Friday, June 20, 2008

Back At My Post

Okay: back to work, I guess.
The Korean truckers’ strike appears to be over, the truckers having won some cautious concessions. That’s good news, along with the apparent fine-tuning (not renegotiation! anyone who calls it renegotiation, let him be anathema!) of the beef import provisions of the Free Trade Agreement with the US. President Lee has apologized again for having failed to take the people’s wishes into account. He replaced his secretaries, promised to abandon his canal project “if the people are opposed,” and maybe some of his privatization plans as well. Maybe; he was carefully evasive in his language, as numerous Koreans have noticed. What’s the matter, don’t you trust President Lee? About as far as I trust an American president.
For the Korea Herald, the key concern about canceling the canal is that “Construction companies are likely to face some financial setbacks because the government has scrapped its plans to build a cross-country canal” (“Cancellation of canal project leaves builders in the lurch”). (P.S. And I see that I forgot all about real-estate speculation, another windfall for Lee's moneyed supporters that won't pay off now.) You know, there must be other construction projects the government could undertake that wouldn’t harm the countryside or throw people out of their homes.
The Herald also has some editorials that deserve notice. In “No More Apologies,” the editorialist complains, “Even so, two apologies in a month are too many. It is all the more so, given that his apology this time was once more for the mishandling of the U.S. beef import deal.” If Lee had responded to public objections more sensibly and promptly, he might not have had to apologize twice in a month. I believe, myself, that it’s better for anyone, in private as well as public life, to err on the side of apologizing too much rather than too little; but I’ve always been something of a guilt junky.
(The Korea Times site also has an editorial called “No more apologies,” but its point is that he should show his contrition through action, rather than talking: “There are also other signs showing the President has yet to fully realize what's gone wrong and what should be done additionally to return things to normality. A case in point is Lee's seemingly begrudging retreat from his signature "Grand Canal" project. It would have been much better if he had flatly renounced the pet project without attaching the precondition of "if the people oppose it.'' Numerous surveys have shown a majority of people are against the cross-country waterway construction.”)
Next, in “For common good”, the Herald commends the Korean business sector for doing its share to build up the economy, by hiring slightly more recent college graduates than it had promised to. But not to worry: the numbers will drop in the second half of this year.
Then, in “Time to wrap up,” the editorialist is gleeful that numbers at the candlelight vigils have dropped precipitously in the past few days, from “a peak of tens of thousands down to several hundred, and it is not due to the start of the rainy season.” No, he contends, it’s because
Those young students, housewives and office workers who had gathered there to vent their anxiety over U.S. beef imports left when the protest became politicized by others who had different agenda.
After the massive demonstrations on June 10, the candlelight vigils changed shape. Men and women from all kinds of radical civic groups and labor unions also lit up candles and shouted all sorts of slogans, which invariably included "Lee Myung-bak out!" They opposed the Grand Canal project, the privatization of public corporations, the government's media policy and many other things.
This, of course, is nonsense – I think it’s not going too far to call it a lie. Calls for the removal of Lee Myung-bak had been part of the vigils since the beginning of May, when an online petition demanding Lee’s impeachment collected a million supporters. “Lee Myung-bak out!” had been a slogan in chants and on signs well before the June 10 demonstrations. Lee prepared to scrap his cabinet and other high officials as early as the end of May, in hopes of distracting the protesters from his own responsibility. The Grand Canal project, privatization, and other issues had been on the table all along, even if beef imports were the initial rallying cry. The vigils continued to grow despite, or maybe because of this broadening of issues. But then the Herald has been trying to mislead its readers all along.
The Times, to my surprise, criticized Barack Obama’s remarks on Korea and Free Trade. (Maybe they felt free to do so because Obama isn’t President yet.)
The Democrat presidential nominee said, “You can't get beef into Japan and Korea, even though we have the highest safety standards of anybody. If South Korea is selling hundreds of thousands of cars to the United States and we can only sell less than 5,000 in South Korea, something is wrong,” he added.

Some of Sen. Obama's aides should have told him that Australian and European beef products are being sold here with no problem, as they meet quarantine standards required by Seoul. Also, while made-in-U.S. vehicles are struggling here, some Japanese and European models are rapidly expanding their market shares by satisfying Korean motorists' tastes far better, not because there is any discriminations among imported cars. In short, Washington pried open the Korean market, but U.S. firms have failed to meet local consumers' demands, watching their foreign rivals reap the benefits of economic liberalization here.
It’s worth comparing the Korea Herald’s (“University students clash over vigils” and “Candleight flickers as issues diverge”) and Hankyoreh’s takes on the dwindling numbers at the vigils. The Herald, as I mentioned before, is gloating: all these commies tried to hijack the innocent, pure protests (of course their purity didn’t keep the Herald from attacking them for creating chaos and anarchy and undermining President Lee), but it didn’t work! hahahaha! Hankyoreh acknowledges differences among the protesters, but treats them as part of the larger picture. The Herald demands lockstep unanimity from the protestors, but of course if such unanimity existed, they’d treat it as evidence that the vigils were being controlled by diabolical agents of the North. Neither shows much evidence of what the participants actually say or think.
My own guess (and it’s only a guess) is that, aside from the arrival of the rainy season, many Koreans are ready for a rest. The vigils took place nightly for over forty days, and they were remarkably successful, shaking up not only Lee’s administration but the US government. Now is as good a time as any to sit back and see what President Lee does, if he honors his word to change his policies, or if he takes the relaxation of pressure as an excuse to revert. The corporate news media have been urging Koreans to pull back and give Lee a chance to make good on his promises. That's what they appear to be doing. If Lee reneges, the vigils can easily begin again in force.