Saturday, May 31, 2008

In Another Country

I hadn’t planned to write about Korea while I was here, but things got interesting, and I haven’t seen anything about this on the sites I frequent. Korea means a lot to me for both personal and political reasons that are too intertwined to disentangle briefly here. I admire its passage from dictatorship to democracy, a story of which most Americans know nothing. A lot of Americans I talk to have trouble grasping that South Korea was also ruled by dictators for over thirty years, and some flatly refuse to believe it. “Where’d you get that propaganda?” one asked me irritably.

Even before I got here a week ago, I knew that a Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated between South Korea and the US, and that beef imports had been a major obstacle. After a scare in 2003, Korea had refused to allow beef from animals more than 20 months old, because it’s at greater risk for Mad Cow Disease. But then, abruptly, new President Lee Myeong Bak (derisively known as 2MB, or 2 Megabytes) caved in and gave Bush what he wanted.

Lee had won in a landslide over previous President Roh, and he was hailed in US media as much friendlier to America than his predecessor, which translates as more open to neoliberal programs and multinational corporations. Roh had if anything been too US-friendly, but Bush never liked him, probably in part because of Roh’s background as a human rights lawyer. Much of Korea’s public capital has already been sold off since the 1997 financial crisis, but as always the corporations want more, and President Lee is eager to let them have it.

Protests against US beef imports began with an online petition calling for Lee’s impeachment, signed by a million netizens on May 4. Candlelight vigils started by high school students have been going on nightly. Such vigils have been used often in the past few years, over grievances ranging from US soldiers who ran over two schoolgirls in 2002 to the government’s handling of a Korean hostage killed by Islamists in Iraq in 2004. This time the vigils have persisted for weeks, developing a carnival atmosphere as popular singers like Lee Seung Hwan have come to perform and express their support. Lee told the crowds, “In fact I’m very selfish. I’m here because I’m worried about my family, my friends, and my neighbors. I think you’re all selfish here. But if everybody shares this selfishness, it will do good for everybody, don’t you think?” (Damn, I've lost the clip with Lee in it; the singer in the clip below is Yoon Do Yeon, who explained that he'd been silent too long and thanked the young people for goading him into action.)

But the vigils have also become an irritant, and police have begun to push the protesters, who’ve pushed back. Yesterday the conservative English-language Korea Herald ran a stern editorial, accusing the protestors of breaking the law, inconveniencing the country, and picking on the police. A Korean friend told me that President Roh restrained the police in their dealings with protesters, but Lee will let them crack down. This is worrisome. Not only old Korean hardliners but US commercial interests and government have long wanted the Korean government to ‘do something’ about what they call anti-Americanism. (As usual, this translates as any criticism of American policies and conduct.) The editors accused the protesters of starting fights with the police, and ordered Koreans to shut up and stay home.

Last night about 50,000 protesters gathered in front of Seoul City Hall (the BBC says 20,000), then proceeded to the Blue House, the President’s mansion. Police arrested about 70 (update: 228). There are already plenty of cell-phone videos online from last night. Everyone has a cell phone, so everything is caught on video by the crowd and uploaded to the Web. The police are frustrated, which in the long run will be dangerous. But for now, they’re under surveillance as they never have been before. One newspaper said that the police are still in the 20th century, while the protesters are in the 21st.

At about 12:45 a.m. the police turned water cannons on the crowd, injuring about 65. (Welcome back to the 20th century.) This morning there are photos on OhMyNews showing police beating a demonstrator, but they were taken in daylight. My Korean isn't up to sorting out exactly when they were taken.

My own guess is that Mad Cow Disease, while a valid concern, is partly a symbolic tag for much larger ones. As in many countries, small farmers have suffered in Korea, leading to loss of farms and large numbers of suicides. Increased beef imports will only worsen their condition. The 1997 crisis gave the International Monetary Fund entrée to Korea; unemployment remains high, and inequality between rich and poor have grown steadily. The dictatorship was toppled in 1987 by a broad coalition ranging from the usual college students, labor unions and churches to middle-class citizens; the latter bowed out of activism when they won their immediate goal, no doubt believing that no more needed to be done. Now, with the economy still staggering, they may be returning to the struggle.

These events are part of the same global struggle that put Chavez, Morales, and Da Silva into office in Latin America. I imagine anti-“globalization” activists are already watching Korea, but what’s going on here deserves wider attention and support.

(Thanks to Soo for translations and help finding the video.)