Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Verbal sparring

There are two big brawls going on right now in the Korean political arena. One is between the president and others in the progressive camp, the other is between presidential hopefuls in the conservative camp.

In one corner, a customer tries out the brand-new coat called the "flexible progressive," produced by the president in his rebuttal to some progressives’ calling him neoliberalist. She is unsure how it is different from all of the past products. Next door, behind the "self-declared moderate" coat, former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak and the former chair of the Grand National Party (GNP) Park Geun-hye engage in vicious smear campaigns to vie for the GNP’s nomination. (Hankyoreh, 2007)

Here's the link to a story about the recent exchanges between the Roh Moo Hyun and different progressive camps. Roh has recently accused progressives of not being 'flexible' enough when it comes to neoliberal reform. In the excepts from this exchange published in the Hankyoreh, you can see that members of the KDLP do quite a good job at unpacking Roh's vocabulary.

The exchange between Pres. Roh and a KDLP representative is particularly quote-worthy:
If the President continues to label himself as a flexible progressive while accepting the current "flexibility" of the labor market or the strategic flexibility plan for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, it means that Korean collaborators with the Japanese during the colonial period were actually ‘flexible nationalists,’ more so than the independence activists at the time, the lawmaker said.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Yeosu Fire Update

Mr. Delay in Making Wage Payments, Mr. Beatings, and Mr. Safety Problems at Detention Centers are in shock at the death of "Korea as a Country that Respects Human Rights," which is survived by a foreign worker who looks like he has met them all on previous occasions.

(Hankyoreh Geurimpan, 12 February 2007)

This is an update to this post.

The Korea Times reports that arson is the most likely cause of the fire in Yeosu:
A 39-year-old Chinese-Korean detainee is suspected to have started the fire at Yosu immigration detention center [...] The interim conclusion was made after police found two cigarette lighters in the cell of the detainee named Kim Myong-sik who died on the scene together with the other detainees.

Kim entered the country through Inchon in October 2005 and worked as a construction worker in Kwangyang, South Cholla Province before being taken to the center last month. He had been behaving suspiciously weeks before the fire, according to officials at the detention center. He was caught two times smothering tooth paste on the cameras. He was alleged to have flooded his cell with water after breaking water pipes in his cell. However, Kim did not receive any disciplinary measure other than being sent to a solitary cell for five days in January.
I've also found more information on the layout of the immigration center:

The map above is scanned from Monday's Chosun Ilbo (we have a subscription at work... honest), but wasn't accessible on their website. It gives a good idea of where the fire started, which cells people died in, and how many were in each cell (which is in brackets after the cell number). To put it in numbers, four out of eight died in cell 304, where the fire started, while one out of nine died in the cell 305, compared to four out of nine in the cell 306. 26 people were in those three cells, and it would likely be them, along with one other, who make up the 27 injured or dead. For a better idea of how cell 304 was laid out, look here.

In other news, the Chinese government, known for its concern for human rights, has "called for a thorough investigation into [the] fire [...] and to take proper measures against those responsible." Hopefully the Chinese ambassador remembers that South Korea hasn't executed anyone for the last ten years; he might be disappointed otherwise.

Anyone who's been anticipating a flood of stories about how badly treated illegal workers are won't be disappointed, however. The Hankyoreh has two good stories: one about the poor conditions of the detainment centers, and another about the "culture of fear" created by immigration raids which rarely are accompanied by warrants and which may well be illegal.

The Times article linked to above is an updated version of this one, which has a few extra tidbits like this:
In a study of 16 immigration centers around the nation last year, the Human Rights Commission reported that foreign nationals kept at the facilities stay for an average of 24.9 days, which is higher than the legal limit of 20 days.
The Chosun Ilbo has an article about the complaints of relatives of those who died, some of whom weren't contacted as next of kin.
Wreathes sent by Justice Minister Kim Sung-ho and Foreign Minister Song Min-soon were laid at a temporary altar for the victims at Yosu Seongsim General Hospital. "We want to remove those wreathes," said family members. "The justice minister visited the altar Monday evening, served a cup of liquor and left without exchanging any words with the bereaved families."
This article almost makes up for the Chosun Ilbo editorial which talks about how “embarrassing” it is for Korea to have such a tragedy occur at a government facility, and ends by wondering "how many more horrible tragedies must happen before Koreans take fire safety regulations seriously." No mention is made as to why those people who "had come in search of the Korean Dream" were stuck in those cells in the first place.

