling the market), they saw free market as a cure-all,'' they write.

This strange ``unanimous'' belief in the market, the authors write, could tie the hands of the government. Bearing in mind the past authoritarian government's wayward intervention, both progressives and conservatives are allergic to the administration's role in the market and have begun to regard laissez faire as virtuous. ``But, in Korea, the government still has a lot to do,'' Chang adds. ``For example, they are things such as nurturing next-generation industry, adjusting the labor market and instituting a better welfare social system,'' they write.

In the eight-chapter book, the two economists also discuss Korea's economic development under the iron fist of Park, chaebol and foreign capital. They there suggest that chaebol reform has often missed points in the process, only benefiting foreign capital. They also note the progressives need to wake up to the nature of foreign capital invested in Korean conglomerates.

The two economists blame the business for focusing excessively on labor market flexibility, which has spawned unemployment and destabilized social integrity. They also criticize labor for failing to come up with adequate demands under the framework of the nation's economic development.

With ample grounds for their arguments, the book gives readers persuasive and fresh insight into the current economic situation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Conscientious Objection In Korea

Early in 2001 the concept of “objection to military service” became known to the Korean public when a current affairs magazine reported on a forum concerning the military service system. It focussed on the history of conscientious objection among Jehovah's Witnesses in Korea; since the formation of the Korean army, over 10,000 objectors (mostly Jehovah's Witnesses) have been imprisoned for their beliefs.

The report and forum began to draw people's attention to the previously taboo subject of conscientious objection, but also drew the attention of the Seoul Police, who started to investigate three antimilitarist websites which provided information on evading military service.

In December 2001, a pacifist and Buddhist, Oh Tae-yang, declared his objection to military service. The following February, for the first time in any conscientious objection case in South Korea, a court decided that he would be not imprisoned while awaiting trial. On June 2002 his trial was adjourned until after the decision of the Constitutional Court, but the case was reopened on 17 May 2004. On 30 August 2004 he was sentenced to 1 year and 6 months imprisonment, and arrested in court.

The reason that Oh Tae-yang's case took so long to go through the court system was that, due to the fact that he was not a Jehovah's Witness, he turned conscientious objection into a political stance as opposed to an expression of religious belief, which started the small but growing movement in Korea which has led in the past year to Supreme court decisions regarding its legality.

Anyone interested to learn more about the first two years of the movement (2001-2002) can find several articles in an archive on a Quaker website.

In February 2002, Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection was launched. It is now a coalition of 36 civil and social organisations.

March 2003 an international conference on conscientious objection to military service took place in Seoul, attracting more than 400 participants over two days. It was reported on here and here.

As a small handful of people began to declare conscientious objection, (a list of whom can be found here - scroll down), on November 21, 2003, Kang Cheol-min went a step further. At the end of his first leave, four months after beginning his military service, he held a press conference and declared his conscientious objection in protest against the deployment of Korean troops to Iraq.

He did so knowing that he could face a stiff punishment, for those who refuse to comply with conscription are tried by civil courts, which since 2001 have handed down sentences of up to 18 months of imprisonment for violating the Military Service Law. Those who refuse to participate in military training after being conscripted, however, are tried in a military criminal court for mutiny.

On the day of his press conference, he began a sit-in in the National Council of Churches in Seoul. A week later, after a second press conference, and during a march to the residence of the President of Korea, he was arrested. A court martial sentenced him to 2 years imprisonment on December 27, 2003, but the High Military Court reduced his sentence to 1 1/2 years in prison the following March. He went on hunger strike for 7 days on 22 June 2004, to protest against the dispatch of Korean troops to Iraq.

Early 2004 saw a report by Amnesty International about an objector who refused to perform his military service on grounds of discrimination against gay, bisexual and transsexual persons by the military, as well as a Korea Times article about a teacher who declared CO.

As the Chosun Ilbo and Korea Times reported, a Seoul court dropped a legal bombshell on May 21, 2004 when judge Lee Jeong-ryeol acquitted three Jehovah's Witnesses, upholding their religious conscience over compulsory military service. The Military Manpower Administration quickly announced that it did not acknowledge the right of refusal to serve in the military, while a week later the Chosun Ilbo bemoaned the inconsistency among the courts in dealing with the issue.

This inconsistency was resolved on July 15, when the Supreme Court upheld the decision of a lower court to prosecute a Jehovah's Witness for evading conscription, as reported by the Chosun Ilbo, Korea Times, and Joongang Ilbo. The court said in its ruling, “If national security is not protected because of the failure to serve the mandatory military service, the dignity and value of human beings cannot be guaranteed. One’s freedom of conscience does not take precedence over the obligation of national defense.” Despite this, one justice disagreed, and five others felt alternative service was necessary for conscientious objectors, something the Joongang Ilbo argued for in an editorial that day.

