Tag Archives: protest

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.


Seoul May Day

3 May

I was in Jongro on Sunday for the afternoon. There were a larger-than-normal number of police buses parked along the thoroughfares.  Normally there are a few around Gwanghwamun and tucked back near Jogyesa, but this time they were everywhere.  Then I remembered the date: May Day.  I saw a bunch of students protesting for migrant worker rights at Bosingak, but they were doing choreographed dances in pink shirts — not exactly your hardcore streetfighting types.  I was a tad disappointed.  I’d missed out on the G20 protests last fall and I’ve heard of the Korean left’s reputation of welcoming confrontation, be it on the streets or in the National Assembly.  I mean, if you’re going to demonstrate, demonstrate, for crying out loud.  I thought I’d never get to see a protest, even a moderate-sized one.

I stood corrected as my girlfriend and I neared City Hall in our cab.  Traffic slowed to a crawl and cops in high-visibility jackets sprinted down sidewalks.  Our taxi driver was extremely polite toward us, but swore up and down at the protesters.  “Every year they have a fit like this and then do nothing the rest of the year.”  In describing their “fit,” he used the term 지랄, which in (quite harsh) slang means to thrash about like an epileptic.  A bunch of student protestors occupied the subway exit next to Deoksugung, blocking the stairs and chanting at the top of their lungs.  A cordon of police sealed them off and reporters scrambled around to get the best view possible.  The plaza was swarming with people, though nowhere near the number that could have been there.

We ate lunch and wandered up a hill behind Deoksugung to the old Russian legation, where Emperor Gojong hid out after his wife’s assassination by the Japanese.  You could still hear the shouting from City Hall rolling over Deoksugung and up the hill.  My curiosity was definitely piqued and I badgered my girlfriend into going down there.

There were no rocks nor brickbats sailing through the air, nor police clubbing pinkos, much to the chagrin of my Schadenfreude.  It felt more like a giant party.  I saw families walking past stop and take pictures amongst the crowds.  On stage a man was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Firing a worker is murder!”  A group of students, to the cacophony of drums and Korean horns, tore a banner to shreds in a mosh pit-like frenzy.  I looked at the pictures set up at different booths.  One accused Samsung Semiconductor of causing leukemia in children  through excessive pollution.  Another posted photos of a school teacher forcibly cutting a student’s hair to keep it in line with an old but no longer practiced policy of short hair.  In every case, hystrionics seemed to be consistent with the leftist attitude that any single incident of wrongdoing is a manifestation of the evil of the system as a whole.  Yet the system would not run without people; if there is corruption, it is because we, as humans, inhabit the system.  If that is so, how can one’s ideology be bent on turning power over to the masses, where corruption can therefore rule unchecked?  But that is for a different post . . .

Some displays, though, had interesting critiques, especially of thugs hired by either corporations or local government to forcibly evict poor people from their homes.  My girlfriend explained that under Lee Myung-bak’s adminstration, a great deal of development and renewal projects have been implemented.  While we would term what happens “eminent domain,” it appears in these cases to be more like theft.  Collusion between government and business is very tight here and while it produces incredible and rapid results, there is, from the photos of thugs slugging old women, a definite human cost.

I picked up a flyer about imprisoned labor activists.  Here’s one:

Han Sang Ryeol (한상렬), looking quite Korean in his hanbok and yangban-esque beard, was imprisoned for violating the National Security Law.  It’s an over 70-year old law that criminalizes anti-government or pro-Communist activities. While the law was intended to stamp out North Korean subversion, nowadays it is used more often for quelling dissent.  Han got a five year sentence.  Jang Min Ho (장민호) was arrested for violating the same law and is now serving a seven year stretch in Daejeon:

Other activists listed in the pamphlet were jailed for various strikes and for violently resisting a forced removal of tenants in Yongsan.  As I looked at this and other materials at the protest, I realized that I could not take a side in any of this.  I had no stake in the game, of course; it was not a bread and butter (or rice and kimchi) issue for me, just a curious sideshow.  But more so, this game was played by different rules, ones which my own principles could not easily align.  After all, this is East Asia.  Though Korea is a technically a democracy, that is a convenient surface fiction.  Democracy has come to mean in our post-modern minds the ability to vote, petition governments, and expect that the rule of law will be carried out.  Which is all well and good, and may explain much of how much modern Korea (or even Japan) functions, but it does little to explain what happens in the soul of the country.  Who is there to take sides with?  The labor activists who claim to speak for the people?  Yet many of them express if not outright solidarity for North Korea, then a least a desire for unification on terms less than punitive for the Communist regime.  Should I side with the chaebol and old guard, the conservative, big-business types who are bringing Korea fabulous new riches and security in the world?  If the photographs of hirelings beating up squatters are any indication, violence and corruption is not outside the pale of their means and in a way unthinkable to most Americans.

It reminded me that this is an old place.  These are ancient struggles for power.  The struggles may manifest themselves on the surface as normal election results and this deceives us into thinking that their nation has become something like the West.  But it is fundamentally an issue of identity.  Such struggles are reflective of what each Korean faction sees as best for the country.  And to speak of the country is not to speak of some civic institution as Americans conceive of it, not the government and laws representing the people.  Rather, the country is the people.  It is a struggle fundamentally racial, cultural, linguistic in nature.  Factions may utilize different ideologies in furtherance of their end, but they are ultimately tools to attain the well-being of the people, the minjok (민족).  This is the land of Confucius, not Jefferson.  Harmony, not liberty, is the end.

As we left the protest, crossing the street toward the Seoul Plaza Hotel, I saw what must have been the police chief in charge of the shindig looking about frantically.  He pointed east and, in full dress uniform, scuttled off, shouting into his radio, peons sprinting after him.  The protestors had broken the police cordon and, with flags waving, were sprinting down Sogong-ro.  My girlfriend and I wandered toward Namdaemun, which was packed with armored police, just waiting for a fight.  No protestors showed, though.  “Let’s find a coffee shop so we can watch every thing safely,” she said.  We wandered through the market, headed toward Myeongdong, when we saw a snarl of traffic and heard blaring bullhorns.  The protesters had occupied the whole northbound lane of Sogong-ro.  We ducked into the Lotte Young building and relaxed in the third floor coffeeshop, watching the protesters below shaking fists and chanting.

I asked my girlfriend if her mom remembered anything of the student movement protests during the ’80s, which was when she was a student.  “No, because she had nothing to gain.  She was just a rich girl, living in a nice part of Seoul, doing anything she wanted.  She didn’t care about anything but herself.  At least not until she became poor.”

The democracy protests were a huge part of Korean history during that decade and one which was most likely to have touched ordinary people.  Yet some folks, no matter how tumultuous the times, have nothing to do with the grand events.  They keep on doing what’s best for them or their family, making ends meet, trying to live well, be happy.  The question is, if everyone did that, from the mightiest to the meekest, would the world be better or worse off?

Eventually the protesters stood up, chanted and shook their fists in small circles for a few minutes, then rolled up their flags and went home as dusk closed in.

“I don’t think they accomplished anything,” my girlfriend said.  Happy May Day.