The Korea Herald also has an article titled "Maltreatment of illegals shocks Korean society", which is the first in a series of five articles on the topic. These are just the articles in English. There are dozens and dozens of articles in the Korean press about this fire, so hopefully, as usually happens during a media event in Korea, the spotlight on the treatment of migrant workers will create a space for civil society to press for and achieve positive change of some sort.

Also, it wasn't until I saw this article that I realized that the English teacher who wrote the Yeosu "Prison Diaries" was known to the media here.

I'm sure there will be more to add to this in the coming days.

(Crossposted at Gusts of Popular Feeling)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Korea US FTA: Round 7

Well, round 7 of the Korea US FTA negotiations are starting in Washington.

The government has promised to get the negotiations through by April, so look for some last minute compromises to come out of these late rounds that allow the Korean negotiators to save face. Seems concessions have been made (by Korea's negotiators -- who should perhaps be working for the other team it seems from most of the media reports, as they've done everything possible to weaken their positions) on almost all important areas except for rice and products made in the north korean industrial zone. The former will be the clincher, I suppose.

As usual protests here have been banned (though 3-5000 showed up to a rally in downtown Seoul this weekend). Thus, I'd like to reprint a section from the latest newsletter by the Korean Alliance against the FTA spelling out the anti-democratic nature of the negotiations.

The Undemocratic Character of the FTA Negotiations Process

On February 2, 2006, South Korea and the U.S. announced that they would begin negotiations for a free trade agreement. From the start, however, the negotiation process and the content of the FTA have caused great concerns in labor, agriculture, and civil society sectors in both the U.S. and South Korea. Apart from critiques that the FTA will mean a loss of jobs for farmers and workers and increased social polarization, the manner in which the negotiations have been carried out has sparked rising anger. Indeed, the negotiations have proceeded in a highly undemocratic manner amidst repressive conditions since even before they officially began

Four Preconditions


Before the start of official FTA negotiations the United States required that South Korea commit to four preliminary measures as preconditions for talks to begin. These included 1) suspension of regulations on pharmaceutical products, 2) easing of government regulations of gas emissions from imported U.S. cars, 3) resumption of U.S. beef imports, and 4) reduction of the quota which requires South Korean cinemas to screen South Korean films from 146 to 73 days per year. While the actual implementation of each of these measures is in different stages, what is of concern here, apart from the United States' unilateral and imposing attitude, is that the South Korean government agreed to them completely without public dialogue, and reported about them deceitfully to the Korean people. For a long time government authorities even denied the possibility that these sensitive issues would be involved in preconditions for FTA negotiations. In a representative case, only two days before the screen quota reduction was announced, Trade Minister Hyun-chong Kim insisted that there was no plan for such a reduction, denying the need for further discussion with representatives of the film industry.

Access to Information and Public Debate

Lack of disclosure and insufficient public debate have been trends throughout the negotiations, inconsistent not only with democratic spirit but also with South Korean law. For example, the presidential directive concerning the pursuit of FTAs requires that a public hearing be called before negotiations ensue. Such hearings are meant to be forums for discussion through which the opinions of Korean civilians are taken into consideration. Steps taken to meet this directive were a pure formality: only one public hearing was called for February 2, 2006, just hours before the formal announcement that the US and Korea would begin talks was made. Given that the decision had already been reached, the hearing was obviously not really a space for public discussion. Report that the official announcement would be made the following day drew an angry reaction from the audience, resulting in a suspension of the hearing.
Despite South Korean chief negotiator Jong-hoon Kim's promise that greater effort would be made to seek public opinion, no further hearings have occurred. Rather, the government has routinely ignored appeals from stakeholders and citizens who have criticisms of the FTA. In addition, the government has refused to disclose relevant information including the draft of the agreement and the specific results of each round of negotiations. Even National Assembly members have had very limited access: the reports they receive are generally only as detailed as those released to the media, and the time allowed to review these English-language documents is restricted to the same length as that usually allocated for Korean-language materials.
On top of this, both the U.S. and South Korean governments have gone out of their way to keep much of the talks removed from public view. This began when the 4th round of talks were scheduled to be held on Jaeju Island and continued with the 5th round held at a remote sky resort in Montana. Following, senior-level meetings held secretly in Hawaii between the 5th and 6th official fueled Korean citizens' distrust for the negotiations process as a whole. Indeed, the secretive and undemocratic manner in which the government is moving forward is one of the important reasons behind opposition to the FTA.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Even more disturbing than the lack of public disclosure is the extent to which the South Korean government has gone to suppress anti-FTA sentiment. This was plainly evident earlier this year, when farmers' and filmmakers' organizations attempted to run a television advertisement entitled, "A Letter from One's Hometown" which included images of farmers expressing their opposition to the FTA. Upon reviewing the ad, the Korean Advertising Review Board (KARB) stipulated that the farmers' comments had to be erased before broadcasting, effectively prohibiting the ad from screening. The KARB made its decision on the basis that the comments gave a "one-sided portrayal of a dispute involving a government agency." Ironically, while "A Letter from One's Hometown" was barred, a $3.8 million government-produced ad aired. It is clear that the ad's main statement—"the Korea-U.S. FTA is a new opportunity for South Korea to leap into the position of a great economic power"—does not capture the full range of public sentiment, which is split roughly in half for and against the FTA. However, as a government production, this ad was not reviewed by the KARB and therefore not required to meet their conditions on objectivity. The contradiction in the two cases has invoked criticisms from citizens groups and specialists in the field, even those within the national Korean Broadcasting Commission, who see the incident an undue closure of public debate at a time when more is needed and an a violation of freedom of expression inconsistent with the standards of a modern democracy.

