Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday's 'People's Uprising'

(Image from the Hankyoreh. Image Caption: President Roh Moo-hyun flies back to Korea, poring over plans for the "Roh Moo-hyun Memorial."On the ground below there are fires burning, namely "real estate," "unemployment," and "education." Near the destruction, you also see massive street protests. One is in opposition to a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. The other is a protest by part-time and contract workers calling for better legal protection.)

Wednesday's 'people's uprising' against the FTA, and its aftermath.

(Updated and re-edited: Sunday, November 26th)

Angry demonstrations spread across the Korean penninsula Wednesday as part of a large, broad-based campaign to oppose the current negotiations over the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and the general state of labour relations and foreign policy on the penninsula. Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of participants, it seems clear that around or over 100,000 participated. The groups organizing the day's events had promised that it would be a mini 'people's uprising'; while that term may be a bit exagerrated, one thing seems clear, the reaction from the government to the protests has been both reactive and punitive, with the result that public sentiment will most likely continue to boil on this issue until more conciliatory or progressive policies are implemented. What follows is an assessment of wednesday's event, its reaction, and some of the tensions that informed the turnout and which will continue to shape some of these social issues for the near future.

First off, it is hard to get an official number of participants as the police, unions, and media tend to give different estimates. But, based on these and other media accounts, lets say that there was roughly 100,000 workers on strike (gov. says 56,000, KCTU says over 150,000); in addition, police reported that 80,000 participated in rallies nationwide throughout the day, with some of the largest taking place in Seoul, Kwangju, and Taejon (where scuffles turned particularly bad), but also in smaller regions such as North Kyeongsang and Gangwon provinces where things protests were just as fierce. This number could probably be increased a bit if we take into account workers who participated in the walkout but did not join demonstrations. Also, police estimations tend to be a little conservative. Anyways, it seems that somewhere in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 people participated in the events. Though this may not be the 'people's uprising' that was promised, the turnout is very very significant compared to other anti-corporate/anti-capitalist globalization protests, especially in light of recent caimpaigns by other social movements here which have mobilized tens of thousands each month. In addition, on Saturday the conservative union federation, the FKTU, which did not participate in Wednesday's protests, had its own protest of 80,000 in downtown Seoul. By comparison, the 1999 Seattle protests against the WTO were more global in scope, had very little accompanying strikes, and still only brought out a similar number -- and with a long year of organizing ahead of time.

In the aftermath of Wednesday's protests, the government has banned all future protests by the coalition of 300 groups that organized them. In addition, it has declared that it will take action against the striking teachers who participated in the event by using their vacation to attend the protest, the government has summoned over 80 protest leaders and declared that arrest warrents will be issued for them if they do not voluntarily show up. These punitive measures in combination with the numerous amount of union organizers currently in jail speak to the breakdown of the government's involvement in labour relations, and, in fact, any contentious social issue that resonates strongly with civil society and social movements. This point is hammered home in a newly translated video released this week by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Labournet. The film documents the repression faced by female train attendants, civil servants, and construction workers trying to organize their own unions, in each case they met with overwhelming violence. Female workers are forcibly dragged from the station, construction workers are literally thrown off of cranes and beaten in the streets, civil servants are welded into their union offices. This is a shocking video to watch, and it makes one surprised that demonstrations are not all the more massive.

In spite of all this, organizers did vow to bring out a million people nationwide, and even by the most optimistic of accounts, these numbers failed to materialize. The following is an attempt to illustrate some of the tensions that may inform these struggles, and maybe provide some reasons why it has been difficult to get even more out on the streets. It should remembered, however, that in comparision to anti-corporate globalization movements elsewhere, Korean social movements are still quite far ahead of the game in their tendancy to mobilize thousands, repeatedly, and in the face of stiff repression. However, they face difficulty in consolidating the gains from this mobilization, and the following may provide some answers as to why, even though these issues only begin to scratch the tip of the iceberg.

1. Union density declining: Korea's unionization level is at 10 year low, making it harder to get people out on the street. Labour flexibilzation has proceeded apace since the 1997 crisis, and this is creating serious difficulties for the unions as these workers are sometimes harder to mobilize as they work longer, harder hours, and are quickly becoming disillusioned with labour politics. This is compounded with a rift between the two labour federations caused mainly by the conservative union federation's negotiation of tripartite agreement with the government and business without the consent or participation of the KCTU. This tripartite (or 2.5-ite) agreement included the suspension of union pluralism for three years, thus delaying union democracy in the workplace and protecting the FKTU from having to more effectivily work for its membership in order not to lose workers to the KCTU. Within the KCTU as well there is tension as to how to mobilize these workers and what the role of irregular workers and other precarious workers should be in the labour movement is creating some difficulties. One dissapointing fact about Wednesday' s protest, and the previous week's warning strike was the migrant labour labour issued did not seem to be addressed, given that migrant labour is partially mobilized within the KCTU, it was a shame that their issues were not given a more prominent position in the rallies.

