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.

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