Severe restrictions have also been placed on peaceful protest. The government routinely deploys thousands of police to contain demonstrations, often violently. Limits have been especially intense since last November, when the government used the excuse of a clash between farmers and police to place a complete ban further protest. Since then all demonstrations have been outlawed with checkpoints set up on major roads leading to Seoul, to stop regional farmers and workers from entering the capital. The police have issued summons and warrants for over 170 people, raided the local offices of peasant and civil society organizations, made threatening phone calls to demonstration participants, entered their relatives' houses seeking arrest, and detained 21 leaders of farmers and workers organization in an attempt to stop future opposition. It is plainly evident that the incident on November 22, which was neither wide-spread nor premeditated, does not warrant these extreme measures taken in its wake.
The excessive imprisonment of civil society leaders and ban on peaceful protest is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and assembly enshrined in both the South Korean and United States constitutions. This was confirmed by the National Human Rights Commission on December 5, which called for all possible measures to be taken to enable peaceful protests to go forward the following day, including the withdrawal of the demonstration ban. Yet, despite this statement, the government and police have continued their efforts to shut down protests and silence opposition. The undemocratic nature of the negotiations process is one testimony to the fact the South Korean government is trying to push through a highly unpopular deal without concern for the interests the Korean people.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Yeosu: An entirely preventable tragedy

Handprint on the wall (Chosun Ilbo)

Regarding the tragic fire that occurred yesterday morning in Yeosu, the Korea Times tells us that
A predawn fire at an immigration detention center in South Cholla Province on Sunday killed nine foreigners and injured 18 others, police said.[...]The deceased were eight Chinese nationals and one Uzbek. The death toll is expected to rise as some of the injured are in critical condition.

The fire started at around 4 a.m. and most of the victims are believed to have suffocated from the fumes. About 55 foreigners were detained in the facility, including 42 Chinese, four Uzbeks, two from Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka, and one each from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, India, Vietnam and Iran.
The Joongang Ilbo adds that the fire broke out
on the third floor of the center, which housed male detainees. The fourth floor was a detention area for women. The nine guards on duty at the time attempted to fight the fire with extinguishers, but were reportedly unable to find the keys to the steel-barred room where the fire broke out. It was extinguished by more than 100 firefighters in about an hour, after it had spread to two other rooms on the same floor.

I take it these are the keys the article is referring to? At any rate, the Times says that the firefighters
failed to put out the fire early because each detention room was blocked with iron bars to prevent detainees from fleeing. It is believed that the high number of deaths was due in large part to the detention center's floors, a fireman said. The floors, which were said to have contained urethane, emitted toxic gases when on fire.
Yonhap, via the Hankyoreh tells us that
An investigation is underway to determine the exact cause of the fire, but detention center officials said a short circuit from a television set on the third floor is believed to be the cause of the blaze.

Police are also looking at the possibility of arson, as closed circuit television (CCTV) footage shows a foreign detainee covering a CCTV camera on the floor with wet toilet paper just before the fire broke out.
For most news sources, the arson possiblility seems to be the one being trumpeted as most likely (No cut news even put 'possible arson' in an article's title).

