Monday, July 31, 2006

Korean Missle Crisis: New Materials

I haven't really covered much to date on the missle crisis, mostly because what is available in the mainstream media is easily accessible. However, today I glanced at the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy english site and noticed there were a bunch of statements. I'll link them here because we haven't much about the reaction from Northeast Asian civil society and social movement groups on the crisis in the media. I've attached two statements: one from a NE coalition and one from a coalition of Korean NGOs.

The PSPD site also has some older posts on Pyeontaek base expansion that are worth a read.

This statement was initiated by the Northeast Asian network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC-NEA):

Joint Statement*

Northeast Asian Citizens’ Call for a Peaceful Solution to the Missile Crisis

Click "view full post" to read the entire text.

We, citizens working for peace in Northeast Asia, express our deep concern over the recent missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though the DPRK claims the tests to be an “exercise of its legitimate right as a sovereign state,” they can only increase military tension on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and will provoke a regional arms race. The tests run counter to the commitment to “joint efforts for lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia” declared in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of Six-Party Talks in September 2005.

We recognize that US policy regarding the DPRK, including maintained military pressure and a refusal to engage in bilateral talks, contributed to the DPRK’s act of brinkmanship. Pressure or sanctions will not bring about a solution to the nuclear and missile crisis. Only dialogue in good faith can bring a peaceful solution to the current crisis.

We call on the governments and peoples in the region as follows:

1. We call upon DPRK to refrain from any further missile launch and make efforts to hold dialogue in good faith with the governments concerned, including at the upcoming North-South Ministerial Talks.

2. We urge the region’s governments to pursue negotiations on the basis of the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks. The US should hold immediate bilateral talks with the DPRK. Japan should continue its talks based on the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, avoiding mention of possible preemptive strikes or other military responses. The UN Security Council must not focus on punitive measures, but rather on promoting the governmental dialogue and consultation.

3. We call on the governments to bear in mind the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, exercise restraint, and avoid any action that may further intensify and complicate the situation. We call on all governments concerned not to strengthen the military power on the pretext of the missile launch. Developing and deploying missile defense systems are counterproductive as they can accelerate arms race and increase missile tension in the region.

4. We reiterate our belief that people-to-people mutual support is vital to build peace in the region. Humanitarian support to the DPRK should be continued. We oppose any sanctions that would threaten the lives of the DPRK’s people. We urge the media to refrain from any exaggerated reports on the North Korean threat that promote hostile sentiment among peoples, and encourage it to focus on peoples’ initiatives to end this crisis.

5. We urge the governments of Northeast Asia to take serious steps to develop an inclusive, sub-regional mechanism for consultations on issues of common security concern

July 11, 2006

Signatories** (As of July 11, 2006)

AU Pak Kuen (Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, Hong Kong)
CHEN Huaifan (Chinese People's Association for Peace and Disarmament, Beijing)
Ya Han CHUANG (Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, Taipei)
ENKHSAIKHAN Jargalsaikhan (Blue Banner, Mongolia)
Vadim GAPONENKO (Maritime State University, Vladivostok)
JUNG Gyung Lan (Director, Center for Peaceful Future of Korea, Women Making Peace, Seoul)
KAWASAKI Akira (Peace Boat, Tokyo)
KIM Jeong Soo (Representative, Women Making Peace, Seoul)
Anselmo LEE (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Bangkok)
LEE Mihwa (Secretary General, Nonviolent Peaceforce Corea, Seoul)
Kathy MATSUI (Global Citizenship Dept., Seisen University, Tokyo)
Gus MICLAT (Initiatives for International Dialogue, Manila)
PARK Joon S. (Co-chairperson, Nonviolent Peaceforce Corea, Seoul)
PARK Sun Song (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Seoul)
PARK Sung Yong (Co-chairperson, Nonviolent Peaceforce Corea, Seoul)
SASAMOTO Jun (Japanese lawyers International Solidarity Association (JALISA), Tokyo)
Philip YANG (Taiwan Security Research Center, National Taiwan University, Taipei)
YOSHIOKA Tatsuya (Director, Peace Boat / Northeast Asian Regional Initiator, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, Tokyo)

* This statement was initiated by the Northeast Asian network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC-NEA) and made open to signatures by all.
** Affiliation in bracket is for identification purpose only.

