Saturday, March 22, 2008

progressive options

Here is an interesting editorial from the Hankyoreh:

[Column] A politics for all 100%
Kim Yeong-ok, Research professor, Ewha Womans University Korean Women’s Institute

» Professor Kim Yeong-ok

I happened upon the blog of Choi Hyun-sook (, Korea’s first “sexual minority” candidate for the National Assembly, and lost myself for hours. I forgot about the passing of time as I looked through her entries and deep into where the tags led me, and it was a most enjoyable excursion. I happened upon a video, taken March 8, of Choi speaking at an International Women’s Day event in front of Seoul City Hall, full of delight and passion. As if trying to offset the heavy seriousness that comes with talking about turning minorities into a political force to reckon with, she ran all about the plaza with a smile on her face.

The reason it looked more powerful and refreshing was also because there are increasing concerns about feminism today. Some people say the movement shrank rapidly after the long goal of doing away with the hoju system, the “head of household system,” in 2005, or that there is resistance from a kind of “anti-feminism,” or that the “public base of operations” that was the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is being shrunk to being just the Ministry of Gender Equality, and the assessment is that it has become more difficult to do anything, even before we had the chance to do anything politically.

Diagnoses such as these show you how feminism is in a difficult position lately, but they are not surprising. Anti-feminist resistance and feminist pursuits have always been in a contentious relationship, and the fact the body of the movement has shrunk indicates that its agenda has diversified, and that there are separate movements according to goals particular to locale or issue. It is clearly a major event to have the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family shrunk in size and name, to be called the Ministry of Gender Equality. There are major concerns that the accomplishments of feminism could also be downsized or disappeared. (One example would be signs there might be a revival of the allowance for additional points for previous military service in the hiring of employees.)

Feminism tries to read the ways of thinking and behavior of the mainstream, from the perspective of being a minority. First and foremost, feminism’s efforts to disseminate a broad perspective of gender equality and sensibility are accomplished by building solidarity with like-minded people and engaging in sustained dialogue with those who think differently. As noted by Chantal Mouffe, that which is political speaks basically of a situation of conflict between opposing ideas that cannot be combined. It is important to, instead of stubbornly trying to erase the differences between opposing ideologies, agonize politically over ways to coexist by honest recognition of those differences.

It is with this view that the upcoming National Assembly election presents some very politically interesting points. It is very meaningful that Park Young-hee, who has spent the last decade campaigning for the rights of disabled women, will be a proportional representative candidate of the New Progressive Party, and that a woman from the Philippines will be a proportional representative candidate for the Creative Korea Party. I do not think of these women as strategic candidates, there for show or as assistants. It is a reflection of the fact that Korean society has changed, that the “alternative perspective” provided by feminism is winning approval from regular citizens whether people realize it or not, at least to the point where women such as these can stand on the center stage of politics. Park notes that, for feminists, the social movement and electoral politics perhaps can no longer be separate things. The more your group is a minority, the more important this philosophy becomes.

Park was a “good disabled girl” who never challenged anyone and became a “vicious and ferocious disabled feminist activist,” while Choi makes coming out a major part of her political agenda. Both stress the need for a sense of responsibility among their supporters. When this becomes political and evolves into a form of solidarity, it will mean a politics that goes beyond the limits of representative, elected politics. I am truly, very curious to see what it looks like when Choi, Park and the woman from the Philippines propose, and then implement, a politics that “is for 100 percent of the population instead of 1 percent.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's that I smell? Authoritarianism?

It smells a bit like tear gas...

From today's Hankyoreh
[Editorial] Trading Public Safety for Law and Order

The prosecution and the police are speaking with the same voice on the need to “establish law and order.” Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice, in a regular report to the president, said it would emphasize establishing law and order and reviving the economy. The police say they are going to make sure a tone of law and order “takes root.” They talk also about common public safety, but by the looks of it, things are slanted towards the political.

The government’s posture here is very dangerous. The justice ministry says it is going to actively intervene in illegal or politically-motivated strikes in their early stages and thoroughly pursue organizers and have them prosecuted. It also said it would excuse from responsibility all “legitimate” use of police power. The police are already saying they are going to create brigades of riot police that act as arrest teams at protest sites. This is reminiscent of the “Baekgoldan,” the “white skull corps” of President Chun Doo-hwan’s Fifth Republic.

Connect the dots and you see that these are the hard-line answers of two decades ago. It is clearly going to lead to the kinds of police abuses and excessive suppression of assemblies that lead to unfortunate mishaps and intense confrontations as people respond to such events in protest. Democratization broke that cycle, but now, twenty years later, we are returning to the mess of yesteryear? This recklessness that has its eyes closed to history is saddening. One worries even more that this kind of government response will be used as a way to stifle opposition to various current issues such as the Grand Korean Waterway. It threatens the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of assembly, protest and expression.