The Joongang Ilbo adds some pertinent information regarding what may have helped the progress of the fire:
Fire officials said yesterday that the building had passed a fire safety inspection in December, although it had no sprinkler system installed; under Korea’s fire safety regulations, those systems are required only for buildings more than 11 stories tall, regardless of their use.
So we're left thinking that the building, pictured here, must have been built back before such modern fire prevention equipment was standard in such buildings. Well, no, it was built in 2005. Are we seriously being told that there aren't slightly different regulations for buildings that have iron bars caging the dozens of people who spend their days and nights there? Let's review the numbers: Nine dead (well, ten now, it seems) and 18 injured (some of whom may yet die), out of 55 inmates. That's 27 injured or dead and 28 uninjured. Stunning odds.

Worth mentioning, according to the Times, is that
Civic groups have criticized the government for their lukewarm efforts in protecting the rights of detained foreigners. Last year the immigration center was criticized for housing 18 foreigners in a room designed to accommodate only 10.
The Korea Herald adds that
The immigration office also received a warning from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2005 for maltreatment of detained immigrants. Foreigners had made an official complaint to the human rights watchdog, claiming that they were being treated like "pigs in cages" in the overcrowded and unhygienic rooms, with poor meals and limited space.
The Times continues:
But a Justice Ministry official said due to a tight budget and a sudden influx of illegal foreigners, the government has been unable to expand facilities for housing those detained.
A sudden influx of illegal foreigners? Whose fault is that, Justice Ministry official? Remember that month when the number of drivers charged with failing to stop behind the crosswalk suddenly increased drastically? Ah, yes, that was the month of your crackdown on that practice. Any sudden influx of illegal foreigners into your detainment centers is due to the Justice Ministry deciding to hunt down and arrest masses of those foreigners. Over the years there have been periodic crackdowns on illegal migrant workers (especially prior to the implementation of the Employment Permit System in 2003-2004), while the reaction to the 'English Spectrum' incident in early 2005 led to an increase in arrests of English teachers without visas (though the number of those arrests pale in comparison to those of migrant workers). Any massive increase in the number of foreigners in detainment centers due to immigration violations has always been due to the Justice Ministry's decision to periodically arrest large numbers of people, so such an excuse for poor detainment conditions is pathetic. Other structural reasons as to why there is such a large pool of illegal foreign workers are mentioned in the Migrant Trade Union's reaction to the Yeosu fire.

One of the first documents I thought of when I read about the fire in Yeosu was one that predicted the deaths that occurred yesterday: the prison diary of an English teacher held in Yeosu's immigration detainment center that was published by Ohmynews (part 1, part 2) back in May of 2005. The writer notes other reasons for there being so many people behind bars there, related to the government's policy of doing nothing to help arrested migrant workers get their paychecks so they can return home, resulting in long stays for those left in limbo for months. On top of that, the Korean government only pays for deportation airfare when a prisoner harms him or herself. The possibility exists that, if arson was involved, the arsonist wasn't trying to escape.

Regarding the toxic gas emitting urethane floors, the writer of the prison diary tells us that "The floor is covered by giant 1x1 meter foam rubber jigsaw puzzle tiles." He also describes the neglect of detainees' medical needs:
Once, when I asked a guard for something to put on a wound I had on my hand, I was told that because it was late, nothing was available. The medical staff had gone home for the day. I asked him if there was an emergency medical box -- he said no.
No emergency medical kit in a detainment center? He says more regarding the staff:
I have been told on more than one occasion that this facility is understaffed and under funded. There are not enough staff, guards or otherwise to safely run this prison. Which, in my view, cannot be lawful, let alone safe for staff or detainee. When a repairman comes to fix the phone or TV, he is locked inside with us. This is only because the guards trust us not to harm that person. (This is also the case whenever one of the staff enter our cells.) [...] The shortage of staff to run this facility is a danger, especially at night when there are less staff on duty.
This is all illustrated in this story, which foreshadows the events of Sunday morning:
Last night (April 22 [2005]), there was a fire (I believe in cell 201). It happened around 3:30 a.m. I learned later that is was probably started by three Russian men (who are now in solitary confinement). Before this fire occurred I could hear people shouting downstairs, complaining and demanding that the TVs be restored. (I'm not sure if the people who started the fire were among their number.)

Luckily, the fire was contained. But what if it wasn't? Everyone, behind bars, have no ability to escape to safety. During the fire, the guards on our floor seems to be at a loss as to what to do (or rather, they were waiting to be told what to do.) One guard, if my memory is accurate, sat down at the office computer and played solitaire.

