(en) ASIA CONNEXIONS -- Jan/Feb (1/2)

Thu, 6 Mar 1997 11:15:32 GMT

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=09=09=09ASIA CONNEXIONS ... critical news and analysis about the Asia-Pacific ... =09=09 January/February 1997 =09=09 [Message 1 of 2]

************************************************************************ "Thank God [Indonesia's] a dictatorship. If it were a democracy, (the Busang imbroglio) could be tied up in court for years."

-- unnamed president of an unnamed Vancouver-based junior mining company active in Indonesia and the Philippines

Toronto Star (December 16, 1996) ************************************************************************ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ CONTENTS:

[Message 1]

FOCUS ON KOREA: -- Labour erupts in South Korea -- Poisoned Legacy: The Yonsei Student Uprising

[Message 2]

CANADA: -- "Canada fuels oppression," say flag burners

HUMAN RIGHTS PROFILE: -- China and Tibet

DISPATCHES FROM THE PHILIPPINES: -- Polluting the Philippines: Placer Dome and the tragedy of Calancan Bay -- Team Canada in Manila: "Canadian capitalists' hunting expedition"

NEWS SHORTS: -- Tibet, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and East Timor



[The first stop of the recent Team Canada trade trip was South Korea, where Jean Chr=8Etien, Glen Clark and a host of business leaders stepped into the largest mass strikes in modern Korean history. In the following piece, HAROLD LAVENDER of the Asia Connexions collective analyzes the recent protests. "Poisoned Legacy," further looks at the roots of political protest in Korea with an analysis of the Yonsei Student Uprising.]

As Jean Chr=8Etien, nine premiers and some 400 Canadian business leaders looked for investment opportunities and profits in South Korea, thousands of striking workers were clashing with riot police in the streets. Police freely resorted to tear gas in their bid to disperse workers.=20

It was an important mission for Team Canada, much too important to be diverted by any issues of workers' rights. Neither Chr=8Etien, Glen Clark o= r any of the other provincial premiers were prepared to publicly condemn the South Korean government. South Korea has already surpassed France to become Canada's sixth largest trading partner and government and business leaders were hoping to sign contracts worth over $2 billion.=20

The trade trip was also an opportunity for the South Korean government to conquer new markets by diversifying its trade patterns. South Korean President Kim Young Sam has already announced that he will lead a "Team Korea" delegation to Canada later this year

But the biggest story is certainly not Team Canada or Team Korea. Rather it is the largest mass labour conflict in Korean history. It is a conflict that has direct roots in accelerating globalization and the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) agenda.=20

The Korean government has decided that it will seek to become globally competitive by introducing new labour reforms. The new Employment Standards Act will take away workers' rights to job security and give employers far greater flexibility to hire and fire as they see fit.

Korean labour legislation in the 1950s was designed to offer South Korean workers paternal protection and cement loyalty against communism. It was put into practice by the largest Korean private sector employers who sought to emulate the seemingly successful Japanese model.=20

As direct military dictatorship was pushed back by popular struggles in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increasing opportunity to strike and unionize, especially among large private sector firms. Today close to 20 percent of the South Korean labour force is unionized.=20

However, the state industrial complex now feels the old model must be scrapped to lower labour costs and make South Korea competitive with new Asian producers who have even lower costs. The Employment Standards Act will make it far easier for bosses to lay off workers, use scabs and claw back paid vacation time. Meanwhile public sector unions still remain illegal and the government refuses to recognize basic rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

In the new labour legislation, the government has failed to grant legal recognition to the 500,000 member progressive labour alliance -- "Minchu Nochong" known as the Korea Council of Trade Unions (KCTU). The council remains illegal because the government dislikes its left-wing politics and direct defiance of existing labour laws.

The government has only legally recognized the more conservative and compliant 1.2 million member Federation of Korean Workers (FKTU). But even among the moderates the mood is changing. Last year, for the first time, the FKTU called for legal recognition of the KCTU and for the right of teachers and public service workers to form unions. Now both union federations are involved in the protest strikes against the new labour law.

Strikers say "No"=20

Mass strikes began December 26 after the new labour law was rushed through at a secret pre-dawn session of Parliament in which opposition members were not present. Workers immediately responded by shutting down the crucial auto, steel and shipbuilding sectors. Public transit and health care workers also went on strike.

By late December, some 350,000 workers were on the lines. Some strikes were temporarily suspended by the moderate FKTU leadership but by January 8, the number of strikers had once again risen to over 200,000. When the government remained intransigent, both labour federations were involved in a one-day strike which reportedly involved over one million workers.

