Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cheonggye vendors to be displaced again?

I read this story about the displaced Cheonggye vendors who now inhabit the old Dongdaemun Stadium grounds in the Hankyoreh last week. Seems the government has decided to turf them out yet again to make way for a new park proposal.

For these vendors, the demolition moves represent yet another in a long line of broken promises from the Seoul government. This was not their original place of work: they were moved here from the Hwanghak-dong flea market after former Seoul city mayor Lee Myung-bak implemented a restoration project of the Cheonggye stream in 2003. At that time, the vendors believed the former mayor’s pledge to build a world-renowned flea market. However, the pledge changed shortly after incumbent mayor Oh Se-hoon took office in May last year, as one of Oh’s campaign promises was to build a park and a design center nearby Dongdaemun.
The above mentioned flea market idea had been met with a lot of support from both grassroots groups and intellectuals like Cho Myoung Rae, an urban scholar who helps run a research institute on urban issues and city development.

Anyways, I seemed to recall Christian, of CINA blog fame, wrote a bunch of dispatches from that struggle back in 2004 when the vendors were originally displaced as part of the Cheonggye stream restoration (read: building of world's largest fountain, or pumped in stream). The city hired some kind of mafia to do the actual work of displacement which generated a great deal of public support for the vendors, and the ramshackle idea of accommodating them in the unused stadium, especially after violent confrontations between vendors, police, and hired thugs escalated (video) into the end of November of that year.

Matt, over at gusts of popular feeling, has posted some pics and opinions showing the redevelopment of the area that the vendors used to inhabit, which has proceeded quite quickly since 2004. If I have time in the coming week, I'll try to post a bit on the political economy of redevelopment, which I've tried to discuss a bit on this blog earlier, as more money is sunk into the Seoul property markets and the city creates various projects to attract it. Some people cynically brand this a approach a new style of developmentalism, but as we can see, especially from matt's post and the others, it is one that benefits few.

The new Lotto palace going in near where most of the vendors used to work.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

FTA Renegotiation?

Here's the link to a story in the Hankyoreh, seems there is a big possibility that the Kor-US FTA will have to be re-negotiated to better take into consideration a number of labour and environmental issues. Seems like a good chance to bring better attention to other parts of the deal.

Max Baucus, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, said that recent FTAs with four nations including South Korea should contain the five core standards set forth by the International Labor Organization (ILO); namely, the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and bans on child labor, forced labor, and employment discrimination.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Financial and Industrial Capital, the Chaebol, and the GNP

Here's a very interesting story about one area of agreement between the right wing presidential candidates as well as some particular types of economic nationalists: this is the issue of Chaebol ownership of financial institutions such as banks and other lending bodies. Traditionally, a separation of finance and industry is considered necessary to avoid 'moral hazard' issues that could lead to economic crises. Obviously, for the writers of this blog, the economic areas that we usually discuss issues such as moral hazard are mostly in terms of workplace and societal relations, but for mainstream economists these issues are mostly confined to who owns what. It should be no surprise then that the right wing (and occasionally some former left wing nationalists as well) have come out in support of the chaebol's right to own banks.

Now, some of the chaebol's complaints about reverse discrimination against Korean firms are legitimate in terms of the way in which parts of the banking system were preferrentially sold off to foreign speculative funds to whom Korea's restrictions on voting rights and ownership of financial and non-financial firms did not apply, but it should be remembered that the crucial exception that was made here was between foreign and domestic capital and not between foreign capital vs. the chaebol. A key distinction to keep in mind. The chaebol and the right here are mainly turning a criticism of what was a genuinely bad policy move into something that suits their interests in a way that would give them even more control over resources than they have now.

