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South Koreans Worry More about Economy
than Nulcear Threat from North Korea

S. Korea Feels the Pinch despite President's Promise
Huge Crowd in Anti-US Beef Protest in Seoul — Downtown Seoul is filled with myriad South Korean citizens in anti-US beef protest in the evening of July 5, 2008. As many as half a million people joined the "Candle-light March for Declaring People's Victory." The marchers included teenagers, moms carrying babies, college students, labor union workers, Catholic fathers, Buddhist monks, and opposition party lawmakers. The protesters urged President Lee Myung-Bak to take the last chance to fix his policy on US beef imports and other key issues.

South Koreans are worried more about its worsening economy than about the nuclear threat from the North Korea, repoted recently Le Monde Diplomatique.

Le Monde Diplomatique's journalist Philippe Pons gives an through insight into the recent developments of South Korea led by President Lee Myung-Bak. The following is the full story.

When the centre-right Lee Myung-bak became president in February 2008 he promised to “internationalise” Korea and increase national income to $40,000 per capita. Little did he know that 12 months later his country would be one of the worst affected by the crisis of neo-liberalism on which he claimed to base his policies. Nor did he foresee that his firm stance vis-à-vis North Korea would make relations between the two countries tenser than they had been for a decade – to the point that Seoul risked being marginalised in the six-party talks (between China, the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia) on North Korean denuclearisation.

By the beginning of June he was facing twin crises, both as a result of his political choices: rising tensions over North Korea, and an internal crisis triggered by the suicide on 23 May of the former president Roh Moo-hyun (in power from 2003 to 2008).

Ordinary South Koreans reacted calmly to the news that the North had carried out a second nuclear test on 25 May, following the launch of the satellite launch vehicle – or long-range missile – on 5 April: for over the last 50 years they have grown accustomed to the invective and threats emanating from Pyongyang.

At government level, between the two incidents there were a few weeks of military commotion and statements that the rocket might be intercepted, but once Washington had decided against any military response to the launch, the Korean government re-assumed a more moderate stance. Even so, South Korea was one of the countries most insistent in demanding “strict sanctions” from the UN Security Council in response to acts that constituted a “serious blow” to the stability of eastern Asia and flouted earlier UN resolutions forbidding North Korea to carry out nuclear tests. South Korea also announced it would be taking part in the Proliferation Security Initiative. This provoked a further escalation by Pyongyang, which declared on 27 May that it no longer felt bound by the 1953 armistice, which brought an end to hostilities in the Korean peninsula but was never followed up with a peace treaty.

Seoul’s intransigence follows the political course that Lee had already set. Lee was keen to differentiate himself from his centre-left predecessors, who had been too conciliatory for his liking, and began his presidency by suspending aid to North Korea until the regime made concessions. But at the end of 2008 Pyongyang declared that the non-aggression pact between the two countries was now a dead letter.

This uncompromising stance could lead to South Korea being marginalised. Assuming that, once the international outcry against North Korea’s actions has died down, the US enters into direct dialogue with the Pyongyang regime (as it probably will), South Korea “will just have to cooperate with Washington, but it will then risk being sidelined by the North”, says Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute in Seoul.

The internal crisis is the more worrying of the two for Lee Myung-bak, whose ratings have fallen. This was clear at his predecessor’s funeral; although it took place on a working day, a million mourners gathered in the centre of Seoul to pay homage to a man whose policy towards the North had been one of conciliation.

Yet the North Korean question is not the greatest concern for most people in South Korea. They don’t feel directly threatened, and they’re more worried about the deterioration of the economy. The danger that the economic crisis will be compounded by a social one is all the greater because two-thirds of South Korea’s gross domestic product depends on external markets. The government is well aware of this: in March it introduced measures worth almost $20bn aimed at creating jobs and helping the most deprived.

A social crisis could prove even worse than that provoked by the Asian financial meltdown of 1997-98, which was a local problem. Last time, South Korea could at least count on the US and European markets, even if it still took time for the economy to get back on its feet. Now, the crisis is global and, no matter what the Koreans do, their economic recovery depends on the situation overseas. Eleven years ago, South Korean society was also more homogenous; today the gap between those who are keeping their heads above water and those who aren’t is wider, says sociologist Kim Yong-hak. In April the think tanks were predicting that job cuts would continue, possibly reaching 500,000 by the end of the first quarter.

The shortest honeymoon

Peace seems precarious with a national assembly where the political parties are out of touch and the debates chaotic, an unpopular head of state, and a society ever more fragmented. There are efforts to preserve jobs by cutting wages and reducing overtime, and cushioning factors such as a fall in the number of graduates coming onto the jobs market (many have been discouraged by a 10-20% fall in starting salaries and prefer to continue their studies). But even so, the country has fallen into a painful spiral and the leadership no longer has people’s confidence. Although Koreans show a degree of solidarity in the face of these problems, ideological divides are becoming sharper: one sign of malaise is that those who criticise the government are often accused of being “reds”.

Lee will be remembered in the annals of South Korea’s young democracy as the head of state who enjoyed the shortest honeymoon with public opinion: his ratings fell to 20% within three months of his election, recovered to around 30%, then fell again. His political stance soon seemed out of step with the times: he was urging a firm position towards North Korea just as the Bush administration was shifting from hostility to compromise, and advocating a hardline brand of neo-liberalism whose excesses were about to be demonstrated by the Wall Street meltdown. Since then, he has had to resort to Keynesian measures in an attempt to deal with the repercussions of the crisis.

South Korea, which only joined the club of developed nations in the 1990s, has been hit hard by the crisis and its people, historically accustomed to deprivation, are learning once again to live frugally and stick together. In this country obsessed with success, poverty is seen as shameful and gets hidden away in public parks or underpasses.