2. Real Estate Meltdown: A huge distraction right now is the real estate bubble, a problem which the Uri government has admitted it can't solve, and which has many concerned. Even the central bank has stepped in on this issue late this week. However, in my opinion, the real-estate bubble is intimately connected to overall problem of neo-liberal restructuring in the Korean economy, especially the privatization of the banks and the selling-off of a number of them, either wholly or partially, to speculative capital -- something which is 'more neo-liberal than neo-liberalism' in that the regulations for owning banks have been more lax on regulation than in some of the anglo-american countries that neo-liberal policies are often modeled on. This policy explicitly favors foreign and speculative capital by limiting bank ownership by domestic corporations. This is compounded by a lack of investment in jobs and fixed assets, a problem which has created excess liquidity in the real estate sector because, in general, financial capital seeks out what the profitable, short term investment is, and in this case it is mortgage and consumer credit. There is a lot of speculation as to why things have turned out like this, with some pointing to a capital strike by domestic chaebol, while other have pointed predation by speculation foreign capital. Not only does the real estate bubble threatens to liquidate the savings of many, the developments that many have bought into have often favored the interests of developers over environmental and local residents concerns. In fact, this form of boosterism is often closely related to the way in which industrial development has often been pursued on the penninsula, outside of the regards of the people affected by it and who labour to make a living. In a sense, Wednesday's protests were not simply about who benefits from globalization and how, but about the way in which control has been forcibly wrestled from workers, residents, and the environment. As from some of the smaller, emergent activist groups who attented the protests, I'm sure how successfully the unions have dealt with presenting these issues of both production and consumption, of working and inhabiting, as such, but it seems there is room here for a broad social consensus.

3. The FTA versus 'neo-liberalism". Expanding on the last point, it seems that the FTA is only a moment in a larger process of neo-liberal restructuring. The nationalist inflection that some of the protests have had may, in the end, be an important catalyst in getting people to look at the wider issues, but it seems to me there are many examples of neoliberalism at home that also need to be addressed, the first is the restructuring of the financial system that I mentioned above, but there are many other sets of neoliberal policies that need to be considered. Continuing corporate governance restructuring in line with neo-liberal ideas about shareholder value certainly has consequences. That is not to say that the system should only benefit the chaebol instead but why not democratize the institutional structures that exist (a mixture of family-led conglomerates and an increased amount of foreign owned corporations) in a way that is conducive to many, and then figure out a way to increase investment in key sectors that will provide jobs, growth (and hopefully not environmentally destructive development), rather than re-modeling the market on an anglo-american model: indeed, corporate transparency may certainly minimize the back door influence of the domestic chaebol on politics, but stock-market capitalism is certainly not too reconcilable with economic democracy in the end. It's ironic, but it seems perhaps that a government that came to power from the democracy movement would be the one to improve the power of private capital.

4. Trade liberalization. Domestically focused forms of neoliberalism aside, bilateral trade agreements between South Korea and other countries, particularly the US but not limited to it as the South Korean government is now negotiating several agreements at the same time. At any rate, in terms of the Korea - US free trade agreement, the key issues here are are social security and agricultural production. Culture industries are important here too, but some of the problems they are facing are also stem from the financial restructuring outlined above. These are the core issues that are the real risks from the FTA. Farmers will lose big time, they simply can't compete with American agribusiness. The fact that the US got the Korean government to agree to keep certain drugs off their pricing system is also retrograde, and sets an eerie precedent for other bilateral trade agreements.

5. Expansion of irregular work and other forms of precarity. Neoliberal labour market restructuring is also huge issue here and it stems in part from the faulty financial restructuring in the sense that smaller firms have problems investing and keeping costs down, especially as the government has gotten out of industrial policy, and continues to do so even beyond the bounds, in some cases, of the countries it models its policies on. Thus, flexibilization here is perceived as a way to give industry a chance to save on costs, but it ends up benefiting the larger corporations and keeps the smaller ones in a race to the bottom. Actually, it should be mentioned that 'irregular' work, in the legal definition of the term is only one aspect of precarious employment relations. 'Irregular work' in the sense of lack of job security, democratic voice, and sketchy workplace standards has long been a feature of the Korean model and even persists today in many sectors. Note the myriad levels of subcontracting relations. You certain see this in the areas around Dongdaemun where small basement and attic sweatshops persist in the thousands, not just in the peace market area but north of the station as well. Many or most of them in the latter are owned by the women who work in them, so, in a sense they are not irregular workers, but their situations are often more precarious than the officially 'irregular' or contract workers we so often talk about.

Finding an appropriate tactic that can organize these workers, in addition to unionized workers as well as the myriad other subjects affected by neo-liberalism, or just plain capitalism, in South Korea seems quite an urgent chore at the moment. Especially if the large labour federations want the support of these people in the battle against the policies that effect them more directly such as labour repression and the labour relations roadmap.

6. Empire: or state making and war making in NE Asia. Not to sound obtuse, but the end of the cold war on the peninsula would certainly help in the sense of limiting the governments ability to continue conscripting young men to battle labour and social movements in the streets. There still is a militarization of protest policing on the peninsula which is a direct result of the survival of cold war militarism. Of course, there is also the influence of regional inter-state competition here as well, and this keeps tensions up, and thus provides an excuse for maintaining arms, but protest could probably progress much further if only the military presence (both foreign and domestic) here could be minimized. That way you wouldn't see military operations against elderly villagers in Daechuri (as happened last may to 'seal' the area to make way for base expansion) or ten thousand police in downtown Seoul every weekend in anticipation of the next protest.

Protests ongoing

The above is by no means conclusive, and there much more depth we can go into in terms of the many tensions informing the current forms of restructuring and the protests against them. Instead, it is better to conclude by stating that even in the midst of all these tensions, Wednesday's protests, while perhaps not a 'people's uprising' were still very significant, and, in some ways, an important example for other movements in the region. Not simply for the courage and determination of South Korea's social movements, but also for their resilence in the face of crackdown and repression. I think many hope that movements in the region and internationally will show the same level of resilence, and hopefully coordinate around many of these issues in the future. Now is certainly a time for solidarity, with the Seoul government banning future demonstrations by Korea's No to FTA coalition. Nonetheless, protests will continue with protests scheduled for this coming Wednesday and the next; with the government racheting up tensions, it seems that messy confrontations will also continue.

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