Statement from Korean NGOs on North Korea's Missle Launch

North Korea pushed forward with their missile launch last week. Other nations such as South Korea, the U.S., and Japan reacted by taking a hard-line approach. As a result, these actions immediately complicated the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

We express regret that despite concerns from South Korea and the international community, North Korea proceeded with missile tests. It is not yet clear whether the missile firing was utilized as a North Korean 'diplomatic strategy' to press the U.S. into direct negotiations, or used as a 'military deterrent' in response to military threats from the U.S. Whatever North Korea’s intentions, missile launches were an unwise action which raised the security stakes on the Korean Peninsula while also increasing leverage of hawks in Washington and Tokyo.

We are also deeply worried with the adoption of a hard-line response, both domestically and internationally, towards North Korea. President Bush ceased negotiations regarding North Korea's missiles as soon as he took office. Moreover, the Bush Administration has ignored North Korea and maintained a strategy based on military threats against the North. Therefore, the U.S. government cannot avoid blame for this recent unfortunate event. The Japanese government should also be blamed for keeping its long-time hard-line approach toward North Korea since the Pyeongyang Declaration in September 2002. Lastly, the South Korean government has not promoted military trust-building, nor done enough to create a more favorable atmosphere between the two Koreas. South Korea accepted the U.S. military’s 'Strategic Flexibility', conceded to U.S. hegemony by partially attending 'Proliferation Security Initiative', and dramatically built up its military forces.

We also find it problematic that domestic politics and the media define the North Korean missile launches as a failure of South Korea's 'engagement policy' and initiate a hard-line approach toward the North. The current North Korean missile launch crisis is the result of the U.S. government's hard-line policy and North Korea's improper response to it.

Given these circumstances, we call on other nations to solve today's crisis in a wise manner, and work towards creating a peaceful atmosphere. Below, we list our following demands:

First, North Korea should immediately give up its belligerent rhetoric. Stating "more tests are on the way" only provokes the crisis, and creates an unfavorable atmosphere for negotiations. Moreover, it should show its willingness to cover comprehensive issues on the Korean Peninsula including the missile issue at the upcoming inter-Korean ministerial talks scheduled for July 11.

Second, it has already been proven that the U.S. policy based on sanctions and pressure is unable to resolve North Korean nuclear and missile problems. Therefore, the U.S. government should return to the negotiating table with North Korea and show respect for North Korea's own sovereignty. We are opposed to sanctions against North Korea, whether unilaterally from the U.S., or through a UN resolution, which will only deteriorate the current crisis. Moreover, we urge the U.S. to actively participate in any form of talks with North Korea.

Third, the Japanese government should reverse its tough stance against North Korea. For example, it should reverse its decision to block the entry of the North Korean cargo vessel ManKyungBong and its sponsorship of U.N. sanctions against the North. In addition, Japan should actively take part in talks with North Korea to resolve the Japanese kidnapping issue, and resume normal DPRK-Japan diplomatic relations. As Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had suggested prior to the nuclear crisis, the Japanese government should offer to play the role of mediator between the U.S. and North Korea to foster trust and the improvement of relations.

Fourth, the South Korean government should retract its decision to suspend humanitarian assistance to the North, including rice and fertilizer shipments, and should keep economic assistance and cooperation intact. Any intention to induce changes in North Korean policy through sanctions and coercion are in violation of the basic principles of an ‘engagement policy’, and reduces the opportunities for South Korea’s involvement, thereby adversely affecting inter-Korea relations. The South Korean government should see the firing of missiles as an opportunity to take more of a lead role in resolving North Korean issues.

Fifth, the international community, including the six-party talk participants, should incorporate six-party talks with parallel bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The U.S. held bilateral talks with all other 6 party members except North Korea. The United States’ refusal to hold direct talks with the North raises suspicion whether the U.S. really has any intention in solving problems with North Korea. In order to resume the six-party talks and achieve success, we believe the U.S. and North Korea must exchange their concerns and break their state of distrust through direct talks.

