FTA Power Struggle

11 Dec

The KORUS Free Trade Agreement (known on these shores in shorthand as the 한미FTA) has been ratified, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition against it.  In fact, the protests calling for its rescinding are as heated, if not more so, as those held before the National Assembly passed the law.  As I’ve noted before, the central areas of Seoul can fill up with heated street confrontations at a moment’s notice.  The video below is of the 한미FTA protests that took place last night in the capital:

Most of the protest’s momentum took it from the Cheonggyecheon area into Myeongdong toward Namsan.  It also ended up in Jongro, right on the main drag.

The fascinating thing about Seoul is that there can be an event like this going on and you can be but a few blocks away and have no idea that anything significant is happening.  I was in the city all afternoon, up toward Bukchon with my girlfriend, negotiating the crowds of fat Japanese girls shopping and Chinese tourists photographing overpriced shoe stores, and drinking overpriced coffee in tiny cups.  There were police about, mostly young conscripts doing their national service.  I’d seen them on other occasions in recent months, for the President’s house, Cheongwadae, is nearby.  For some reason, they were spread out in tiny groups throughout the area.  Turn down a street and, peekaboo! standing in entrance of a little alleyway are a cluster of neon-jacket cops, two with riot shields, another with a glowing red-orange traffic wand.  They just stand there, in the cold, looking fairly useless if any really concerned mob like that in the video came through.  My assumption was that it was all a precaution or a change in tactics just for the hell of it; I had no idea what was going down a kilometer away.

Down along the eastern wall of Gyeongbokgung, it was clear that they didn’t need manpower, ’cause they had firepower instead.  There was a truck that resembled a hook-and-ladder type operation, but marked police on the side.  Its boom was folded for the moment.  I realized that this was the exact same equipment the police used against labor union protests at the Hanjin Heavy Industries pier down in Busan (check out the photo in the first link, the truck I saw was exactly the same).  There was a water cannon mounted on the end of the boom, but what made it more nefarious was the mixing of tear gas compounds in with the water they were spraying.  Was the tanker truck behind it, also in police livery, filled with CS-laced water?  No idea, but I’ve never seen preparations on that scale for a protest anywhere in Seoul before.

But while I noticed the equipment and the police standing around, there was still no inkling of what was happening down in Myeongdong.  Ironically, we missed our turn to drive south down the plaza in front of Gwanghwamun and ended up stuck in traffic, heading west before looping back east by the river.  If we hadn’t been cut off and gotten into the lane we intended, we’d have driven right smack into the middle of the fracas.  And, still, no idea until I drove all the way home and just happened to see the news pop up as I switched on my computer.

***

The arguments for and against free trade or protectionism often boil down to one side shouting at other about principles or the lack of them.  Free trade is sancrosanct, one side shouts, as self-evident as any natural right.  Can’t you see?  You don’t see?  Well, then, you have no understanding of economics.  The other side jabs its finger back, screaming that it’s often a select few who benefit, especially those connected to political power.  It’s all a scheme by the rich against the people!  We’ll all be serfs, don’t you see!  You clearly have no understanding of economics!

The unfortunate part is that (and this is painfully obvious in the boring, dualistic responses to Occupy Wall Street) we have come to regard economics as a source of morality (or ethics, if you prefer), instead of responding to and a servant of an external source of morality.  It’s the same way that we live without any sense of our own history.  Modern life distances and insulates man from his past, the realities of those struggles, and the principles and lessons inherent to them.  We run around making economics a shrill sermon of fundamentalist rigor because we live in a world with no past, one created in material and culture by the economics of industrialization — what else should we expect?

Unaware of our history, we fail to see that economic systems are tools by which nations, or parts of nations, attempt to secure power, prosperity, or security for themselves.  American corporations may enjoy free trade today and wax on about the moral uprightness of it, but a hundred plus years ago the industrialists would have rather died than see the tariff gone.  For the fact was that, from the beginning of the Republic, American industry couldn’t compete with England.  The tariff held the cheaper English goods at bay, but placed enormous burdens on the sections of the country exporting goods to England.

True, this built up America to a world power by the end of the 19th century.  And you could make the same argument about the nation-strengthening policies of Park Chung-Hee back in the ’60s and ’70s.  But that doesn’t make it moral.  One section of America suffered because of the tariff, so much so that it was one reason to secede from nation as a whole.  And the other section used their newfound industrial strength to crush the other.  So when people are out protesting in the streets like above, I don’t think about whether free trade or protectionism are themselves right or wrong.  I think, Who is getting the shaft here?  Beyond the sham of fungible rhetoric, who wins and who loses?

The losers will not be most of the people in that video.  In fact, they might even prosper.  They and their children will fill the ranks of the rising middle class that is fueling all the speculative growth in the capital area.  They’ll move into one of the massive apartment complexes being thrown up in places that a generation ago were no-name villages, now covered with the scars of asphalt and concrete, with ridiculous names like “Gwanggyo Techno Valley” the label capitalizing on people’s hopes.  They’ll make money, forget that they ever said anything bad about the 한미FTA or globalization, and proceed to transform Korea into a land of PC rooms, coffee shop chains, designer clothes outlets, smartphone stores, and soaring towers of concrete soul-destruction, everyone crammed into tiny boxes, creating their worlds online because there’s no space outside.  Their culture will become the only Korea, the old ways dying not with a bang but with a whimper.

Yes, whimpering away, that is how the losers will go.  For they are too old and too few to make any noise.  The remains of the rural peasantry will be gone.  Korean rice is protected under the FTA, but other farm products will be hit by U.S. imports, without many opportunities to make up for losses in vulnerable U.S. sectors.  And no one will replace the rice farmers when they’re gone, for four acres and harvester doesn’t have any appeal for the younger generation, who are convinced that maybe if they study just a little bit harder, take one more interview, get a nose job, then they’ll finally land a spot in a corporation, safe for life.  Yes, maybe this time, just one more try.

And that will be it.  Korea as Korea will be done, gone forever.  The last thing really tying it to its past and its identity, an agricultural people and its traditions, will be gone.  After that, Korean culture as the urban masses believe it, as the world is shown — the Chuseok celebrations, the hanbok, the winter kimchi making — is a mere facade, a mimesis without understanding.

This struggle between an agrarian and an industrial civilization, then, was the irrepressible conflict, the house divided against itself, which must become according to the doctrine of the industrial section all the one or all the other. 

It was the doctrine of intolerance, crusading, standardizing alike in industry and in life.

– Frank Lawrence Owsley

Korea, the Korea as it was, had to be crushed out; it was in the way; it impeded the progress of the machine.  So Juggernaut drove his Hyundai across the peninsula.

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