Jeon Seong-in, a professor of Hongik University, makes an astute comment in the article:
"They are plainly talking about transferring bank ownership to the conglomerates.'' "(The so-called presidential hopefuls) worry about the future of domestic financial industry and cite Lone Star Funds, but this problem was not caused because Lone Star represents foreign capital, but because a bank fell into the hands of a non-financial company. They may have correctly recognized a problem, but it is as if they have come up with the wrong solution. ''

I think this is the right step towards a larger debate on what to do about financial sectors as a whole, at the moment the banking sector is overwhelmingly foreign owned, but even where the government owns banks it runs them in the same way, investing in mostly speculative ventures like mortgage and consumer credit -- though they have now begun privatizing Woori bank which they own the majority stake in at the moment. Here one needs a critique of financial capital and what it does, not simply foreign vs. domestic capital. What could the government do to better allocate funds that create jobs, that don't go to environmentally wasteful investments or corrupt firms, and in way in which the public has more than a modicum of democratic input. Some people think that projects like the Ha Soon fund are the answer here, based upon investment in companies with strong shareholder rights, but I am also skeptical about this too. I would rather see money go to firms that respect their unions and workers or to other redistribution enhancing institutions rather than simply a firm with a good relation to its shareholders. Anyways, that's just my opinion.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Raw deal FTA

From a post over at the IKTU blog, I noticed that Tim Shorrock has a good piece in counterpunch on the FTA between America and Korea that situates it within a history of US intervention. Here's a sample:
The FTA cannot be seen apart from U.S.-South Korean security ties, the presence in South Korea of more than 30,000 US troops and a 50-year economic relationship that has been heavily weighted towards American interests. From this perspective, the FTA is the fourth attempt by the United States to force its economic will on South Korea over the past half-century. By rejecting it, we can reject the flawed policies of corporate globalization while embracing a new relationship with the Korean people at the same time.
Shorrock also keeps an interesting blog, link.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Trip to the Kaesong Industrial Complex

A while ago I mentioned that I was able to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. I haven't had much time since then to sit down and write up my reflections, but I have to give a short presentation on it in a few days so I thought I would put up a rough draft of my presentation as well as some pictures. Any comments, of course, would be highly appreciated as well.

Labour in an experimental space: work and politics in the Kaesong Industrial Complex

This is the event: Urban Studies Symposium: Social Justice, Neoliberalism, Cities: Methodologies and Open Questions. Date: Saturday, May 5, 2007 Location: Room C475, UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson Street, Vancouver, Canada

Before starting this presentation, I’d just like to remind people that the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the topic of this presentation, is not the major focus of my own research, which deals more with neo-liberal restructuring in South Korea and the reactions from social movements of various sorts. That said, the KIC represents to me an interesting problem, conditioned as it is by social movement history and capitalist crisis in the South, as well as changing geopolitical and neoliberal trends and topographies in the Northeast Asian region. Thus, it seems important for me to have some understanding of where the project fits in to my own research and with some wider discussions about enclave capitalism and changing labour regimes on the peninsula.

Right off the bat this brings up a few questions that I’m not exactly prepared to answer in this presentation but where I think discussion could be generated. The first is the question of the urban as a preferred space for neoliberal rescaling in the West versus the importance of quasi or non-urban regulatory units, such as free trade and export processing zones, to post-socialist and/or post-developmentalist forms of growth in East Asia. The only thing that I will say about this debate here is that ‘zonal projects' and other forms of neo-liberal enclaves have to be seen relatively to the restructuring and support given to them at different scales which make these strategies highly contingent. This is important because I believe there is a tendency to focus on these projects as constituting something of their own set of autonomous transnational spaces, with capital free to move between them, when, actually, in my opinion there are important ways in which these projects feed back into different national dynamics that are crucial to consider. The second question I would like to raise is more methodological, and that is the difficulty in clarifying some issues surround workplace regimes in places such as those that I am about to describe where access to workers and the spaces of their daily lives is difficult for any researcher to gain access to, to say the least.

These two questions in mind, I think it is best to first approach the KIC from the perspective of how it fits into the trajectory of neoliberal reforms and popular struggles in South Korea. Here, the KIC must be seen alongside a number of restructurings and transnational projects that the South Korean state has been undertaking as of late: these include liberalizations targeting national laws and institutions, especially those based around labour, trade, and finance, as well more ‘spatially selective’ projects from the selling off of state enterprises, to the setting up of Free Economic Zones, and the acceleration of international recruitment and management of migrant labour. That said, though in the wake of these reforms, the South Korean state has been looking for a new ‘spatial fix’ for the country’s small and mid sized enterprises, which have been suffering from some of the wider effects of economic globalization, the project should not simply be reduced to the imperatives of any one single group.

