Friday, July 25, 2008

Signs of reaction

Two worrying stories for Korean civil society from today's Hankyoreh below. Some more conservative readers might assert that the government is just asserting law and order in this case. But without laws governing protest that conform in practice and operation to basic freedoms of assembly or association, results like this are bound to happen as it becomes very easy to pin a demonstration on a particular organization or have stuff removed from the internet by decree rather than principled investigation. Anyways, it should be clear that these two stories are simply signs of reaction, which in the end seem certain to alienate people from the current government as they undermine basic normative principles of civil society.

Photo is from CINA.

Arrest warrant issued for 3 KCTU leaders
37 other KCTU leaders summoned for questioning in growing crackdown on candlelight protest organizers

Police began tracking down three leaders of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions on July 24 after a court issued a warrant to arrest them on charges of playing a leading role in organizing large-scale strikes and candlelight demonstrations against U.S. beef imports. The KCTU, one of the nation’s two largest labor umbrella organizations, strongly protested the move, saying they had been “targeted by police.”

Immediately after the court issued the warrant to arrest the three KCTU leaders, Chairman Lee Seok-haeng, Deputy Chairman Jin Young-ok and Secretary-General Lee Yong-sik, the Seoul Yeongdeungpo Police Station dispatched hundreds of police officers, some of them plain-clothed, and cordoned off the KCTU office in an aggressive move demonstrating its will to arrest them.

“Chairman Lee and others played a leading role in massive strikes held by the KCTU to demand renegotiations of beef deal,” a police officer said. “Last year, they also refused to be summoned on charges of masterminding a strike and occupying E-Land stores, in spite of several calls for them to appear. We plan to combine all pending charges to date and conduct an investigation into the KCTU leadership.”

Saying that strikes led by the KCTU on July 2 illegal, prosecution and police ordered 37 senior leaders of the KCTU, including Chairman Lee, to appear for questioning. Arrest warrants were issued for nine of the 37 leaders, including Chairman Lee and Yoon Hae-mo, the chief of Hyundai Motor Co.’s labor union.

In a press conference held at the KCTU office later in the day, Chairman Lee said, “The police action is unfair political suppression of a fair exercise of the right to defend the health of people and laborers. The government of President Lee Myung-bak must immediately stop its suppression.”

NPA orders Google to remove video from YouTube
Footage reports on allegations that NPA Chief’s brother invested in a hotel linked to prostitution

Controversy is flaring after an Internet crime investigation unit of the National Police Agency was found to have ordered Google Inc.’s YouTube, the world’s most popular video-sharing Web site, to remove footage from a South Korean TV report about allegations that a company in which a brother of NPA Chief Eo Cheong-soo invested was involved in prostitution. The NPA also ordered domestic Internet portals such as Naver and Daum to delete the video footage, which was originally televised by Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.’s Busan branch. Under South Korean laws governing the Internet, a person can ask an Internet portal to remove information from its Web site if the information defames the person in question. The NPA has been accused of taking unlawful and excessive action towards Internet portals, where freedom of expression and communications should be guaranteed, to defend the reputation of the NPA chief’s family.

On July 24, an official at Google’s Korea unit said, “We received an official statement on May 27 from the NPA’s cyber terrorism countermeasure team demanding that we delete video footage about a brother of NPA Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo, citing defamation. That evening, we temporarily deleted two pieces of video footage. The Internet Protocol addresses for both pieces of video footage are blocked so users in South Korea can’t access them,” the official said. The NPA was found to have sent the same official statement to other local Internet portals such as Naver and Daum as well as video-sharing Web sites.

The original footage, aired by MBC’s Busan branch on April 23, reported that the brother of NPA Commissioner General Eo had allegedly managed a hotel that allowed prostitution. The report was credited with the “This Month’s Journalist” award from the Journalist Association of Korea in June. Yang Guen-won, the head of the NPA’s Internet crime investigation unit, said police had “sent an official letter, according to legal procedure, after judging that the controversial report broadcast by Busan MBC is related to the reputation of the entire police organization, not just Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo himself.”