The Joongang Ilbo also posted an excellent article a few days later about Jehovah's Witnesses titled "Pacifists and Model Prisoners", while objectors were reported a few weeks later calling for alternative service. In October two objectors, Choi Myung-jin, 23, and Yoon Yeo-beom, 25, whose prison terms were upheld by the Supreme Court decision on July 15, announced they would take their case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, though comments made by their lawyer calling for an alternative system of service suggest this may have been done to put pressure on the government. At any rate, it was reported in March this year that a revision bill, submitted by a ruling party lawmaker, "aimed at allowing conscientious objectors an alternative to military service, mainly at social welfare facilities, for one and a half times longer than ordinary ones who serve in the military."

While this would seem to be good news, the Korea Herald reported two weeks ago that
a judge "sentenced a conscientious objector to one and a half years in prison, reversing a previous decision that upheld his right not to serve in the military for religious reasons." This of course refers to the May 21 decision of last year; apparently, that decision only gave him a one year reprieve.

The article continues, however:

Amid the uproar, on July 2, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea said it will hold a public hearing on the issue of conscientious objectors around the end of August. Experts have said it will put an end to the case-by-case rulings and establish a consistent policy on the issue.

The NHRC has collected documents and data on conscientious objectors since 2003, but it will be the first time for it to hold a hearing on the issue. It would request an official opinion of the Military Manpower Administration beforehand and present the hearing's result to the whole committee of the National Assembly, according to sources.
While there does seem to be more and more people agreeing that alternative service should be allowed, how exactly this will be carried out is the more pressing question. The process for determining whether someone is genuinely a conscientious objector or whether they simply don't want to have to do military service is going to be a contentious subject of debate. In the end, I do wonder if only Jehovah's Witnesses will be allowed to. When one considers that hundreds of Korean families give birth to children overseas every year so as to give them foreign citizenship in order to avoid military service, the abuse of an alternative service system isn't a possibility, but a certainty. What's also certain is that watching how different groups within the Korean government, parliament, and civil society go about negotiating a process for conscientious objectors to enter a space outside of the military and prison will be interesting - almost as interesting as the realization that five years ago this was an utterly taboo topic.

Here is a list of Korean conscientious objectors who were in prison as of the end of 2004.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Base Geopolitics?

There was a big protest at Camp Humphries in South Korea this weekend thats over the local and international news, and getting a lot of debate on blogs as well, and even between us here at two koreas because we didn't want to get caught up in some of the more sensational debate that usually comes with protests like these in the ROK. For those of you who don't know, some 7,000 demonstrators fought with about 10,000 police guarding the military camp which US forces are planning to expand. There were a number of injuries on both sides, but it was certainly the pictures and video of stick and pipe wielding students charging the gates and the riot police that got the media's attention, as well as some bloggers who likened the event to the storming of the bastile.

The reasons for the protest are complex and involve, primarily, the move of the U.S. military headquarters from Yongsan garrison in Seoul to Pyongtaek in the Northeast by 2008. The move is part of general plans for the US to consolidate bases and reduce the number of U.S. troops in Korea. This decision must appear, and is, certainly mundane to outside viewers, but when one peels back the layers, the situation grows more complex and touches upon conflicts and frayed nerves at a variety of levels.

First, there is certainly public and private pressure to get the troops out of the capital region. The land that they sit on is prime real estate in downtown Seoul and worth billions. Besides making some very rich, freeing up this land would help the city to expand parkland, build apartments, and perhaps expand some of the industrial capacity south of the base. There is also a cultural argument to be made, and I'm sure those of you who have been to the Itaewon area near the army base in Seoul may agree, that the area around the US army base feels like a colonial scar out of place in a more modern and independent Korea. Thus, moving the base out of sight to the rural northwest is certainly favored by many in the capitol region.

Now, compounding the issue is also the local dynamics around Pyeongtaek, whom the base is being dumped on in a classic case of uneven metropole/hinterland relations, combinging a mixture of both boosterism and NIMBYism. This issue has been well explored by South Korea's Ohmynews last summer and have been roughly summarized by the blog Marmot's hole who states that if you’re a Pyeongtaek resident, your opinion on the base transfer is pretty much a function of where exactly in Pyeongtaek you live.