More importantly, the Kaesong Industrial Complex comes out of the Korean government’s unification policies and is many ways a sincere attempt to create mutual linkages and exchanges between the two Koreas that are relatively autonomous from other global security initiatives and geopolitical adventures. Albeit, support for the project is conditioned by a particular kind of nationalism that is important to point out. Pro-unification policies have long been a rallying cry of South Korean social movements, including both those within the nationalist left (or NL) movements as well as other tendencies and NGOs who may have other priorities but in general favor exit from cold war social and political configurations. This is in a sense why social movements in Korea are very reticent about criticizing North Korean Human Rights issues, including the potential conflicts around labour issues in the KIC, even while successfully organizing against the degree of exception offered in special economic zone projects in the South. Even members of the left moderate faction of the labour movements as well as members of other non-NL labour movement tendencies are very cautious here. Only member of what is called the ultra-left faction – a position more akin to classical syndicalism – tend to criticize the zone as, at best, a capitalist-led peace initiative. One concern that each perspectives does share though is around the interest the zone is receiving from both South Korean conglomerates and multi-national corporations. A number of South Korean grassroots groups do not want to see the zone become another runaway factory zone like those one sees in other regions like Southeast Asia. Thus support from Korean civil society is highly contingent to say the least.

The project is also part of the legacy of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun presidencies, both having a legacy in the democracy movement and both of whom have been highly critical of large domestic conglomerates. Thus, the Kaesong complex, though developed in partnership with Hyundai-Asan, is designed to benefit small and mid-sized Korean firms having trouble competing with low wage light manufacturing firms in China and Southeast Asia. The cost of labour in the zone is only $57 US a month (with other incentives that may increase this number up to 100), and land rent and infrastructure are very cheap. Albeit, the work process is still labour intensive as complicated industrial technology such as lasers and heavy chemicals are forbidden under the proliferation security initiative that South Korea has signed.

I was fortunate enough to visit the area in March of 2007 on a tour organized for foreign government and business groups. As of late the Korean government has been scheduling plenty of tours to the KIC for both domestic and international politicians and business groups and is partially opening the complex up to foreign investment to help generate support. This is part of a wider effort to sell the project as an alternative form of engagement with the north and, even in the US, these efforts have won the support of politicians on both the right and left as a form of political cooperation and rehearsal for future interactions. The tour basically spent 6 hours in the area, but was a valuable ethnographic experience in that it allowed me to gauge some of the interests in the zone from foreign politicians and capitalists as well as some of the conditions on the ground.

First off, what I can say is that there is tremendous capitalist interest in the project. And with it comes some of the classic gender stereotyping and capitalist glee that we’ve seen in runaway factory zones in South East Asia. Conversing with a few members of the EU chamber of commerce about the foreign interest in the project one of them said to me: “You see, the North Koreans, they possess very special finger skills, much better than the Chinese or Malaysians or Filipinos.” “Yes, and they only cost $US 57 a month,” chimed in his Colleague. This cliché, a kind of gendered nationalism, is also repeated in a different way by a left-liberal South Korean daily newspaper, the Hankyoreh, which runs flash ads in support of the project on both its English and Korean internet pages. The text running over the images of female factory workers in their ads (pictured below) reads: “At their diligent fingertips a hopeful future is being molded.” Here, women workers, by their labour, are seen ‘nurturing the economy’ for peace and re-unification. So, a particular scenario is set up here that gives these workers a epic task without inquiring into why they have been assigned it.

At the moment, the KIC project is only open to Korean small and mid-sized businesses but foreign firms are allowed to pursue joint-ventures with these companies, part of the reason that this trip was organized was to explain some the procedures around this. During a presentation by the KIC Joint Management Committee, foreign business members were very interested in learning what the regulatory hurdles were to opening up shop here. Many were dismayed about restriction on higher technology machine goods, and a number of lawyers from multinational law firms were also present to ask about infrastructure contracts and intellectual property regulations. When one journalist asked about how much workers are paid and whether it is verifiable that the workers receive this pay I heard one businessman exclaim: “that is the sort of question that only a journalist would ask!”

