Thursday, June 28, 2007

Daum closes union site, metal workers strike against FTA, Everland blues

[Update: July 8th] From the comment below it seems that the government and business are now arresting unionists for damages and political action before they have a chance to strike. Arrests with a similar determination seem to have been targeted at the Korean People's Alliance against the Korea US FTA last week, with their offices raided and two of their organizers arrested.

A quick roundup of some recent stories:

1) Seems that Daum, Korea's largest internet portal, has closed down the site of unionist trying to form a union at their company. This case should perhaps become a landmark freedom of association case if taken up by the NHRC, we'll just have to wait and see.

2) Metalworkers are continuing a fairly large strike against the FTA. As usual the government is planning police action against them. There have also been small backlash protests, reported more that the actual strikes themselves, against the unionist for striking over what does not appear to be a workplace issue -- ruling groups love to set what they see as the acceptable (at best, enterprise unionism) and unacceptable (any wider form of social solidarity) forms of unionism.

3) Both the Korean times and MWTV have been reporting on the plight of foreign workers who put on the dancing shows and other events at Samsung Everland. All this after the Migrant Trade Union began its campaign to draw attention on the sorts of abuses that have been happening there. Read more over at the CINA blog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Attempted observations of everyday life in Pyongyang

Recently the Hankyoreh has been sending reporters to Pyongyang to cover pro-unification events and other things. This longer report, by Ryu Yi Geun, is a nice attempt to make everyday observations of how people get by in Pyongyang. Of course, the author experiences the familiar frustrations encountered by visitors there of having very few genuine interactions with locals and thus much of his article is based on pedestrian observations like the one below. Nonetheless, his discussions of factories, markets, and urban life are still worth reading.
Yet apart from each building being built on Liberation Street and on the premises of Pyongyang Medical School, it is difficult to find any buildings currently under construction. The Children's Heart Hospital Center under construction within the campus of Pyongyang Medical School is being built with the giant steel beams all too common in the South. Indeed, the beams were made in the South. Across the street, dozens of Northern laborers were constructing a building with their hands, devoid of any assistance from machines. After the run-up to the 1989 World Youth and Student's Festival, when apartment complexes were built along Liberation Road, all construction stopped along the road as the North descended into the Arduous March of the 1990s, which is how it refers to the period of devastating economic downturn and famine.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On inequality and labour regimentation, in North and South

According to a story in the Hankyoreh this week, this year's Employment Outlook 2007, released by the OECD on June 19, records the income gap between the upper and lower 10 percent of wage-earners in South Korea as the third largest among 20 of the 30 OECD countries for which data is available.

Not surprising, much of this inequality has expanded over the 10 year period from which Korea rapidly began experimenting with Neo-liberal economic reforms: basically, from the time of Kim Yong Sam's Sehyehwa reform.

In the survey, South Korea's score stood at 4.51, followed by Hungary (5.63) and the United States (4.86)

In addition, South Korea's income gap has been widening significantly for a decade since 1995. During the period, the ratio of South Korea increased by 0.87 points from 3.64 in 1995. In term of the degree of widening income gap for the past decade, South Korea was also ranked third, followed by Hungary ( 1.67 points) and Poland (0.91 points). Of the 20 countries, only Ireland (3.57) and Spain (3.53) narrowed their income gaps over the past 10 years. (see gragh)

Norway (2.21), Sweden (2.33), and Finland (2.42) showed the least income gap among the nations examined.

The OECD report pointed out that South Korea's social safety net, along with those of Mexico and Turkey, is not robust. In particular, South Korea spent less than 5 percent of ordinary tax revenues on its social safety net to ensure that low-income earners are not left without protections and services. This figure is markedly smaller than the OECD average of 43 percent, and put South Korea last in the rankings. In addition, only South Korea and Mexico spent less than 10 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on social services.

The OECD also expressed concern over the low level of spending on social welfare in another report on the South Korean economy on June 20, despite a sharp increase in the percentage of those living in relative poverty in these countries. In the mid-1990s, South Korea's relative poverty rate - the rate of population whose disposable income is below 50 percent of the income of the median income bracket - was hovering around 9 percent, but this figure began to rise sharply starting in 2000 and surpassed the average OECD ratio of the lower reaches of the tenth percentile, the report said. The OECD advised South Korea to expand public spending for the underprivileged to help them earn the minimum cost of living.