Finally, we like to make an earnest request to our people, media, and politicians. It is certain that the North Korean missile launches have a negative impact on South Korea’s economy and security. However, this is not a consequence of South Korea’s 'engagement policy', but a result of North Korea’s improper reaction towards a U.S.-backed hard-line policy. In that sense, South Korean politicians and media should not take a tougher policy approach towards the North

We reiterate our concerns over the North Korean missile launches and urge other nations, including South Korea, to turn the possible ‘crisis’ caused by the missile tests into an ‘opportunity’.

2006. 7. 10

Korea Youth Corps, Green Korea United, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Civil Network for a Peaceful Korea, Korea Women's Associations United, Women Making Peace, National Council of YMCAs of KOREA, Korean Federation for Environmental Movement

A victory against the proliferation of irregular work?

I'm not sure hat the full implications of this might be, but it seems that the government has made an announcment saying it would regularize 320,000 public workers.

[Aug 9th: UPDATE: Make that, officially, 54,000: here's the link to a Hankyoreh article on the topic]

Now this is quite signficant because (1) the government employee's union (remember in Korea there is a distinction between public employee's and civil servants in terms of status) has remained illegal and faces a lot of persecution for advocating for rights -- you may remember that I mentioned the seizure of public employees assets for illegal strikes in a 2005 article I wrote here (this doesn't mean that this work will stop as this agreement says nothing about the basic labour rights of government employees--see this statement of solidarity within public sector here); and (2) it sets a precident for private employers.

Now, I'm going to keep the question mark in the title above because I'm really not sure how this will be implemented and what the union response is and/or will be. I'll keep you posted though. For now, it seems interesting. I might even add that it could help some of Korea's economic woes by increasing domestic demand. Not sure what the effects will be in manufacturing though, as far as I know this form of demand stimulation does help the economy turn over but still leaves other long term prospects up for grabs. Readers are invited to whey in with their own opinions. Below I'll reprint the press realease from the Korean International Labour Foundation (KOILAF).

Agree[ment] on Granting Regular Worker’s Status to 320,000 Non-regular Workers in Public Sector

Comprehensive Measures to be announced in August … 200 billion won to be reflected in the next year budget

The government and the ruling Uri Party agreed on July 24th , 2006 to hire non-regular workers of public sector who work full-time on a regular basis as regular employees.

According to a news report from Labor Today on 25th, the government and the ruling Uri Party held a labor policy consultation with attendance of Kim Han-gil, floor leader and Lee Sang-soo, Labor Minister in the National Assembly, and agreed to come up with comprehensive measures regarding non-regular workers in August in order to make an example for private companies by preventing exploitation of 320,000 non-regular workers in public sector and eliminating discrimination sustained by non-regular workers.

On that day, the government reported the result of a comprehensive survey of the utilization and treatment for non-regular workers in public sector, which was conducted during the first half of this year. The governing Uri Party concluded that not many irregular workers were used in professional areas whereas many were used on a full-time and regular basis, and discrimination existed in terms of wage and welfare, and outsourcing service contracts fell far short of the market standard.

The government and Uri Party agreed to develop regulations with regard to utilization of non-regular workers to use as a guideline for reasonable workforce operation. In particular, the Party urged the government to △ make it mandatory for public organizations to hire non-regular workers who work full-time on a regular basis as regular employees △ eliminate discrimination in accordance with a bill of non-regular workers which is pending in the parliamentary Legislation and Judiciary Committee △ correct illegal use of non-regular workers or unreasonable employment contract with low wage, if any.

Officials expected that the comprehensive plan would cost the government and state-run entities an additional 200 billion won annually, and agreed to reflect it in the next year budget. To handle this matter, an inter-ministerial body will soon be established.

Rep. Je Jong-geel, chairman of a committee on social policies at the Uri Party, said in a briefing after the meeting, “the government will come up with a comprehensive plan by August. Some contract workers serving in ‘essential’ positions will be rehired as regular employees, and discrimination in wage and working conditions will be removed. As the first step, efforts will be made to grant regular job status to about 70% of non-regular workers.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

POSCO strike over, union leaders under arrest

Well, the irregular worker strike is over at POSCO for the moment. There were some last minute negotiations and the union left without being attacked, it seems. However, the government is now going after the leadership. Here is an update from the Hankyoreh:

Warrant sought for striking construction workers
Union members occupied company office for over a week

Arrest warrants were sought for members of the Pohang construction workers’ union who occupied the local headquarters of Posco, a major South Korean steel manufacturer, for more than a week.