Actually the issue of labour control and of wages is very important and is this goes back to my second concern mentioned above. The joint management committee could not offer a satisfactory answer as to whether the workers were being paid the stated wages, nor could a scholar engaged in inter-Korean projects that I interviewed. The committee asserted that though the North Korean government kept the cash for foreign exchange, workers were paid in NK won and extra rations. The scholar told me that as far as he knew, productive workers were compensated well, as the North Korean government is very interested in the production process. In fact, it is possible that at the moment working at the KIC may be indeed be a form of privilege, 2/3 of the workers are from Pyongyang and the others are from Kaesong, so we are not talking about the bottom of the North Korean social structure here.

The workers that I saw were between 20-45, I would guess, and this seems backed up by the official KIC stats. That said, they were thoroughly regimented and obviously told not to talk to anyone. This is in contrast to the North Korean managers who helped organize the tour. I could actually converse with them, in both English and Korean (well, at the low intermediate level that I can speak), so when our tour actually did get around to visiting some factories I was kind of in a surprised lull, used to conversing with our North Korean hosts who where very chatty, and expecting more of the same I said high to one or two of the workers – only to quickly rediscover that indeed this was regimented and disciplined social space that we had entered as they workers remained still or continued working. One of my informants on the KIC says that workers from the North and South do interact and a few South Korean workers who I talked to on the site said that the workers do take their breaks together or eat lunch together periodically. There have also been small labour conflicts in the complex, but these take place between the body that regulates North Korean workers and representatives from the South; however, there is not much room here for external monitoring of what happens in labour conflicts or indeed in industrial accidents. Little is known of actual individual cases rather than just general complaints. The North Korean military is also technically in charge of the area and they are there in some presence, though not in uniform. There is a hospital in the complex and it has been used by workers from both sides, but as to the long care needed for victims of serious accidents or even under what regulatory framework this and other conflicts would be dealt with is all guess work due to the ad hoc nature of the project. Obviously some solid, gender sensitive ethnographic work with these workers would be quite useful here but at the moment it is nearly impossible to organize.

This is not to say that however, that gross violations of workers dignity have occurred or will frequently emerge in the complex, but the potential is there. Actually, for the moment the factories and infrastructure are nicer than any light manufacturing area I’ve visited in the South, and miles ahead of the attic and basement sweat shops owned and run by subcontractors around Dongdaemun market in Seoul. There are also plans to expand the complex up to and including Kaesong city, encompassing eventually up to 350,000 workers. Though my guess is that this will not happen without some substantial thaw in North Korea's internal social system. Thus, for the moment the complex remains a highly experimental space where, at the moment, we have very few ways of knowing how these workers lives are regulated, especially in everyday North Korean society, except for a few snapshots and an analysis of the larger contingencies that shape the project that I’ve tried to describe above. Thus, even the ability of companies to profit from what seems a highly regimented and gendered workforce operating at a convergence of South Korean capitalism and North Korean one-party state socialism is contingent on the support it receives as a unification project as well as the ‘zone of confusion’ that lies around workers rights there. However, if none of the ill effects of either social structure are not bracketed with some sense of individual agency and collective rights, I do not think the future of this project will be very bright for the workers involved.
(Picture of Hyundai founder Chung Ju Young with Kim Jong Il and perhaps one of Chung's son's, this photo was hanging up at Hyundai Asan's headquarters in the KIC)

Actually, a final point, about the need for a better imagination for projects such as these, can be directed towards those that say North Korean workers can gain a chance at a better bio-politics – meaning in this case better standards of consumption goods and personal care -- through engaging in spatially selective ways with market formations – a position repeated by some prominent scholars. Though I can sympathize and understand why some scholars might make these claims, I think it is important to look into what might be the regulation on the ground and try to imagine what a better imagination for such projects might be, one that better considers under what a fuller sense of freedom might mean for these workers both in their own terms and in the perspective of peace and re-unification. For it is possible to criticize or re-imagine such projects without falling into the kind of discourse over rights that resonates with hawkish American foreign policy. But at the moment this is impeded by both a gendered nationalism and a thick zone of confusion and exception around these workers' daily lives and their rights in the workplace.

