Monday, April 23, 2007

virginia tragedy, Canada Korea FTA, saemangum, etc

I've been rather nomadic the last little while and have not been able to keep up with posting. But here are a few things of note.

First, in the wake of the Virginia shooting, the Hankyoreh has some more interesting articles on Cho Seung Hui, , and the problems of understanding this incident and what it means for Koreans and Americans alike, especially the 1.5 generation.

Second, Korea - Canada FTA negotiations will start ramping up soon. This is all part of the Korean governments strategy of signing as many FTA's as possible all at once. A homegrown form of shock therapy if you will.

Third, the environment idiocy that is the Saemangum project has succeeded in throwing nature out of balance. No surprise there.

Fourth, Ho Sea-uk, who immolated himself in protest of the Korea- US FTA was buried on the 19th.

Fifth, good piece here on the continuing fallout from the Yeosu fire.

Finally, the KTU issued this dispatch to keep OECD countries monitoring Korean labour relations.

Friday, April 13, 2007

migrants, labour relations, FTA

I was up early this morning (jet lag) and finally had a chance to update myself on some current issues, courtesy of the online English version of the Hankyoreh -- my favorite English resource on Korea these days.

Yeosu tragedy

First is a sad but biting story on the return of survivors of the Yeosu Fire to their home countries.

There was no one at the airport to see off the 17 wounded in the fire, leaving with their families two months after the conflagration. At that time, here were a large number of reporters covering the accident in Yeosu, but the situation was completely different on the surviving workers' final day in Korea. They still had wounds from the fire, and 10 million won (US$10,700) in compensation provided by the Korean government.
The migrants and their families held a 1.5 hour sit-in at the airport in order to get medical certificates to allow their re-entry. I don't think they were successful. The Korean government hurried to settle the incident, less than two months after it occurred. The workers, meanwhile, are still traumatized and injured: "I am suffering from nightmares and my hands shake uncontrollably. I have chronic, serious headaches and dizziness," said Park Cheol-yong, an ethnic Korean from China.

Of course, quickly packing the migrants back to their home countries with 10k will keep them out of the limelight in SK and make it more difficult to launch a systematic investigation or inquiry into the incident. One cynical bureaucrat simply told reporters that sending these migrants back was in the 'national interest', removing them at dawn from Yeosu the same day that a preparatory team for the World Expo 2012.

Labour Relations

Local groups are also complaining about the possibility of the OECD suspending labour monitoring in South Korea. It has been monitoring the labour situation there for 10 years now and the government wants it to stop, citing compliance with some of the OECD and ILO standards. However, groups complain that the situation is worsening and site an increase in imprisoned unionists as proof. Labour rights are also an issue with the FTA, and US democrats want to see the release of imprisoned unionists and a firmer commitment to labour rights included in the FTA. The writer also mentions that "if the government changes its position over the issues after renegotiations with the U.S., people will think the South Korean government easily yields under pressure from the US." Now I'm not sure if this is his opinion or if he is being merely descriptive, but I don't think labour issues are the ones that show that the SK government easily yields to pressure from the US. Funny that this concern wasn't always raised by the media on the concessions that Korea made in almost every single area of the agreement. Hmmmmm....

Anti-FTA groups lose funding

Finally, a story on the Ministry of Government and Home Affairs pressuring local governments to deny funding to NGOs that participated in Anti-FTA rallies. MOHAGA certainly loves to intervene in politics, as was witnessed by their crackdown against the Korean government employees union last fall -- one source of said concern by US dems cited above-- but, anyways, the ministry used participation at illegal rallies as their criteria for denying groups funding.

In response, civic activists said that given that nearly all rallies against the ROK-U.S. FTA have been arbitrarily declared illegal by the police, the government are apparently targeting the civic groups opposing the FTA.

Im Yeong-mi, an official at People's Coalition for Media Reform, said the new measure is targeting groups opposing the FTA with the U.S. "How can the Participatory Government restrict subsidies for the groups for expressing views different from those of the government?'' he said.

Here's the link.

Friday, April 06, 2007

in transit, slowish posting

I'm in the middle of a move (again) at the moment, so things may be a bit slow here until the 12th as I don't have reliable internet access and am busy with the move. I'll try to post more on some of the current debates over what to do with the FTA now that negotiations are over. Also, I've yet to post on the topic yet, but I was able to visit the Kaesong Industrial zone last month and have some long overdue reflections to post on that experience. Perhaps Matt will contribute some more posts till I get back...

More soon...

Monday, April 02, 2007

FTA deal reached, future of Korean capitalism

Well, the FTA negotiations are over, going to the last hour (US time) Monday night. Like we had predicted here, earlier, the exclusion of the rice market was the deal maker. However, reforms to the rice market were made before negotiations were even started and there are a number of different mechanisms under which this is already happening (APEC's Bogoi Target is one). Protests continued late into the night (Korean time) on Sunday, after the worst yellow dust storm this year. During the afternoon a taxi driver immolated himself in front of the Hyatt Hotel where the negotiations were taking place. The Hankyoreh has a little on this, but they date the incident as March 1st rather than April 1st -- either as a mistake or perhaps this happened twice.

The Korea times has a number of articles up on the FTA, this one outlines some of the 'give and take' in the negotiations, link. It's still not clear to me however, what happened to Investor-State Dispute mechanisms and GATS provisions over indirect expropriation that one normally sees in things like this. I'll keep reading to see what I can find. I'm sure this will come out over time. This Korea times article is also quite odd, celebrating, I take it, the opening of Korea to a more anglo-saxon model. Unfortunately, have a trade agreement (trade agreements are never free) with the US does not equate with having an entirely new economic model. Singapore, for example, has one with the US and they are still quite mercantalist (a look at the at the assets held by Temasek, a state-owned financial corporation from Singapore, should be enough to dispel that myth).

Anyways, there perhaps a case to be made that elements of stock market capitalism are making headways in South Korea, but one should be cautious here. The Chaebol system is still dominated by its core families and attempts to restructure it have not been effective. Chaebol system of not, Korean society is now starting to see some of the dynamics experienced from neoliberalism in other countries. This weeks news was noteworthy as it announced that Samsung will be moving the production of one of its more high tech chips to china, and STX shipbuilding is also building a 1 billion dollar plant there. I'm not sure if these are grounds for an argument about de-industrialization, but it is noteworthy.

I'm also curious about what the FTA will mean for Korean labour practices. The US Democrats scolded the Korean government just before the deal was reached. Whether or not this means that Korea will come up to ILO and OECD standards in its dealings with civil servant unions and union pluralism remains to be seen.