The point here is that reform has not been followed up with redistribution, this is revealing of the fact that for workers and others in Korea, neo-liberalism has offerred few carrots and often a very big stick.

Alongside the article on the OECD's survey of inequality, there were also two other telling stories examining the disciplinary approach taken towards labour.

One of the stories is based on documents leaked from a Chaebol owned petrochemical firm that reveals the companies strategies for intervening in a union election, which the company is surprisingly up front about in asserting that there nothing wrong in its actions.

The documents, titled "P-project" and obtained by The Hankyoreh, elaborated on how the petrochemical company planned to block the election of a front-running union presidential candidate who had a track record of spearheading labor strikes in the past. In the documents, allegedly written in October 2005, three steps were suggested to prevent the emergence of militant unions by trying to block the candidate.

First, the candidate, referred to as a "tree branch" suspected of possibly calling a labor strike in the future, should be 'singled out.' Second, a "branch-cutting" action should be taken, in which negative rumors will be spread about the singled-out candidate. Finally, "gardeners" - company officials planted in the unions as spies - take action needed to eliminate the branch.

Finally, and perhaps the weirdest story of the week, is a leaked video from the "Samsung Mass Games," which have been staged for 24 years by employee's of Samsung electronics.
As of June 20, the two videos had drawn some 400,000 and 600,000 viewers, respectively.The videos drew attention because the mass games were performed in a highly regimented manner, which some viewers have called "militaristic." By holding up colored cards at just the right time, the Samsung Electronics employees created images of a fight between dragons and scenes from animation films.

An official at an affiliate of Samsung Group, who joined the group's membership training sessions in 2003, said, "Employees from each [Samsung] affiliate train for the mass games with the help of experts. Ordinary employees spent about 15 days to prepare for mass games, while a team 'task force,' which plays a key role in the performance, spends two or three months on training," the official said. "Though there is no incentive or bonus for a winner, competition is tough because the Samsung Group's chief executives are gathered to watch," the official added.

Ironically, the games seems like a scaled down version of those held in North Korea, a country where similar regimentation and discipline are used to show off worker discipline through mass spectacle. Strange that the form would also be used in the South as well, in what seems to be a very different application. Then again, maybe there is not so much of a difference between the concentration of power in the hands of domestic conglomerate in the South versus state managers in the North -- with the qualification that the power of the former, thank god, is not as extensive as the power of the latter, thanks, of course, the resilience Korean civil society to have checked some of the worst forms of labour discipline that emerged in the dictatorship period.

Hopefully, those same social movements will be able to do something about the growing inequality, before it gets much worse.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Third zone or third way?

I don't normally reprint or link much to the IMF (no, I'm not talking about the International Metalworker's Federation), but there is a short article over there that I read which I found myself agreeing with in a very mild and mediocre way. The article, Korea: In Search of a New Compact, by Un-Chan Chung, Professor at Seoul National University's School of Economics, shows that some Korean economists themselves are no longer towing the line on free markets. I agree with two of his points, (1) that it important not to make a fetish of liberalization and (2) that economies need some form of regulation and promotion of social needs to grow.

However, Chung is not making a call for a new deal here (even though he does allude to social safety nets), much less does he seem in favor of any democratic socialist alternatives, but it is interesting to note the loss of confidence in free market ideology in recent years by economists, right-wing pundits (here I'm thinking of Fukuyama and not Chung whom seems more of a moderate, perhaps even mild Keynesian), and even CEO's, who have turned to concepts such as trust and social capital in order to explain some of the characteristics that make economies grow -- but by often approaching their solutions in fairly undemocratic and harmful methods (ill advised charity schemes, sloppy wars of intervention, corporate welfare). I think it is very interesting that there has been this turn to supposedly 'external' or social factors to see how markets work. Now if only they would turn to the politics of power and production in society for some deeper insight.