On July 23, local police in North Gyeongsang Province asked a court to issue arrest warrants for 58 union leaders, including Lee Ji-kyung, 39, head of the Pohang construction union, and a 45-year-old official of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, only identified as his surname Kim. The charges range from assault to interfering with business.

In addition, police were investigating without detention a total of 79 union members on the same charges, and are looking for four leaders of the Pohang construction union, including a 40-year-old deputy leader of the union, only identified as Ji.

The four union leaders "are suspected of illegally occupying Posco headquarters since the afternoon of July 13 and interfering with the company’s operations while destroying office materials," police said. The union ended their occupation on July 21.

The number of those who will face charges is expected to rise as police plan to summon about 2,400 union workers who have since returned home as "simple participants" in the activities.

Meanwhile, Posco plans to resume operations at its headquarters from July 24 after completing a large-scale cleanup of the building by July 23.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

You gotta love South Korean labour relations

Here's a quick story that has kept flasing on the news the last few days. Subcontractors unions have occupied the POSCO headquarters in Pohang as management has hired scabs. The South Korean state, rather than pondering why it's labour policies seem to be generating protest after protest each week, decided to send in the troops (in this case the 1001 riot police force -- the scary ones). The scenes on TV look fairly medieval. Apparently the workers are still there though as they blockaded themselves on the roof and in the upper floors.

From the Hangyoreh:

Police enter POSCO to disperse striking workers

Police infiltrated the main office of POSCO, the world's fifth-largest steelmaker, on Saturday to disperse about 2,000 unionists from its subcontractors who had entered the third day of a sit-in strike there.

The joint union of several construction companies in Pohang, all of which are POSCO's subcontractors, have occupied the steelmaker's head office since Thursday, claiming POSCO
has obstructed their legal labor action, such as a demand for a pay raise, by requesting police involvement and providing substitute workers to their companies. The sit-in has so far incurred an estimated loss of 100 billion won (US$104.9 million) for POSCO.

The unionized workers went on strike at the end of last month after their wage negotiations were stopped. Police mobilized some 6,900 troops before dawn to remove barricades set up by
the unionists and made their way into the building, which was occupied by unionists. After arresting several unionists on the first and second floors, police are confronting the remaining strikers on the upper floors and rooftop of the building.

The police said they are trying to persuade them to disperse voluntarily, saying force is their last option.

However, clashes between police and unionists are likely to take place later, as a growing number of policemen with clubs have arrived around the building, apparently for a full-scale operation to crack down on them.

Pohang, July 15 (Yonhap News)

Friday, July 14, 2006

FTA talks bogged down?

There are a few stories in the media about a possible bogging down of the FTA talks. I wouldn't deny that this is happening, but I would certainly not get rosy as to either their collapse or an alternative arrangement springing forth. Much of the disagreement is over pharmaceuticals, the stance of the US on which is kinda scary. It is really opposed to a new drug pricing system (which most civilized countries have) and continues to boycott meetings over this issue. One American magazine has said this is dangerous not just for Koreans but for Americans too because it is trying to set new global norms that will eventually make medicines more expensive for Americans too because they are pressuring other countries to raise the prices. For more on this issue see James Love's story at the Huffington Post. There's a great overall account of this issue and other negotiating points at the Hankyoreh. For shorter story on the snags from the Korea Times, click the link.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Korea-US FTA protest photos at gomediaction

Gomediaction seems to have a great english post of photos on their site. Also a map where some of the protests occurred. Here's the link. VoP has lots of other photos too, from some of the other areas of confrontation around city hall, anguk station and nearer the blue house. CINA has used some of these in his report in English.

Kotaji's report on Korea-US FTA protests

Kotaji has prepared a post on yesterday's protest which I'll reprint here as it saves me a bit of time and you can get the general impression. I'll post the photos when I get them though. -J

From the frontlines

This post is also over at the Tomb.