The government shows no willingness to negotiate. Indeed, it continues to advocate a hard line by threatening to arrest strike leaders. Subpoenas were issued against key organizers and on January 10 police raided the Seoul headquarters of the KCTU. The offices of automobile and hospital workers' unions in Seoul and of a metalworkers union in Pusan were also attacked. Some strike leaders wanted by the government have sought refuge in a cathedral which has since been surrounded by thousands of sympathizers.=20

To date, however, the government has been unable to impose its will and crush the strikes which still enjoy strong support from the mass of South Korean workers in addition to militant student support. Moreover, the government appears to be losing the battle of public opinion. A variety of South Korean civic organizations, religious groups and academics have come out with statements in favour of the strikers by arguing that the new labour laws erode workers' rights.=20

In an attempt to defuse criticism, the Korean government has apologized for the secretive way the labour law was passed. It has also said it would consider legislation to lengthen unemployment benefits and help workers find new jobs. However it remains adamant that it will not retreat on the substantive content of the new law. Unless this happens, the conflict will continue. (As Asia Connexions goes to print, President Kim Young Sam has indicated a willingness to negotiate, although it is unclear what this means in practice.)

Solidarity against the workers

The South Korean government is also coming under increasing criticism from groups like the International Labour Organization and a variety of other human rights and labour organizations. While the government had initially claimed that the labour law would bring Korea into compliance with international standards, this excuse is certainly not accepted by the International Confederation of Trade Unions of which both the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the KCTU are members.

CLC President Bob White called for members of the visiting Team Canada delegation to speak out against the abrogation of workers' rights in Korea. He suggested the Canadian government should speak out against anti-labour legislation in Korea in the same manner it spoke against the Helms-Burton legislation which attacked the rights of Canadian companies to profit with Cuba. White, however, did not go so far as to openly oppose globalization or the Team Canada trade mission.=20

Prime Minister Chr=8Etien, on the other hand, delivered a message of solidarity with the Korean government against Korean workers. Chr=8Etien refused to publicly criticize the government over a "local issue" claiming it was not up to him to interfere in the internal affairs of South Korea.= =20 Of course, a few days later he had no hesitation to interfere in the internal affairs of the Philippines by suggesting that President Fidel Ramos deserved the right to run for another term (an action which would involve a constitutional amendment).

Chr=8Etien expressed sympathy for the government by suggesting that labour unrest is just part of the same adjustment to globalization that Canada has had to go through. Ontario Premier Mike Harris sang the same tune:=20 "All I know is that people say you can't have a job for life and I think that's a fact of life in the world today."

BC Premier Glen Clark also abandoned defending workers or the position of his CLC friends in favour of promoting BC corporations. In his words, "We didn't come here to give lectures to Koreans about their domestic affairs =2E.. We can and do raise these questions privately ... And we sought some assurances. Beyond that it's simply inappropriate to come here and make statements." Clark's approach was echoed by Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute who argued that it would be huge mistake for the Canadian government to interfere in the internal affairs of South Korea.=20

Whose success story?=20

South Korean capitalism has been enormously successful for some, but it certainly does not correspond to the Fraser Institute's ideal free-market model of economic freedom and political democracy. =20 South Korea is the "success story" of a very different model -- a highly authoritarian capitalism closely controlled by a partnership between business and government. The Korean state helped fuel rapid industrialization which took place on the back of the growing working class. If Korean workers are now angry and militantly resisting cutbacks, it is because they have been denied most of the benefits of economic success.=20

Beginning in the early 1960s, South Korea underwent a rapid process of industrialization. Employers were able to take full advantage of an abundant, but relatively educated and cheap labour force which toiled very intensely for very long hours under harsh conditions. The South Korean economy initially broke through in textiles and then expanded into electronics, shipbuilding, steel and automobiles. The biggest winners in the process were a series of very large corporate conglomerates know as chaebols. Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung soon became important competitors in the globalizing world economy.

It is not surprising that the Korean system of winners and losers generated worker unrest. Resistance had been very difficult under outright military dictatorship, but as struggles led to partial democratization, unions began to make limited gains.=20

Authoritarian habits die hard, however. The anti-democratic passage of the recent labour law and attempted arrests of strike organizers proves that South Korea is anything but a democracy for all. [end]

* * *

POISONED LEGACY: The Yonsei Student Uprising by Harold Lavender

The Cold War may have ended in many parts of the world, but its legacy lives on in Korea.=20

Last August, Yonsei University in Seoul literally became a battle ground between riot police upholding "national-security" and some 15,000 radical students promoting "Korean unification." After 9 days of some of the most violent clashes in recent years, riot police using helicopters to drop =D2stun grenades=D3 and tear gas regained control of the campus.=20

Over the course of the conflict, 5,848 students were arrested and about 1,000 people were injured. Yonsei University suffered extensive damage estimated at $12 million.

The conflict erupted after South Korean authorities banned a peaceful Grand Unification Festival planned for Yonsei University on the pretext that it was a pro-North Korea event. The rally was organized by the Hanchongnyon -- the Korean Federation of University Councils which represents students at over 180 Korean universities and colleges. A majority of councils are controlled by a leadership which advocates national liberation, greater democracy and a unified Korea free from US domination.