However, critics blamed the NPA for taking excessive action because, under the current laws, it has no right to ask Internet portals to delete the video footage and it has not taken any legal action, such as filing a complaint with the Press Arbitration Commission.

Kim Gap-bae, an attorney, said, “The Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection permits a person to ask an Internet portal to remove posted material if the person feels they have been defamed. For defamation cases involving public officials, in particular, an individual, not a state organization, should file the complaint.”

Unlike domestic Internet portals, Google’s Korean unit strictly bans it from editing materials posted on its Web site. Google’s Korean unit asked a legal department at its U.S. headquarters to sort out whether the video footage could cause defamation, and Google’s U.S. headquarters replied that it could not be constituted as such. In spite of the reply, Google’s Korean unit had still blocked the footage for 56 days, or until July 23, when The Hankyoreh began investigating the issue.

This means that South Koreans cannot watch the video footage on the Korean-language version of the YouTube Web site, but the footage is still available at other YouTube sites based in the United States and other nations.

Internet users have criticized the police and Google’s Korean unit, saying, “Police are curbing freedom of expression on the Internet unconditionally, making the country a state in which censorship still exists.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I haven't updated links for a long time on this blog and I was just getting started and realized that the Korean Women's Workers Association have a new site and an excellent, frequently updated blog in English. I've updated the link on the right to go to their new site. The picture above is from a recent rally for a 1 million won (US 1000 a month) minimum wage.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Changes to laws around foreign workers

Very interesting development in terms of foreign workers these days. Workers will now be able to work for 5 years and can change workplaces. These were both demands made by the Equality Trade Union -- Migrant Branch (predecessor of the MTU) back when the EPS was being negotiated. How to regard this development? What does it mean for the migrant rights movement?

I guess it is a partial victory. The 5 year concession was something there was more support for from the small business federation back in the day, the change of workplace procedure probably came from a number of sources inside the ministry, civil society, employers etc. Both aspects of the policy are obviously designed to prevent workers from becoming undocumented as after 3 years most workers haven't paid back the illegal brokerage fees that they have paid, if they had to pay them, which I believe they do in a majority of cases, and when faced with exploitation in the workplace many workers change workplaces but become undocumented in the process, so this change in the law should improve conditions generally in terms of the number of people without status.

What it does not address, however, is the claim for justice on behalf of those migrant that have been in Korea the longest and who were excluded from the EPS as an act of punishment. Unfortunately, I think it will have the effect of diminishing solidarity for them as the problems in the EPS used to continuously force people into undocumented status who then feel more solidarity with longer term migrants. I think it is these migrants that an amnesty and some sort of designation allowing them to apply for residency is needed, so they can go about their lives as they have been trying to for years in the midst of continually changes permit systems and perpetual crackdown. This is an important question of distributive justice. Those migrants with families and long term roots should be considered first, but the 'right hand' of the state (Justice, and Interior ministries) do not recognize the social suffering of these people, they even cause much of it, and therein the problem exists.

Here's the article from the Times:

Foreigners Can Work for Up to 5 Years By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

From July 28, foreign nationals will be able to work for up to five straight years without having to make the obligatory one-month sojourn outside Korea to extend their job contracts, the Ministry of Labor said Tuesday.

According to the revised Foreign Workers Employment Law, those currently allowed to work for up to three years will be able to extend their contracts for another two years. Currently, they have to leave the country for one month before renewal.

``Foreign workers complained over the cost involved in the one-month trip and management said their absence damaged business,'' Kim Yeon-shik, a ministry official, said.

Employment procedures will also change for management to hire more eligible persons. Under the current system, employers have to pick workers from those passing a Korean language test without screening their individual details.

But a new list will show each jobseeker's qualifications and career record. Employers will also be able to recruit directly via interviews overseas.

Workers will also get additional support. The government will provide job information to ethnic Korean Chinese people to help them settle in Korea more easily after signing work contracts.