"If you live on the 3.49 million pyeong of land in the northwest area of Paengseong-eup (near Camp Humphreys) that is scheduled to be transfered to the U.S. military, you’re pretty much opposed to the move. The real estate, which comprises the villages of Daechu-ri, Dodu-ri, Donchang-ni, Nae-ri and Shinnae-ri, is mostly agricultural and the farmers, many of whom have probably lived on the land for generations, are naturally pretty attached to their soil.

Residents in the southeast of Paengseong-eup, including commercialized Anjeong-ni, and other areas just outside the area to be taken over by USFK are mostly in favor of the move. In particular, the store owners in front of the main gate of Camp Humphreys are particularly high on the move, and for obvious reasons. Apparently, land speculators are on the prowl down there, too, so locals may be expecting a boost in property values, something that might figure into the motives of both those in favor and opposed to the expansion.

Anyway, the farmer folk are currently adamant in their opposition to the move — the [summer 2004] government’s explanation meeting ended ugly, and they [the farmers] are talking about protecting the land (and their livelihoods) with their lives. The first 240,000 pyeong of land from Daechu-ri is scheduled to be turned over to [Camp Humphries] by the end of this year, which obviously doesn’t give the locals a whole lot of time to adjust. The government had announced a plan to compensate the 740 some-odd families that will be forced to relocate, but given the opposition of the targeted families, either the compensation offered will have to be sweetened or the land will have to be taken by force, with very little time to play politics. Sucks for everyone involved."

Added to the mixture are a number of Korean activist groups, particularly the peace and unification movement and Hanchongneon, who would like to see the US leave Korea immediately in the short term (a minority activist view) in contrast to those who would rather see them leave more gradually after the issue with the North is resolved (the more moderate progressive view). Hanchongnyeon and other radical activists approach the US from, perhaps, an outmoded national liberation perspective, which sees the US as an overarching enemy (a position that underestimates the Korean capitalist class), and which is seen as a little too extreme by other sectors in the Korean left who have a more subtle perspective. However, for those activists from other anti-war, anti-empire, peasant, and citizen movements in South Korea, the relocation plans are still a pretty good opportunity to protest an unruly empire whom they are bitter at for several reasons.

One reason involves the unsightly elements of military camptown atmosphere such as prostitution and traficking in women which are organized parts of US-ROK relations (these issues are explored quite well in scholar Katherine Moon's book Sex Among Allies); though these issues are also only the tip of the iceberg in terms of domestic red-light districts, they nonetheless continue to draw legitimate protest in Korea and at US bases around the world and nearby in Okinawa, particularly by many opposed to Status of Forces Agreements and other forms of immunity from domestic law for soldiers that go with them.

Another source of resentment is a feeling by many South Koreans of being dragged into the war in Iraq. Korea's involvement in Iraq is widely seen as an attempt to encourage America to not worsen the situation with North Korea. President No Myu Hyun said as much when he said that the decision to send 3000 troops to Iraq was made solely out of the national interest (US support for or minimal opposition to the sunshine policy), and really not part of any principled desire to participate in the 'coalition of the willing.'

Finally, peasants affected by the land deal and from other areas in the country are also mobilized becuase they are already facing hardship in Korea due to the free trade agreements that Washington pushes and which regions with cheap agricultural products such as China, Chile, and California more accurately represent.

Thus, this weekends protest, rather than simply being solely an issue of outside students or chiliastic peasants, seems rather to be an implosion of several geopolitical, national and regional issues into a pretty visible display of discontent, for better or for worse.

Here's some media on the event here and here from an NGO. Finally for more pictures here, here, and here and some video here. Check here also for the Marmots hole's more recent coverage of the event.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Summer of discontent?

I haven't been making as many indepth posts as I would like to lately, so here is an attempt to summarize a few current issues and provide, hopefully, a tinge of analysis.

As covered below, the summer strike season is heating up. The FKTU, yesterday, pulled out from the government sponsored tripartite talks and held a one day strike demanding the resignation of the labour minister Kim Tae Hwan for not safeguarding conditions surrounding irregular workers sufficiently, nor preventing violence against striking workers, resulting, indirectly, in the death of FKTU regional head Kim Dae Wan at a picket line over a month ago -- see our story on it here.

FKTU President Lee Yong-deuk was quoted as saying "There is no more social dialogue... Labor Minister Kim Dae-hwan is the one that should be held responsible for the rupture between labor and government".


I've heard that labor minister Kim Tae Hwan used to be a consultant to the labour movement, so perhaps his inability to introduce progressive legislation speaks to either a change of heart or to some of the constraints the government faces under pressure from the large chaebol and other forces of global neoliberalism. After the 1997 crisis, the chaebol pressured the government, with the help of the IMF, to introduce labour market reform expanding the use of irregular and contingent workers to lower wages. The increase in the use of migrant labour since then can also be seen, indirectly, as a form of expansion of irregular work, because the status of migrants is precarious and their wages low.