The present crisis has not yet produced the dramatic results of 1998 (panic, gold selling, suicides). Even so, 2009 will be a hard year for the less fortunate: short-term contract employees (half of all wage earners) and small and medium-sized enterprises. “The government is taking advantage of the situation to erode the rights of non-regular workers by extending the period at the end of which employers are required to hire them on a regular basis from two years to three,” protests Jin Young-ok, a former vice president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KTCU), the most militant of Korean labour organisations, which claims to have 800,000 members.

For the moment Koreans are closing ranks, but a revival of “people’s democracy” shouldn’t be ruled out since none of the major political formations seems capable of meeting the demands of civil society. In June 1987, after decades under military dictatorships supported by the US, South Korea took its first steps towards democracy, in response to popular pressure. The process was consolidated a decade later by the coming to power of the great dissident figure of Kim Dae-jung.

The swing to the right represented by Lee’s election in December 2007 does not call into question the progress made in democratisation. The new president was elected by a broad political centre incorporating moderates and disillusioned centre-left voters, among them some working-class voters who hoped that faster economic growth would do more for them than uncertain policies of redistribution.

The sharp defeat of the centre-left at the presidential elections reflected ordinary concerns: a precarious employment situation, young people’s difficulties in finding jobs and soaring property prices. But it was also due to excessive pessimism about economic indicators (which at the time were generally positive). The expansion of the Chinese economy, which was enjoying double-digit growth, made the Koreans, who had experienced a similar boom in the past, feel that everything was going badly at home. Disappointed by “social democracy”, which had failed to live up to its promises, many voters allowed themselves to be seduced by the neo-liberalist politics of the dashing Lee Myung-bak, a businessman who had become mayor of the capital, Seoul. Without hesitation, they gave a landslide victory to a man who raised the hopes of both conservatives and the young by proclaiming that what was good for the industrial conglomerates – the chaebol – was good for the country.

Crystallising concerns

But the new administration was so keen to proclaim the vague, unrealistic goals of the president’s 747 Plan (7% annual growth; a national income of $40,000 per capita compared with $24,000 at present; making South Korea the world’s 7th richest economy as opposed to the 13th richest at present) that it alienated public opinion. The crisis triggered at the end of April 2008 by the resumption of imports of American beef – which led to several weeks of demonstrations on the streets of Seoul involving as many as 100,000 people on any day – turned irritation into opposition.

This “uprising” of public opinion caught the government by surprise and misled foreign analysts, who interpreted it as a xenophobic reaction. The fact is that allowing imports of American beef – a measure intended to encourage the US to ratify a free trade agreement with South Korea – crystallised a whole range of discontent. Those with concerns over food safety were joined by high school students opposed to educational reforms, Buddhists who felt they were being discriminated against by a president who belonged to a militant Protestant sect and by the trade unions. Yet although the protests were peaceful at first, a degree of latent anti-American sentiment was present, the price of South Korea’s strategic dependence on the US.

As the movement grew, it became more radical and clashes with riot police followed but, unlike their predecessors who were armed with Molotov cocktails, these protestors marched with candles.

Police repression, combined with the demonstrators’ fatigue and an apology from the president, who humbly promised to show greater respect for public opinion in future, led to the movement dying down. Nevertheless, it had been a disaster for the “Bulldozer” – a nickname given to Lee because of his tendency to push on regardless. Gavan McCormak, a specialist of East Asian history at the Australian National University, feels that, ironically, the best thing about Lee Myung-bak is that he has revived anti-establishment activity.

One of the features of political life in South Korea is a highly reactive direct democracy in which movements arise and subside on the internet. “Netizens” (internet citizens) observe the economic system and criticise its aberrations. These new expressions of citizenship, less ideological but more emotional than those of the “democracy generation” of 1960-80, worry and perplex the government: being non-violent they are harder to control under the pretext of maintaining order. The authorities are therefore aiming to control the internet by means of a law against cyber-defamation, a plan that OhmyNews, one of Korea’s largest information portals, has denounced as a violation of freedom of expression. While the major media organisations are pro-government, many of the portals are indeed forums for anti-establishment activity.

The democratisation of South Korean society has outpaced the evolution of its politicians, who group themselves on the basis of regional affiliations rather than a left/right ideological divide. These alignments have given rise to an opportunism of which the public has wearied, as is clear from the turnout of 46% recorded at the legislative elections in April 2008, the lowest in Korea’s history. The ballot confirmed both a swing to the right at national level (the Grand National Party taking 153 seats out of 299 while the United Democratic Party went from 136 seats to 81) and the divide between elected and electors.

From 1960 to 1980 the student movement was the driving force in the fight against the dictatorships. Later on, the working class and citizens’ movements took over the anti-establishment activity. But today many of Korea’s young people have grown up in a democratic and prosperous society and care more for material gains than for the traditional values (sacrifice and solidarity) and progressive ideals of their parents. Lee Soo-ho, who was active in Korean teachers’ unions before being appointed general secretary of the KCTU, feels that “with economic growth, the people of Korea have lost the drive to fight for democracy”.

With the exception of a politicised minority, the younger generation does not question the capitalist system or the power of money, even when it is brutal. Lee Soo-ho feels there is no credible alternative to the right: “Young people are more individualist and have less sense of solidarity. They are disappointed by politics as it is practised but, at the same time, I do not believe that they have become depoliticised.” Their contribution to political life often consists of unconnected actions, but these can come together to form a bigger movement, as happened with the American beef crisis. At a time when the swing to the right that led to the election of Lee Myung-bak has got bogged down, politically and economically, this direct form of democracy may still hold a few surprises.






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