In order to prevent workplace exploitation, conditions will be specified that allow workers to transfer to other companies. Workers can apply for transfers when wages are delayed and if their employer violates the Korean Labor Law.

``Under the new system, employers will be able to secure manpower from overseas and workers can easily adjust to Korean society,'' the official said.

The current employment permit system (EPS) allows a maximum three-year contract and renewal of up to two years, while the transfer of workplaces is limited to factory closures or worksite abuse.

In April, 377,032 foreigners were working under the EPS and 75.4 percent of them were working at companies with less than 30 on their payroll.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

the streets are full again

Well, the protests are back on with about estimates of 80,000 -- 400,000 on the streets (looks around 200,000 from the pic below. Here's a link to more pics at the OMN site.

This one is from around 10pm.

This group seems to be international these days; a youth subculture, in Canada they seem to focus on protesting scientology.

Early evening.

I haven't heard anything about the 'anti-protest' that was planned. I think they were probably drowned, exponentially.

Friday, July 04, 2008

ILO on Song Hae Bae Sang

I just pulled this of the Metal Worker's page. Seems the ILO has weighed in on a number of practices that limit workers freedom of association. Especially the use of damage claims to discourage workers from unionizing or going on strike. This practice has pretty notorious since it began in the 2000s. The problem is that the legal basis for collective action is not up to international standards so it is pretty easy for employers to sue workers for union activity. The ILO has been trying to bring Korea up to convention standards for a few years now.

ILO makes recommendations on irregular workers in South Korea
ILO Committee on Freedom of Association calls on Korean government to investigate and remedy alleged anti-union acts against falsely subcontracted workers and requests that obstruction of business laws are brought into line with freedom of association principles.

SOUTH KOREA: The International Metalworkers' Federation joined the Korean Metal Workers' Union and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions at a press conference in Seoul today, July 3, welcoming the findings of the International Labour Organization on the complaint against the Korean government.

The ILO has called on the Korean government to investigate and remedy alleged anti-union acts against falsely subcontracted workers at Hyundai Motors, Hynix/Magnachip, Kiryung Electronics and KM&I and to take all necessary measures to promote collective bargaining for subcontracted workers.

Significantly, the ILO requests that the Korean government "take all necessary measures without delay" to bring "obstruction of business" laws into line with freedom of association principles.

The Committee states that, "violence, criminal sanctions or disproportionately heavy pecuniary penalties are not conducive to a constructive industrial relations climate, especially in the absence of affirmative measures to promote dialogue and collective bargaining."

During the press conference IMF called on the Korean government to restore the rights of the Kiryung women workers who are over 20 days into a collective hunger strike in protest of their unfair dismissal.

"The ILO clearly states that "The non-renewal of a contract for anti-union reasons constitutes a prejudicial act within the meaning of Article 1 of Convention No. 98." I hope that the government heeds this strongly worded recommendation to reinstate the workers," said IMF General Secretary Marcello Malentacchi.

These and other recommendations to the Korean government are included in an interim report issued by the Committee on Freedom of Association in June 2008 in response to the complaint lodged by KMWU, the KCTU and the IMF.

The unions made the complaint against the Korean government for neglecting to protect and facilitating violation of subcontracted workers' rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and collective action, in breach of ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

The complaint, case number 2602, details a series of violations dating from 2004 to 2006 at Hyundai Motors plants in Ulsan, Asan and Jeonju and at Hynix/Magnachip, Kiryung Electronics and KM&I.

For a copy of the Interim Report and recommendations from the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association click on this link.

For a summary of the details of the complaint, click here.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

two stories of note

Both of these are from today's Hankyoreh:

Members of the New Progressive Party try to fix the party’s broken signboard at their headquarters on July 1. The signboard was broken by members of an association of former members of the Headquarters Of Intelligence Detachment, the seat of South Korea’s secret counterintelligence operation. On the evening, members of the association made a assault at the headquarters of NPP, and resulted in property damage, some persons of injuries and five arrests, .