Riot police attempted to enforce the government ban as some 4,000 students gathered at Yonsei and thousands more from different campuses marched to join them. Riot police repeatedly blocked students from marching to the truce village of Panmunjom to meet up with their North Korean counterparts.=20

In the wake of the clash repression has continued, although it appears to be somewhat selective and targeted at radical student leaders. Police have staged a nationwide hunt for the leaders of the Hanchongnyon. 36 students will be prosecuted under Korea's National Security Law for having produced and disseminated material "benefiting the enemy." Another 428 students have been charged with violence, interference in police duties and unlawful intrusion.

Since the elections of 1992, Korea has had a civilian president and many of the trappings of a liberal democracy. However, greater freedoms have created a problem for South Korea's rulers. They now complain of a permissive climate at universities which has allowed radical ideas to spread.

Shortly after the Yonsei Uprising, Korean President Kim Young Sam warned the heads of Korean universities and colleges that he would "never tolerate radical students adhering to communism=D3 and would deal sternly with =D2anachronistic pro-North Korea forces.=D3 He even suggested student activities could be regarded as a revolutionary movement in support of North Korea or as an urban guerrilla movement.

The main opposition grouping, Kim Dae Jung's =D2New Congress for New Politics,=D3 has also, for the first time, condemned the students.=20 Heavy-handed attempts to suppress student radicalism suggests there are very clear limits to democracy and human rights in South Korea.

The roots of authoritarianism

Korea was divided following World War II, but this unstable division soon erupted into war. While in the West the Korean War has always been portrayed as an unprovoked communist invasion of the south, it is a version of history rejected by radical Korean students.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a stalemate and the subsequent division of Korea into north and south. Memories of war still continue to cast a long shadow with basic human rights as the primary casualty.=20

North Korea resembles Stalin's Russia with a cult of personality around long serving dictator Kim Il Sung who has been succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il. The regime has remained stable through a capacity to provide the basic material necessities for its people and the brutal repression of dissent. (This year, however, stories have emerged of famine and North Korea being unable to feed its population.)

South Korea spends 30 percent of its budget on defense and has its own pervasive Central Intelligence Agency. For much of the last forty years, it has been ruled by military dictators who have gone so far as to impose martial law. Protest and dissent were portrayed as collaboration with the enemy. Widespread suppression and censorship were justified in the name of national security. The United States also continues to maintain tens of thousands of troops in the country.

South Korean military authoritarianism proved to be very good for business. An =D2Asian Tiger=D3 was born under the shadow of dictatorship bu= t military rule became increasingly unstable. By 1980 the regime had generated intense opposition from students, workers and even members of the middle class. A mass democracy movement had woken.

For example, civilians took control of Kwangju, a major city in the southwest of the country. On May 27 1980, in a very public display of military brutality, the army retook Kwangju while massacring hundreds of civilians.=20

After what became known as the Kwangju Massacre, the military was never able to totally reconsolidate its power. By 1987, militant protests were constant and on a mass scale. The mass struggles led to democratic reforms and eventually led to the elections of 1992 when South Korea elected a civilian president.

Since the advent of civilian rule, there has been a settling of accounts.= =20 This year, Chun Doo Hwan -- President at the time of the Kwangju Massacre -- and his hand picked successor, Roh Tae Woo, were brought to justice.=20 They were charged with extreme corruption and responsibility for Kwangju.

Chun and Roh were convicted of receiving multimillion dollar bribes, mutiny and treason. Nine big business tycoons were also convicted of bribery. Chun Doo Wan was sentenced to death while Roh got 22 years.=20 Chun's death sentence was eventually overturned on appeal. Chun's contribution to the economic development of Korea was cited as a mitigating factor.

Superficially, South Korea has appeared to have put its troubles behind it. There are now two main pro-business parties that are not too different from each other. The Korean system, however, leaves out students who have a radically different vision for Korean society. In the 1990s, their agenda has increasingly focused on Korean unification. The student agenda directly conflicts with the interests of South Korean politicians, conglomerates, military and US government.

North Korea continues to be flogged as an "international terrorist state"= =20 by the US and others. However, any threat appears to be diminishing. North Korea is even more isolated politically with the breakup of the Soviet Union and is heavily in debt.=20

US President Bill Clinton and Kim Young Sam have their own ideas about how to resolve the conflict. Meeting earlier this year, they proposed four way talks involving South Korea, North Korea, the US and China. The ultimate aim seems to be to absorb North Korea as per the German model. Such a change would involve preserving the status quo of South Korea=D5s economic model. Indeed, the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum just held in Vancouver endorsed the call for four party talks.=20

Behind the violent eruption at Yonsei lies highly conflicted visions of Korea's future and its place in the world. [end]

* * *

For more articles from ASIA CONNEXIONS (Jan/Feb), see message 2 ...=20


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