The battle against neo-liberal globalisation brought Seoul to a halt today
as at least 60,000 people came out onto the streets in the pouring rain
to protest against the current round of FTA talks between the US and
South Korea. Reports here and here.

Seoul anti-FTA 3

Got some firsthand impressions of the action from Jamie who seems to have been a little closer to the frontlines than I would probably have been:

…not exactly sure [how many were there], a lot of people though. Four simultaneous rallies: City Hall, Seoul Station, and two other locations… so wet… rain, plus water cannon and tear gas were used… got stuck in a stampede, cops must have charged 8 meters, anyway we were too close to the action so got a small cloud [of gas], but it was just vinegar smelling, did nothing.

Seoul anti-FTA 1

So, the protest marched to Kwanghwamun [near the US Embassy], fought the buses, then we made our way up to a back alley, and, surprisingly, were able to burst out and occupy the main street, the student groups kept on running to get to the Blue House [presidential residence], got about 800 feet away from Kwanghwamun but were blocked too much, went back, ended the thing in front of the US embassy…

[I’m still] trying to figure out what this localized gas was, there was some water cannon too when people were fighting the buses… they nearly killed some kids moving a bus to block the road when the crowd burst out the side street, they stopped the bus though, shoving lots of bamboo poles at the driver through the window, must have hurt.

People were able to seize some riot shields too… man people were wet, everyone had a rain poncho…
If you want to read Jamie in a more analytical frame of mind check out his piece on Korean Neo-liberalism and Empire at ZNet. There is another eye-witness report here, while over at Frog in a Well, Pak Noja posted some thoughts on the economics of Korean agriculture and what liberalisation means for Korean farmers.

Seoul anti-FTA 4

Parking Korean babylon style.

The Korean union federation (KCTU) is apparently planning big strikes over the FTA in November, so watch this space.

What a wet day!

Despite record rainfall, thousands of protestors came out to protest the HanMi FTA (or Korea-US FTA depending on what language you use). Anyways, I'm still drying off, but I'll post some pictures of the event in the coming day or so.

In the meantime here is a report from yonhap.

Tens of thousands rally in Seoul despite rain

Despite torrential rains, tens of thousands of South Korean activists and farmers staged anti-U.S. rallies Wednesday, denouncing their government's free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with Washington as a form of "U.S. economic colonialism."

About 70,000 anti-globalization protesters gathered in front of Seoul City Hall after holding separate demonstrations across the capital, said officials at the Korean Alliance against Korea-U.S. FTA, an association of anti-FTA civic groups in South Korea.

Police estimated the number of protesters at 37,000.

Police said they deployed more than 20,000 riot police to prevent the rallies from turning violent, but there were no immediate reports of injuries and arrests, police officers said.

The protesters plan to march towards the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae later Wednesday, raising concern over possible clashes with riot police.

During the rally near the city hall, the protesters, clad in raincoats, chanted anti-American slogans such as "We oppose U.S. economic colonialism." They also held pickets which read, "The FTA is handing over our entire economy to the U.S." and "The economic invasion. War threats. The U.S. is an axis of evil."

South Korean farmers, laborers and activists have conducted anti-FTA demonstrations since Monday, when South Korea and the U.S. opened their second round of FTA talks in Seoul with the aim of signing a deal by early next year. The protesters say the FTA would threaten their livelihood.

The afternoon rally snarled traffic in central Seoul, and is expected to cause further congestion during the evening rush hours as heavy rains battered the Seoul metropolitan area.

Seoul received nearly 200 millimeters of rain as of 3 p.m. and weather officials forecast the downpour would continue until Thursday morning.

In a related development, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a major umbrella trade union, implemented a six-hour strike Wednesday to protest the ongoing trade liberalization talks.

The labor union claimed 170,000 union members participated in the walkout but police put the number at 74,000.

A group of U.S. labor activists have also been participating in the anti-FTA rallies in South Korea.

"The gap between the rich and the poor has increased in every country that has concluded a free trade agreement with the U.S."

said Jeff Vogt, policy director for the AFL-CIO, at a press conference. "It logically follows how it will happen in Korea."

Not all South Koreans oppose the FTA talks. About 300 pro-business activists rallied Wednesday to support the government's move to sign the trade deal.

