Monday, June 9, 2008

Autarchy In The ROK

Funny thing: the Korea Herald has been yammering that the evil candleight vigils interfere with decent people's lives, spreading chaos and anarchy, and blocking traffic. So what do you call this?
And it wasn't Candle Girl who put those barriers in place.

(Photos, again, from OhMyNews.) These containers were mounted and anchored here in preparation for tonight's vigil commemorating the pro-democracy movement of 1987. (Yay, I can link individual articles at the Korea Times! The articles, however, are thinner on both information and propaganda than at the Korea Herald.) There's talk of a million people gathering in cities around the country. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more than that.

Meanwhile, the young woman who was stomped by Korean cops a week or two back refuses to try to prosecute the police: she wants action taken against those who ordered the cops to use violence ("Tension mounts as one million gather for vigils" at the Korea Herald site).

The Right is having conniptions. According to the Herald there will also be a counter-rally tonight, organized by right-wing groups, and there are two editorials lamenting the weakness of neo-liberalism in Korea today. One ("Pleading no strike") attacks truck and taxi drivers for threatening to strike if they aren't allowed to raise their rates because of soaring fuel prices, accusing them of "seeing the present political and social turmoil as an opportunity to demonstrate their power against the government, which has chosen a business-friendly policy." Hell, yeah: that's how politics works. As for "business-friendly", truck drivers and taxi drivers are also "business" -- they just don't have the clout and access to the President that the conglomerates, Korean and foreign, enjoy. Why shouldn't they raise their rates to cover their costs? The editorialist complains "their strikes will cause serious problems to the nation's industries and further aggravate the social atmosphere."

We understand the difficulties that the skyrocketing oil prices have caused for truckers and public transport businesses. Yet memories are still vivid of the nationwide truckers' strike in 2003, which resulted in total losses of $540 million to the manufacturing and export businesses. At that time, the truckers' action had the justifiable reason of correcting an inadequate hiring system involving corporate consignors and the drivers, who were mostly the owners of the vehicles they drive.

How much do you want to bet that in 2003, the Herald opposed the strike and scolded the truckers for costing their betters so much money? It's always easier to support popular movements in hindsight. It seems to me that the truckers and taxi drivers today also have a justifiable reason for action. The writer concludes:

It is time for all to show restraint and allow businesses and the government the space to breathe. Collective action should be limited to delivering each group's demands to the authorities. Everyone should deeply consider the consequences of their moves. A strike at this time will undermine public trust in the labor movement, and plunge the nation into sheer hopelessness.

I love this sweet reasonableness, but most Koreans also need some space to breathe, after years of rising prices and high unemployment. It's time that the government and the conglomerates felt the squeeze for a while, and "deeply considered the consequences of their moves" to enrich themselves while the mass of Koreans suffered.

The Herald's other editorial scolding today's youth ("Not for disorder") waves its hindsight around even more blatantly. It begins by eulogizing the movement that brought down the dictatorship. But, but, but ....

However, everyone should calmly ponder how relevant the democratization struggles of past years are to the present candlelight vigils in Seoul Plaza. The only connection we see between them is that those young people on the lawn circle are enjoying the fruits of the fight against dictatorship throughout the 1960s, 70s and the 80s. The middle and high school boys and girls there may not know the history well, but their parents should.

Their parents know the history very well; that's Lee's problem. And if the kids didn't know the history, they're learning it quickly as Lee tries to restage the repression. If the editorialist can't see the connection between this movement and its predecessor, many (most?) Korean citizens can.

Anti-U.S. beef demonstrations have developed into antigovernment actions, which have at last produced deplorable scenes of youths using steel pipes, ropes and ladders to destroy police buses. Political groups have joined citizens, who had benign intentions, to snatch what they were unable to gain through the regular political process. The situation is approaching a flash point where the nation could face a breakdown of the democratic order achieved through decades of dedicated struggles.

Of course, the deplorable scenes of youths using steel pipes to destroy police buses were preceded by deplorable scenes of police using clubs, boots, shields, and water cannons to injure and intimidate the protesters. And it's noteworthy, as I've noticed before, that while this writer and other Lee supporters deplore the idea that troublemakers are trying to remove a democratically elected President before his term is over, it didn't bother them when the Right tried to impeach Lee's predecessor Noh, an elite move very different from the popular anger Korea is seeing now. Was the impeachment attempt also an "antigovernment move"? Antigovernment moves are okay for me, but not for thee.

The Right is also spluttering that you can't go around rewriting laws as you find it convenient! The beef import agreement was signed, sealed and delivered, and it would be wrong to renege on it. As if governments didn't do such things all the time, often in much more serious matters. The Herald editorialist inadvertently provides a counterexample:

Twenty-one years ago on June 10, massive demonstrations by students and office workers forced military rulers to give up an attempt to prolong their time in power. Protesters were agitated by the news of the death of Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol, who was hit on the head by a tear gas grenade the day before. Earlier in the year, Seoul National University student Pak Jong-cheol was tortured to death in a police interrogation room.

On June 29 that year, the Chun Doo-hwan government agreed to rewrite the Constitution to reintroduce direct presidential elections and allow opposition leaders to run in the election. June 10, 1987 is thus remembered as a milestone in the nation's democratic advancement. However, people power in the Republic of Korea had been built up strenuously via bloodbaths in 1960 and 1980 and numerous protests and great suffering in the name of freedom and human rights.

How's that again? The Chun regime rewrote the Constitution to appease the violent rabble? Yet the editorialist -- rightly -- admits that the 6.10 movement is remembered as a milestone in the nation's democratic advancement. The Lee regime, though elected as Chun was not, equally wishes to override democracy by pushing through policies that the overwhelming majority of Koreans oppose, and Lee has tried to keep his power through Red-baiting and police violence. Despite the writer's handwringing, it's the popular opposition to Lee that represents the democratic heritage Koreans have worked for so long to build.

P.S. Just as I thought! I found the text of a Herald editorial from September 3, 2003, that I'd saved in e-mail. As I expected, far from granting that Korean workers had "justifiable reasons" for striking, the writer fulminates that they're scaring away foreign investors:

Thanks to brisk international media coverage, South Korea has earned an unwanted reputation as home of the most militant labor activism. Red headbands with long tails and clenched fists punching the air to a regular beat have become trademarks of Korea's unionized workers, whose calendars are always marked with a "spring strike" often extended to a "summer struggle."

Over the past decade, the labor movement in Korea has turned increasingly uncompromising and foreign-invested firms were not spared from the pattern, or some bore the brunt of trouble. As if they have collectively decided that they have had enough, foreign CEOs in Korea are issuing a spate of complaints and demands to the government on labor policies.

And so on. The writer concedes that "
businessmen must end their attempts to create illegal funds for themselves and for use in currying favor with political power," but all in all he assumes that the fault for labor unrest lies entirely with the workers, not with those foreign (and domestic) investors seeking "a cheaper and more peaceful labor market." In practice that means no environmental or work-area safety regulations, brutal suppression of union organizing (let alone striking), and huge tax incentives for the investors. Koreans are right to resist any attempt to impose these conditions on them.