(c)left Jamie Doucette 2007, thx to S. Kress for the Photos

SER on the Hanhwa fight fiasco

There is a cheeky article in the Hankyoreh which I think is illustrative on how social movements have changed Korean society, even if only towards more liberal democratic than democratic socialist or other directions.

It seems that Hanhwa group chairman Kim Seong Yeon sent a few company bodyguards to rough up some bartenders that had beat up his son, thus getting himself into a bit of legal trouble. The interesting thing here is that when he tried to use the company's lawyers to clear it up, the NGO Solidarity for Economic Reform (SER)-- which emerged out of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and which pursues shareholder activism in order to curb the power of the domestic chaebol (often inadvertantly supporting financial takeovers but that is another story) -- got on the case and the Hanhwa group had to quickly recant and say that the chairman would use his own money to defend his case.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

As new labour law takes effect, dodgy contracts proliferate

[Update: May 3rd] There is a good follow up story to the one below in the Hankyoreh about how rife the abuse of labour standards is in the government itself, extending to just about every ministry, from justice to even the Ministry of Labour.
Cheon Ok-ja, 61, has done the cleaning at Kyunggi Girls High School for 22 years. On February 28, the school suddenly forced her sign a two-month contract. The school said that it would outsource its cleaning needs. When Cheon refused to sign the contract, the school refused to allow her to enter the school. She says she begged school authorities for her job back but to no avail.
Here's a good story in today's Hankyoreh about the sort of practices that are beginning to take effect before South Korea's law on irregular work takes place. The law, which was not exactly designed to protect irregular workers, ends up encouraging a range of bad practices. Workers who have worked at a company for more than two years are supposed to be given regular work status, but, with the exception of a few workers that the government regularized, instead many are being forced short term contracts. Formally, the bill is supposed to end discrimination between regular and irregular workers, whom at the moment can do the same job under the same roof but for different pay and benefits. What the bill seems to be creating, however, is a situation where those jobs can just be outsourced or contracted all together, thus further expanding inequality. Cheon Ok-ja's case is just one example of such.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

KCTU's report to US congress on Kor-US FTA

[Update: Interlocals has a related report on Copyright provisions in the FTA from Korean NGOs, link]

I'm not sure if I linked to this report yet but it might be a helpful resource to some. Seems that back in March the KCTU made a report to the US Congress on the potential negative impact of the Korea-US FTA. I'm not sure what the revised assessment would be, but from the results of the negotiations that we published earlier, and in the wake of the suicide of Heo Se-wook in protest of the agreement, the potential for harm is still pretty strong. The report is pretty comprehensive and details not simply the macro-economic impact of such a deal but also the effects upon three individuals already affected by the expansion of neo-liberal policies on the peninsula. Keep in mind that as a condition for the Korea-US FTA to even begin negotiations, the Korean government made big concessions on drugs, rice, and the domestic film industry.

National Human Rights Commission on Yeosu Fire

Over at the NHRC page they have some results from their first ex-officio investigation into the Yeosu fire.

On April 9, the NHRCK released its findings from the investigation, stating that the fire deaths of a number of migrant workers at a government immigration office were a grave violation of human rights. Considering the importance of the case, the Commission decided to launch an ex officio investigation and subsequently reported its findings as below. In light of its findings, the NHRCK expressed regret to the minister of justice for his failure to implement its earlier recommendation to amend the Immigration Control Act (legal nature of custody, government employees’ obligation to give notice against illegal immigrants , etc.) and made the following recommendations.

Though there is certainly a bunch of legalese to read through, the NHRC report is pretty substantive (and hopefully there is more coming) criticizing not simply the state of the facilities and the reactions of the guards on duty at the time, but also many of the institutional procedures that produced the fire such as the lack of a process for dealing with unpaid wages, deportation of fire victims, failure of immigration officials to notify migrants of detention orders ahead of time (rather than after they are detained -- which is what happens to 99% of detainees -- encouraging immigration officials to nab migrants first and ask questions later), etc. Of course, larger denunciations are still in order, but this is a nice first step. Hopefully it will spur larger reflections on the situation faced by migrants in the country, but a lot of work is still needed to look into the denial of rights to migrants in everyday spaces rather than simply exceptional moments. Nonetheless, reports like this are helpful.

Next Cinema Seoulidarity: Conscientious Objectors in Korea