This week's trade talks are to continue until Friday. The first round was held in Washington last month.

Seoul, July 12 (Yonhap News)

One more thing... Here's a good story that details more the unequal fta negotions over medicine and medical patents, creepy.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Korean Neoliberalism and Empire

My take on the Kor-US FTA negotiations and protests... Over at ZNET for July 11th.

Korean Neo-liberalism and Empire: South Korean social movements struggle against Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

July 10, 2006

Anti-corporate globalization protests are scheduled in Korea this week as part of larger efforts by Korean social movements to confront the effects of neo-liberalism on the Korean economy and society. The protests are in response to the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KorUS FTA) talks that are coming to Seoul this week after a first round of negotiations in Washington in June. This round of negotiations will take place between June 10-14th.

Korean groups are mobilizing here against what they see not only as an unequal negotiating framework between the US and Korea, but also against growing social polarization in the wake of escalating market reforms since the 1997 financial crisis.
Protests have continued for months but will swell this week with a protest of 100,000 planned for Wednesday, June 12th in front of the Silla Hotel in downtown Seoul where the negotiations are being held.

Going Bilateral

These protests add to a trajectory of dissent against neo-liberalism in East Asia that has been growing steadily in recent years. In November and December 2005, Korean farmers played a pivotal role in organizing against the APEC and WTO summits that were held that year in Busan, South Korea and in Hong Kong. These protests continued a tendency to confront capital by protesting it as it organizes regionally and globally, but the present moment seems to indicate that in East Asia, capital seems to be adopting a new strategy of going bilateral.

Since 1999, however, the WTO has faced difficulty in its negotiations over a generalized framework, both because of the increasing public criticism it received since the 1999 Seattle protests, and from the resistance it has met internally from developing countries, as well as powerful countries in the North that defend their own agricultural subsidies while seeking to open agricultural markets in the South.

Instead of new general agreements, the US and other countries in particular, including South Korea, have been negotiating bilateral agreements in recent years. These situations often pit smaller countries against bigger ones that have the state capacity to generate stronger concessions bilaterally than they may have through a multilateral negotiating framework in which poorer countries have been able to rally together on key issues and where anti-corporate globalization activists have been able to mount strong public criticism.

As a host of these bilateral trade agreements are being negotiated simultaneously, it becomes difficult for social movement groups to keep pace with the negotiation areas of each agreement, and thereby raise an effective counter-movement. Nonetheless, bilateral agreements also raise the possibility for new forms of solidarity and social protest as it presents activists with the challenge of effectively linking to groups affected by the negotiations and by neo-liberalism in general.

Kor-US FTA: Advance concessions and continuing negotiations

The key issue in the KorUS FTA negotiations this session will be the opening of the Korean rice market as well as the market on other agricultural foodstuffs such as beef, seafood and produce. This issue in particular has upset many Korea farmers as South Korea has been gradually increasing its quotas for foreign grown rice over the past few years. These farmers have responded that their small-scale plots cannot compete with the industrial agriculture found in regions such as California. In the fall two farmers killed themselves by drinking pesticide in protest to the governments passing of a rice quota increase while another two died as a result of wounds incurred from police during a protest outside the national assembly on November 15th.

Farmers have not been the only ones affected by preparatory restructuring in advance of the current FTA negotiations. South Korea’s ‘Screen Quota” policy which has been a boon for its domestic film industry was lowered previous to the May negotiations, prompting protests by several Korean A-list actors. After the announcement of the reduction of the Screen Quota this winter, actors and other entertainment industry professionals allied with Korean farmers in what they proclaimed as a common fight against further liberalization.

Though Korea has also made advance concessions in these and other areas, such as pharmaceutical drug pricing and communications policy, it appears to be fighting an uphill battle to get recognition on two of its key goals: recognition for products manufactured in its joint-industrial zone with North Korea, and a commitment on US visas for 5000 Korean professionals per year. The Korean delegation made little success in these areas in the June negotiations and they will remain on the back burner for the current session. This leaves perhaps automobiles as the only main area left in which it the Korean delegation may be generally successful.

