Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Just Say No

Photos from OhMyNews (1) (2) (3); see this page for more.

Last night’s big rallies around Korea apparently went off smoothly, with little conflict between protesters and police. The schoolkids and families were joined by members of several major Korean labor unions, the Korea Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Unions, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, and the Korean Government Employees’ Union. It’s likely, of course, that there was considerable overlap between the union members and the adults who’d joined the vigils previously: teachers, transportation and public service workers, and government employees are also parents.

The huge barrier made of containers (see the photo above), derisively named “Myeong-bak’s Castle”, was dismantled Wednesday morning, says the Korea Times.

The protesters claim a million participants around the country; the police claim it was fewer. This is normal for large public gatherings, but it doesn’t matter, the demonstration was a huge success. There will be more vigils in days to come, in memory of two schoolgirls accidentally run over and killed by a US Army truck in 2002. Next, says the Korea Herald (“Rallies to continue in Seoul,

Also tomorrow, the Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union will go on strike. It is demanding that the government formulate countermeasures to lesson the burden created by soaring oil prices. The union has linked its planned walkout to the ongoing popular protests against the beef import deal.

On Saturday, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the biggest umbrella labor group, will vote whether and when to stage a walkout. Members of the KCTU have participated in the vigils.

Also on Saturday, a funeral ceremony will be held for Lee Byeong-ryeol in Seoul and other parts of the nation. Lee, 43, set himself on fire on May 25 in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, after calling for the toppling of the government. He died on Monday.

Marking the 8th anniversary of the June 15 inter-Korean joint declaration, various civic groups, including the KCTU, will hold a massive commemorative event.

Koreans will continue holding President Lee Myeong-bak’s feet to the fire, and although so far he still doesn’t want to renegotiate the import deal for US beef, his administration is floating new policies to help low-income families, small businesses, cargo truckers, and the elderly (“Lee refocuses policy agenda amid crisis”). Lee is preparing to reorganize his government as his Prime Minister, Cabinet, and senior secretaries resign. (This article from the Korea Times has some useful background on Lee, and this opinion piece deplores the calls by “outraged radicals” for Lee’s ouster in familiar terms -- “I personally find this inappropriate, since changing the President is not like changing radio stations” -- and descends into handwringing about “hardened Lee-haters.” Check out those outraged radical Lee-haters in the middle photo above.)

Last night I had an odd conversation with a young Korean who studied in the US before doing his military service. (All male Koreans are required to serve for about two years; the exact period varies with the branch they enter.) He was explaining to another foreigner at our table that the vigils happened because Koreans are changeable and don’t know what they want. He also blamed the vigils on young kids who are just anti-American because it’s trendy, who want US troops to withdraw from Korea even though they are all that stand between South Korea and a North Korean invasion. I observed that as far as I could tell, Koreans aren’t particularly changeable – they just don’t want the policies of privatization and corporate privilege that Lee wishes to impose. They opposed such policies under his predecessor Noh Mu-hyeon as well. If they voted Lee into office, it was more because they objected to Noh’s failings than because they liked what Lee wanted to do. (A mistake that voters in other countries have also made.)

I don’t pretend to know how dangerous North Korea is. I do know that the US has been lowering the number of US forces stationed in South Korea ever since the Carter administration at least, so it would seem that the US doesn’t consider the North as grave a threat as formerly (despite its posturing about Pyeongyang’s nuclear program). But this was a diversion from the main issue, probably a result of the immersion in military propaganda that every soldier undergoes; I’ve heard the same line from US soldiers stationed in Korea. I don’t doubt that many of the college-age and twenty- to thirty-something protesters would welcome a US withdrawal, though the grandmothers and grandfathers might disagree.

But the present demonstrations are about trade and economic policy, not military issues. The epithet “anti-American” is often used to dismiss the concerns of Koreans and others, including Americans who are critical of their / our government, but it’s misleading. Koreans, like people in many countries, are quite capable of distinguishing between the American government and American people. They want the US to change its policies and conduct, as do people in many countries, but first of all they want their own government to be responsive to their needs and wishes.

Coming home on the subway late last night, I sat across from two young Koreans, a man and a woman, both smiling happily at me. Only as they got up at their stop did I see the big Candle Girl sticker on the man’s t-shirt. I wanted to ask them if they’d been at the vigil (dumb question, of course), but didn’t have time. They surely knew that I was American, but all they had for me was smiles. Nor have I encountered any hostility from Koreans on this visit, nor during my previous ones, even though virtually all the Koreans I know support the protests. To accuse the protesters of anti-Americanism is stupid and insulting.