UPDATE: Well it seems that Chung Un Chan, is none other than the former Seoul National University president Chung Un Chan, who seemed prominent in these discussions of a new centrist or a 'third zone' candidate for president as an alternative between URI and the GNP that have been taking place more recently. Hence, from the lightness of his critique in the above article I suppose he isn't much different from other candidates in Uri, except for the fact that his isn't from Uri which was his appeal to begin with. Thus the difference between the liberal Uri, the third zone and perhaps 'the third way' are not so different, increasingly the upcoming election seems to be one between neo-liberalism hard (neo-con and old-con GNP) or soft (liberal DP and old Uri). Then again, then again, as examples of the variety of 'actually existing neoliberalism' might show us, these differences may have serious consequences both economically and geo-politically (to follow some of the logic in yesterday's post).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The lost decade, Roh Myu Hyun and the Left, Samsung's dodgy ownership

Things seem politically very ripe these days, especially with the twentieth anniversary of the June Uprising which has led to a number of assessments about Korean politics and has brought more attention to the problem of economic inequality.

These factors, combined with the ongoing presidential candidate campaigns make for a lot of interesting news. Though conservative candidates stayed away from commemorations of the uprising, they certainly have tried to weigh in on the dismal economic record of the last ten years and have come to regard it as the the 'lost decade,' which they have come to blame on the incompetence of the ruling 'leftist' forces. Note that they are neither apt to blame the flawed application of either neo-liberal or state-led economic policies (the older model) for this, nor are they apt to suggest strong alternatives. Even the new right does not seem to offer a strong alternative to current economic policies, even though they make so much of dictator Park Chung Hee's legacy.

A recent article in the Hankyoreh quotes key conservatives commenting to this to this effect:

Rep. Kim Hyeong-oh, the [GNP's] floor leader, said, "For the ten years from 1997 to this year, a so-called left-wing camp has ruled, and we call this period a ‘lost decade.’ During this period, we lost our national identity, future vision, and growth momentum," he said.
Potential candidate Park Geun-hye, a former head of the GNP, has said, "Let’s recover the past ten years through a change of political power.
The former president Kim and current president Roh , and other members of the democratic reform camp -- whom I would not label as leftists by the way -- have bounced back that the last decade was not a lost but recovered decade.
Former president Kim, in a June 9 speech to commemorate the pro-democracy movement, also denounced the argument of the ‘lost decade.’ "[The past ten years] is not a ‘lost decade,’ but a ‘recovered decade’ that has let people regain the democracy lost over the preceding half-century," he said.

I'm not going to weigh in deep on these issues just yet (I've got a lot of dissertation work to do at the moment), so I'll just link to things here, but I will say that it is very interesting that neither side has attempted to address head on the flaws of neoliberal economic policy but instead blame it different ruling factions.

For example, Roh also raised the issue of the pro-dictatorship camp responsibility in the 1997 crisis as a counterattack against conservatives but fails to offer very clear reflections on the current problems.

"The economic crisis in 1997 was prompted as old systems under authoritarian rule, such as government-ordered finance and economy, weren’t rapidly reformed and repaired," the president said. "Throughout a perfect change of political power, a perfect democratic government swiftly and thoroughly overcame the crisis."
As for myself, I would agree with the first sentence that the old system of authoritarian rule (which had been considerably liberalized by 1994 by the way) was problematic, but that the way in which they were reformed also led strongly to the current economic problems Korea is facing.

Anyways, you can hear more of Roh's perspective on this debate in a recent long interview he did with Hankyoreh. The interview is interesting because Roh gets defensive about the critique that the actual left have made of his economic policies, which he then tries to make the left responsible for by not coming up with alternatives.

Actually, there seems to be a very strong error of mistaking or making fuzzy exactly what is left and right in Korea these days. For example, some recent editorials by both new rightists and old leftists (most surprisingly, Paik Nak Jung) end up calling for a new centrism. You will find that what happens in these articles, and Roh's comments, is very confusing but comes down to this: the 'right' defines the left on its opinions toward North Korea and activist past but blames them for the current economic woes without analyzing these woes in terms of neo-liberal politics itself -- thus calling for something that is more centrist than the left as a cure (but to move to the center from neoliberalism should mean more to the left in our conventional understanding); the 'left', in this case, and here I mean PNJ, basically seems to accept some of the realities caused by neoliberal economic policies but calls for a centrism based on an attitude for continued engagement with the north. Two very different arguments thus end up calling for something the same thing. So, pardon my pun, what exactly is left in this situation? What are the differences between (new) right and old left here?