State Power and Public Opinion

A common feature of free trade agreements from NAFTA to the WTO has been to use executive power to fast track negotiations and to keep such agreements from being thoroughly debated in the public sphere. South Korea’s president has sworn that it is his personal mission to get this FTA completed before his term is up in 2008 and President Bush is eager to complete the agreement (the largest for the US since NAFTA) before his fast-track negotiation authority is up in mid-2007. To this end, both countries have attempted to downplay opposition and the South Korean government has promised to deal sternly with any violent demonstrations.

Yet South Korean civil society and media have reported that opposition to the FTA is not a marginal phenomenon and that a majority the population would like the negotiations to be slowed down, if not stopped altogether. An editorial in the Hangyoreh newspaper on July 8th argued that the government has misunderstood public opposition to the FTA and risks generating further opposition if it does not listen to public opinion:

“Opposition to the FTA does not merely encompass a small part of the population. A recent opinion poll showed that 52 percent of the public thinks the signing of the FTA will harm the nation and up to 90 percent said the pace of FTA negotiations should be slowed. The government cannot persuade the people with abstract rhetoric that the nation’s social systems and international competitiveness will be enhanced, nor can it persuade them by gathering data favorable to its stance. The government did not disclose publicly the results of the first round of negotiations. Under such circumstances, it is public deception for the government to say that it would "collect opinions from every walk of life" and reflect those opinions at the negotiating table [1].”

In addition to fast track negotiation and the refusal of public disclosure, a key feature of neo-liberal restructuring in Korea has been the use of state power to limit the rights of workers by expanding irregular employment and limiting the right to strike for government and temporary employees (many of whom are de-facto permanent workers). These displays of state power, though not directly reducible to individual agreements, correspond to overall trajectories of neo-liberal labour market reform and have generated strong protest from Korea’s labour movements, including both its corporatist and more radical elements.

Growing Financial Hegemony

South Korean social movements have reason to advocate caution as to the signing of any new major agreement that may open its market to increased capital and product flows as happened in the wake of the 1997 crisis, especially by making agreements that would expand trade and ownership in key services such as finance. Private capital, especially finance capital, has been increasing its influence over the Korean economy as of late, and this has also led to problems of capital outflow and increased social polarization.

The restructuring following the 1997 crisis included the partial liberalization of the banking sector and the selling off other Korean assets. This restructuring has benefited both domestic and foreign capitalists. In recent months, Korea posted a monthly current account deficit that was the biggest in the 9 years since the crisis. According to a Korea Times article in May, the central bank attributed the deficit to a dividends payout to foreign investors, which amounted to $2.28 billion for April [2].

The financial sector has also faced capital outflow due to predation by short term foreign capital such as the Texas-based Lonestar hedge fund, which, in the wake of financial restructuring after 1997, bought the Korean Exchange Bank for $US 1.2 billion and has announced plans to sell it for 6.7 billion, prompting an investigation by South Korea’s regulator into the deflation of asset values before the purchase and the use of tax havens to minimize tax obligations. This controversy has implicated both the foreign firm that bought the bank and the domestic law firm that negotiated the deal.

Since the 1997 crisis, finance has continued to be diverted away from production towards real estate and consumer credit, fuelling a property bubble that has the government worried about a Japan-style recession. However, restructuring has left government also potentially divorced from any effective means of preventing speculation as the discipline over financial resources needed to stop it has became eroded as sectors of banking and financial industries were internationalized. In other words, the government may no longer be able to fall back on its ‘developmental’ model of long-term industrial finance by leaning on the banks to support a highly leveraged industrial sector, leading to increased unemployment and pressure by the private sector to reduce wages by expanding irregular workers and limiting their rights.

Furthermore, those corporations with revenue large enough to weather the crisis are no longer dependent on the state to underwrite their bad loans, and have the increased autonomy to move jobs overseas.

Korean neo-liberalism and the politics of empire

Though the growing hegemony of finance capital may be a feature of neo-liberalism that is not distinct to the Korean case, the ways in which economic liberalization intersects with the politics of empire on the peninsular gives Korean neo-liberalism a distinct topography. Here finance, trade, and sovereignty are interwoven in a delicate balance by political forces seeking democracy and re-unification on the peninsula in the midst of the US War on Terror.