Since the death of (the union leader) Kim Dae Wan, the FKTU, long regarded as a conservative union, has been mobilizing its members in protest of the government's policies. According to the Korean herald, thousands of workers affiliated with the Federation of Korean Trade Unions staged a one-day strike from 8 a.m. yesterday, culminating in a in a massive rally in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul.

Official and unofficial sources put the number of strikers and people in attendance at between 20,000 - 60,000.
The Herald reports that the FKTU represents over 820,000 workers, encompassing various industries. The last mass general strike they participated in took place in December 1996, lasting for 23 days with more than 260,000 participating.

Other labour action in recent days has included slowdowns taking place by the Korean Air pilots union and the Korean Federation of Hospital Workers' Unions' 33 000 members are set to strike for 24 hours on Friday.
Contracts are normally negotiated during the summer months in Korea making it a key strike period, other periods of worker activity are the anniversary of Jun Tae Il's death in November, and May Day, both are unofficial workers' holidays.

There was a short article here yesterday on migrant workers in the Choson. Apparently the Justice Department said Wednesday it repatriated some 59,276 illegal residents in the first half of the year, some 8,000 more than during the whole of last year. However, as of the end of June the number of foreigners staying illegally in the country had increased by 8,000 from late last year to 196,000. Just goes to show that the crackdown continues, ineffectively.

A great deal of this number is also from workers whose permits have expired but have chosen to overstay in order to continue working. The Equality Trade Union (ETU), years ago when trying to sit at the negotiating table over the new employment permit system, said that any system would have to be longer than three years because that is simply not enough time to repay the debts they incur to come to Korea, legally or illegally, through brokers, recruitment firms and so on.

It's hard to clearly get an idea of how much workers pay to come to Korea, but I've heard of it costing generally in the range of 5000-15,000 dollars, not including a number of other hidden costs that workers incur in Korea in addition to that. I'm not a policy maker but it seems to me that rather than repressing migrant's groups as they did to the ETU and now the MTU, they should have listened to them as they have much better knowledge of the conditions on the ground and motives for overstaying. Not much has changed though, seems that Anwar Hussain, leader of the Migrant's Trade Union (successor of the ETU) is still in detention for trying to organize migrants to have their voices heard (see our other stories about it here and here).

Finally, here are some pictures from the recent rallies, courtesy of the FKTU, enjoy!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Some labor news

From the Korea Herald:

Flurry of labor strikes looms this week

With umbrella labor groups campaigning to oust the government's labor policymaking lineup, Korea's seasonal
wave of strikes and boycotts, or the so-called summer strife, is expected to hit the nation this week, creating a flurry of labor unrest in key industries. Setting the stage for the July offensive, at the forefront was a group of hospital workers who voted overwhelmingly over the weekend to authorize a walkout for Friday.

The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union, representing about 40,000 workers at more than 100 hospitals nationwide, is demanding that individual hospital managements form a counterpart body to collectively negotiate with the trade union and implement the previously agreed measures such as new recruits for the five-day workweek system. Workers affiliated with the Korean Metal Workers Union are also gearing up for collective action, demanding a hike in minimum pay and irregular workers' right to organize. The union has earlier decided to stage 4-hour stoppages twice on Wednesday and Friday if no agreement is reached during the upcoming round of negotiations tomorrow.

Pilots at both the Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have threatened similar action in the near future. In what they say is a warning strike, unionized pilots at Asiana are set to stay away from their jobs for 24 hours from 1 a.m. Tuesday. All Asiana flights departing Incheon and Kimpo airports during the planned striking hours will have to be cancelled, union officials insisted. However, Korean Air union has decided not to join the stoppage but instead will carry out a work-to-rule campaign.

Pilots request to extend the retirement age from 55 to 59 and shorten the flight hours. Amid waves of labor unrest in major workplaces expected this week, the largest umbrella labor group of Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which called on its 820,000 members to join an indefinite general strike from Thursday, is pressuring the current administration to fire Labor Minister Kim Dae-hwan and other labor officials.

The second largest Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has joined FKTU on the campaign. At the core of the group's discontent is the government-pushed labor reform package which is deadlocked in the National Assembly and the tragic death last month of a labor leader during a rally for workers' rights. The FKTU strike is expected to be punctuated by several marches and rallies nationwide in which thousands or tens of thousands from all over the country are expected to turn up.