According to police and an NPP official, five members of the association arrived at the NPP’s headquarters shouting, “Come out Jin Joong-gwon! We will kill all communists!” Jin, a journalist and activist who is known for his criticism of both conservatives and liberals alike, has been active in broadcasting reports from the site of the candlelight protests since they began on May 2.

During assault of the association members, one woman of NPP was injured and a man of NPP hospitalized. Jin was also injured. All five association members, including the secretary-general, were arrested.

Religious groups get involved in candlelight protests
On edge, gov’t reaches out to religious leaders to placate protesters

The South Korean government, which has been getting tougher on candlelight rallies for renegotiation of the U.S. beef agreement, is on high alert as Christian and Buddhist groups have begun to join the demonstrations, following an “emergency mass” led by the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice on June 30. With religious groups joining the candlelight rallies, the protests have grown and are peaceful once again. The government, for its part, seems to be trying to reach out to the organizations.

On July 1, Christian groups, including the National Council of Churches in Korea, said they would hold an “emergency prayer meeting” in front of Seoul’s City Hall on the evening of July 3. Buddhist groups, including the Solidarity for Buddhist Environment and LotusWorld, plan to hold a large-scale Buddhist service on July 4.

“Catholic, Christian and Buddhist groups are trying to overcome the situation. If there is no change in the government’s stance, we will consider issuing a statement signed by the leaders of seven groups representing seven different denominations,” said Yang Deok-chang, a senior official with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea.

The “emergency mass” held by the CPAJ on June 30 was attended by some 30,000 citizens, all holding candles, on the plaza in front of City Hall. Led by the Catholic priests, citizens marched peacefully past Namdaemun, Seoul’s South Gate, and Myeong-dong, instead of heading to the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, or the Blue House.

The activities of the Buddhist groups in particular have put the government on edge. Buddhist groups have long felt that the government is more partial to Christian groups, perhaps because President Lee Myung-bak is a confirmed Christian and an elder at Somang Presbyterian Church in Seoul.

The CPAJ’s participation is also worthy of note. It was active in the pro-democracy movement of the 70s and 80s and has come to serve as a kind of moral compass. Last fall, it represented Kim Yong-cheol when he brought allegations of corruption against Samsung Group.

As if the government sensed the urgency of the situation, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said, without any prior notice, that he would meet with Ven. Jigwan, the executive chief of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country’s biggest Buddhist sect. The meeting was cancelled, however, due to a protest by alliance of Buddhist groups organizing the July 4 Buddhist service, which called on the prime minister to first draw up his plans for renegotiation of the U.S. beef agreement before meeting with the Ven. Jigwan. The prime minister is also believed to be considering meeting with various religious leaders, including leaders of Catholic and Christian groups.

In a rare move, Culture Minister Yu In-chon proposed opening a “direct dialogue” between the government and the People’s Countermeasure Council Against Mad Cow Disease, which has been a leading organizer of the candlelight rallies. In an interview with CBS radio, Yu said, “So far, (the government and the organizers of the candlelight rallies) have only told their side of the story, but it seems there has not been much chance for the two sides to meet and talk with each other. The most urgent thing is dialogue.”

“As the government has no channel for talks with the rally organizers, I’m asking some people to hold talks. To open a channel for discussion, I think the organization leaders who are in detention need to be treated with leniency,” Yu said.

Cheong Wa Dae has so far declined to comment on the situation, but was believed to be monitoring the situation closely. It also appears to be taking extra precautions as religious groups are now involved in the candlelight demonstrations.

However, it’s uncertain whether the government action will placate candlelight protesters and religious groups because it lost trust with a violent crackdown on the rallies, during which it called the candlelight protests “illegal” and “violent.” Civic groups responding to the culture minister’s proposal to hold talks with the People’s Countermeasure Council said that the proposal is “nonsense, because police have already arrested some of the activists from the council.”