A bigger concern is that these measures are mainly targeting laborers. A case in point is a government plan to revise labor laws. Under the revisions, the police will have the power of the prosecution to quell illegal strikes and illegal demonstrators will be subject to both criminal and civil punishment. Various trade unions have already lost influence because of searches, arrests and lawsuits for extraordinary damages. If the government’s plan is realized, the activities of the labor unions will be weakened even further. The government, meanwhile, will reconfigure labor laws to favor businesses, and is likely to make companies less responsible for various illegal acts. In this way, the government will suppress one side while supporting the other, aggravating labor-management conflicts.

It would be natural to assume, then, that the government’s focus on law and order will lead to a neglect of public safety. The police will have to monitor labor unions and chase illegal strikers, while at the same time carrying out its regular function of protecting the general public. If the president and the leaders of justice organizations become concerned about law and order, the police will also have to concentrate on that. The government will do nothing to ease civilian anxieties by paying lip service to public safety. The government should change its direction as soon as possible.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Suicides of part-time lecturers

Hyejin Kim at Global Voices online has interesting piece up about the exploitation of part-time academic labour, in my mind a global issue. (Part time lecturers here in Canada make 5ooo $cdn per course taught. At my school, teaching assistants are unionized but part-time lecturers are not, thus it is more profitable to T.A. a course as the full time rate is also 5000; the amount of work is strictly regulated and often less than half of what the instructor works.)

Part-time lecturers teach 40 percent of all college classes in Korea. But their treatment is the worst of irregular jobs. Other part-time job employees receive 50-55 percent of the salary of the same regular jobs, but part-time lecturers receive less than 1/3.

The lecture fee of the part-time lecturers at national and state universities is about 40,000 won (US 40 dollars) per hour. A lecturer who teaches western art at Seoul National University said, “last semester, I taught a three hour class and received 420,000 won (US 420 dollars) per month.”

Employment is extremely unstable. A part-time lecturer at a private college said, “In the new semester, if the school calls me, then I can teach. Otherwise my contract is done. A research assistant informs us by phone.” Kim Dong Ae (62) who leads a part-time lecturer labor union said, “if the salary doesn’t come on time and I call the administration, they answer why we bug them with such tiny money. We have to put up with this unequal treatment, but nowhere can we complain about it.”

Here's the link to the article if you want read more.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

International Women's Day

Here's a story from a few days ago about Int'l Women's Day.

Gender Equality Still Has Far to Go in Korea

By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

In Korea, just the fact of being a woman already implies several disadvantages one has to bear, an official of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), said.

There are still countless problems facing female employees in the country and they aren't just fighting for perks ― they are just asking for basic living rights, said KCTU spokesman Oh Moon-sook.

``In some small-sized companies, a 10-year-experienced female gets paid a million won a month despite having to work extended hours and sometimes being forced to work under bad working conditions resulting in poor health conditions often leading to a miscarriage. In many cases, they are outsourced workers who aren't guaranteed basic insurance or medical care,'' she said.

Today marks the 100th International Women's Day designated by the United Nations.

In 1908, 15,000 woman workers cried out for women's rights on the streets of New York when 146 female workers died in a fire that occurred at a clothing company. It ignited calls for a better working environment and social treatment for women.

However, 100 years later, there are still in many countries women suffering maltreatment at the hands of men in workplace and home. They say though the economy as a whole may have risen, social prejudice toward women is only being diminished very slowly.

The KCTU as well as some other civic groups said women are hired mostly in non-permanent positions and get promoted less than their male peers.

The groups plan to hold protests in downtown Seoul requesting the government and society to acknowledge the problems they have. Attention will be drawn to such matters as KTX bullet train attendants' employment, where a lot of woman are employed on a part time basis, E-Land clerks' repositioning, and the poor treatment of cleaning ladies.

According to the Seoul City government, the wage gap between the sexes is quite large. Women get paid only 64 percent that of men while they put double the time in home management.

Further research by the Democratic Labor party showed that female non-permanent workers get paid a mere 40 percent of that of male permanent workers.

The reality lets women down and makes it hard for them to live an ``ordinary'' life. ``Being sandwiched among the soaring market price, high education fees, hectic working schedule and others puts me off from having children and other ordinary family life some times,'' Park Chung-wha, an English teacher at a private institution, said.

Another married woman Chung Sun-ae had to give up getting a job because she was married and ``had the possibility of having children.'' She actually had a child later, which kept her occupied all day long. ``I have a master's degree. I hope I can use it some day,'' she said.

There are some signs of improvement however. The Ministry of Labor said the employment rate of females between 15 and 64 has gone up about 10 percentage points in 12 years, from 43.6 percent to 53.1 percent.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was established in 2005 and survived the Lee Myung-bak administration's government reorganization plan, thanks to public understanding that gender equality in the country still has a long way to go.

To mark the International Women's Day, a commemorative event will be held at Seoul Plaza. The event will feature plays and concerts.

``We will work till both genders are treated equally ― no more domestic violence or sexual violence, childcare problems and others. We are pretty positive that we can find our way there,'' one of the organizers said.