Yikes, makes you kind of crazy, the bigger irony is that the right wing column above, enlists Cho Hee Yeon's (who certainly knows why and how he is left) criticism of Roh Myu Hyun's economic policies (which indeed are to the right) to advocate for this centrist alternative (though Cho Hee Yeon himself, and indeed correctly in our conventional understanding, argues for a left project).

It's enough to make your head spin. Basically, what I'm trying to say here is that liberals (and maybe some old, or nationalist, leftists) and new conservatives are fighting over the issues on which there is relatively little disagreement with them in terms of ideology (in practice there are key distinctions I would say, the right are more like the US neo-cons and I don't think they embrace neoliberalism because they believe in it in the way that the liberals do). The left position, however, though so often named here in reference to the liberal Roh government, is actually not presented, or even imagined, except as critique of Roh which can be used to fortify the right wing (so long as it seems Roh rather than neoliberalism is to blame).

Anyways, this could be a lot clearer, but things get messy when you try to put yourself into the head of some of the above editorials.

I think elsewhere it would be good to explore these vicissitudes: obviously there are both hawkish and pro-engagement neo-cons, just as there are leftists and liberals who embrace a TINA (there is no alternative) approach to neo-liberalism and those that devise alternative proposals. Finally, granted, there may be a few rightists out there who actually believe in neoliberalism or state intervention as a genuine philosophy of growth rather than as a way to appeal to business groups in cronyist fashion (I'm least sure of this, however).

FYI, on a kind of unrelated note, if you are interested in little more about how parts of the old system survive in the new -- in this case corruption within the family led firms -- you can read a quick column by Kim Jin Bang on Samsung's dodgy ownership structure. In my opinion, this stuff is important because it shows sizable influence of the family conglomerates over the Korean economy (and politics) in general. Unfortunately, this kind of research is often used as an excuse to deepen neo-liberal reform, while myself I think there is an opportunity here to think about how transparency issues such as these can be useful for encouraging different, more democratic forms of corporate structure beyond either family or shareholder controlled organizations. How about a tripartite managed fund as a penalty for dodgy practices or, I'm being cheeky here, in the case of Samsung, since they are so anti-union, I think the assignment of shares to worker and community centered groups would be poetic justice for such malpractice.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pohang Unionists Released

From the Building and Woodworkers International:

Yoo Ki Soo, General Secretary of the KFCITU Released after 10 Months

Yoo Ki Soo, the General Secretary of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions (KFCITU) was released on 23 May 2007 after spending close to ten months in prison for participating in a demonstration in support of the strike conducted by the Pohang local union last August 2007. In addition to Yoo Ki Soo, three members of the Pohang local union - Jin Nam Soo, Ji Kap Ryul, and Chin Kyu Man - were released as well. The four who had originally been sentenced to prison terms of two years to two years and six months were released on probation after the union had appealed the original sentence.

Although the union is extremely pleased with the release of the four whose only crime appears to be fighting for the right of South Korean construction workers to exercise their right to strike and collective bargaining, the union is mindful of the fact that thirteen trade unionists still remain in prison related to strikes conducted by the Pohang local union in 2006 and the Ulsan local union in 2005. It should be noted that the President of the Pohang local union, Lee Ji Kyung was sentenced to a very long term of three years and six months and it is unlikely that he will be released until 2010.

The union wants to express is gratitude to BWI and its affiliates for their consistent support and requests that you remember the other thirteen still in jail.

[Note] You can read our coverage of last year's Pohang Strike here and here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What I've been reading

I've been away a bit lately so haven't been doing much posting. I'll try to put up a few things near the end of this week, but for now, here is the link to a series of pieces in the Hankyoreh on the twenty year anniversary of the 1987 June Uprising, enjoy.