The authors of a recent manifesto by the Suyu Research Group entitled The Twilight of Empire suggest that Korea’s participation in the empire, from Iraq to Pyeongtaek, as well as the concessions made on the Kor-US FTA have come at too high of a price. They come at the cost of neglecting social polarization and environment destruction at home, and have unwittingly begun to employ nationalism to silence dissent. The authors pose this problem as a problem for the whole of society, one that has been overlooked in pursuit of development and delayed in the era of political democracy.

“The U.S.-South Korea FTA, which seems to have taken us by surprise, has been tailing the young, the disabled, women, migrant workers, non-regular workers, and all the creatures of the tidal flats [that have been redeveloped in the Saemangum Reclamation Project] for a much longer time, under the guise of GDP, market competition, neo-liberalism, and the calculation of economic profits. We must realize that our society has encouraged or neglected the exploitation of these minorities. The unimaginable scale and intensity of disaster that the U.S.-South Korea FTA entails will be the messenger that will inform us that the pain of those minorities that we have overlooked can become our own” [3].

The authors of the manifesto advocate that the struggle against the FTA should start not from the nation, but from the minorities, the masses, and the multitude that they describe above. This is a valid point that needs to be stressed over and over. However, the Kor-US FTA may also be a key moment in determining how far those democracy activists that have become part of the state may be able to expand democratization into the economic sphere while avoiding the twin perils of empire and neo-liberalism. This is a crucial question, the success of which will surely depend on the outcome of the protests taking place outside of the state that will be escalating in Seoul all this week.

[1] The Hangyoreh. [Editorial] Nation faced with split due to free trade agreement. July 8, 2006. (

[2] Korea Times. Current Account Deficit Biggest in Nine Years. May 26, 2006. (

[3] Manifesto from the Suyu Research Institute on the S.Korea-USA FTA plans - The Twilight of Empire? Posted at ( -from-the-suyu-research-institute-on-the-skorea-usa-fta-plans-the-twilight-of-empire/).
May 12, 2006.

Monday, July 03, 2006

One Big Union?

Here's a story from the Hangyoreh on the recent vote to create an industry union among auto workers. I especially like the last line of the story, and am curious to see how things pan out because of it.

Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia company unions vote to industrialize: move means membership in large scale groups, more leverage

The company-based labor unions of Hyundai Motors Corp., GM Daewoo Auto & Technology, and Kia Motors, known as some of the strongest company-wide unions in South Korea, chose to be absorbed into some of the nation’s larger industrial unions.

The Federation of Korean Metal Workers Trade Unions, under the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, said that out of 39,966 unionized workers at Hyundai Motor participating in voting yesterday, 71.5 percent supported becoming part of the federation, one of Korea’s largest industrialized unions. To transition into an industrialized union, more than two-thirds of unionized workers must back the action.

Along with the Hyundai Motors Corp. union, the 9,000-member union of GM Daewoo and 10,000-strong union of Kia Motors also voted to become part of industrialized unions. Other unions, such as those at Doowon Precision Mechanics, Jinkwang ENC, and Daewoo Automobile Sales followed suit. Under the current wave of support, the Federation of Korean Metal Workers Trade Unions has swelled to more than 100,000 members.

“The move is meaningful because it has paved the way for the unions to strengthen their alliance in resolving labor problems beyond company walls, and in narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots,” said Lee Soo-bong, a spokesman at the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions.

However, Lee Dong-ung, senior vice president of the Korea Employers Federation, raised concern that the move may spark harsher labor-management relations. “Damages will occur due to repetitive negotiations, strikes, and other work stoppages,” Lee said.

Labor circles expect the move to prompt other company-based labor unions to pick up speed in switching over to an industrialized union.

Park Yoo-sun, planning director of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, said, “By October or November this year, more agreements will be made by confederations to switch to an industrialized union.”

By 2008, the industrialized unions will be integrated into four to five bigger industrialized unions, Park said.

The move is expected to bring big changes to labor negotiations between union and company management, allowing each labor union to raise questions about the industry’s overall problems. In addition, temporary workers, who have not been allowed membership in most company-wide labor unions, will be accorded the rights of union members.