Truth be told, if any detainee had a mind to harm him/herself or another detainee, cause damage to any of the fixtures or objects inside the cells, or start a fire, then it is not impossible. We are not supposed to have lighters or matches, yet a fire was started. How?
The picture of Yeosu's detention center that the writer paints is one unfair for all sides, of detainees left in limbo for months and staff on 24 hour shifts unequipped to provide help to detainees. Yet we're told by Yonhap that
Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook ordered a thorough probe into the case after expressing regret over the deaths of the foreigners, her office said. "Han instructed Justice Minister Kim Sung-ho to examine detention centers for illegal foreign workers and work out measures to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents."
Ah yes, a post-tragedy government probe to see how the preventable tragedy could have been prevented. It gets better though, according to the Times, which tells us that
If [the fire] was caused by arson, the government will pay out minimum compensation to survivors and family members. However, if the fire was caused by negligence of the center's staff, the compensation awarded will be significantly higher.
So the choices are to collectively punish the survivors and victims' families for the actions of one possible arsonist, or place the blame on the overworked staff. Let me get this straight: a government agency decided that sprinklers weren't necessary in a detention facility, one which they've been warned by the Human Rights Commission is too crowded, one which is understaffed by people on 24 hour shifts, where fires have happened in the past, and where people are given a plane ticket home if they harm themselves, but the choices are to blame the victims or lower level employees while "work[ing] out measures to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents"? A lot could be said to criticize the structural reasons for there being so many illegal workers in Korea, but in the case of the deaths caused by this fire in a government detainment facility, there are very specific policies and regulations that should have already been in place, and the lack of these, along with a good dose of negligence, led to yesterday's tragedy. For these problems to be addressed, (or even acknowledged) was this really needed?

(Crossposted at Gusts of Popular Feeling)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

More on the High Court ruling

Here is a statement from the MTU on the recent Hight Court ruling in their favor:

Statement Welcoming the Seoul High Court’s Decision Overturning the Rejection of MTU’s Application for Union Registration

- The Korean government must now grant official union recognition to MTU immediately!

- We welcome the decision of Seoul High Court to overturn the rejection of MTU’s application for union registration!

Today, 1 February the 11th Special Division of Seoul High Court (Justice Su-hyung Kim presiding), issued a judgment calling for the cancellation of the rejection of MTU’s application of union registration. This judgment overturned the previous ruling (Feb. 2006) which had upheld the original rejection of MTU’s application.

MTU presented application for union registration to the Seoul Regional Labor Office on 3 May 2005. However, the Labor Office rejected our application on 3 June 2005 on the basis that undocumented migrant workers do not qualify as workers, and based on unjust requirements such submission of the name of each workplace represented, the names of union representatives and a complete list of union members.

Following this, MTU filed a suit with the Administrative Court protesting the Labor Office’s unjust decision and asking that the rejection of our application be cancelled. However on 7 February 2006 the Administrative Court turned down our request, claiming again that undocumented migrant workers do not have the same status as other workers.

We against protested this clearly unjust decision and filed an appeal to the High Court. Now, after waiting no less than one and a half years, the justness of our claim has finally been proven.

We welcome today’s decision with great joy!

We believe that the high court’s ruling is the outcome of our long and difficult struggle for the human rights and labor rights of migrant workers. We also believe that it is the result of the warm solidarity of our Korean comrades who have defended and supported us this whole time.
We hope that today’s decision will give new hope and spirit to the 400,000 migrant workers who have been suffering under the relentless crackdown and deportations.

We believe this judgment provides a new opportunity for us to deepen our organizing and strengthen our struggle for migrant workers’ rights.

The road before us is still long. Right now, many migrant workers who have been caught in crackdowns are suffering from shock and the horrible treatment inside foreigner dentition centers, which are worse than prisons. They are unable to receive the severance pay and back wages justly due to them. Those who are sick are unable to get medical treatment. Instead they are being forcibly deported. We must struggle with even more determination to end this oppression and win the rights of migrant workers so that we may life freely and safely with the dignity of human beings.

Now, the Labor Office must accept the Court’s ruling and recognize MTU as an official union. If it does not accept the decision and instead appeals to the Supreme Court, we will condemn this ant-labor attitude of the Ministry of Labor and continue to struggle with even more conviction.

February 1st
Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrant Trade Union
KCTU-Seoul Regional Council