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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Disasters, natural and manmade

A blog has been set up providing news and information on the tsunami disaster in South and Southeast Asia (thanks to Antti Leppänen).

If you need an antidote to the false piety of TV presenters, politicians and commentators, Lenin's Tomb has a good post. There is also a good article in today's Counterpunch which raises some important questions. Particularly worth noting is the fact that the only place that seems to have received an advance warning of the wave from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii was the US military base island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Some cynics have accused the British government of not pledging enough financial aid to help the affected area. At the moment they are promising £15 million, really quite generous when you consider this is at least the cost of a decent house in Chelsea. And anyway, how can anyone accuse the UK government of being stingy when they're spending at least £125 million a month to help the Iraqi people achieve democracy? (Even this pales into insignificance alongside the generosity of the US who have spent almost $150 billion dollars on such important democratic tools as tanks, black hawks, cluster bombs and napalm).

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Unification for capital?

The English version of the Korean news website Oh My News has this article on the first South Korean factory to start operations in the new industrial complex in Kaesong on the northern side of the border that divides Korea in half. It makes pots and pans and apparently the first delivery to a Seoul department store sold out on the same day. Today it was reported that another factory started manufacturing semi-conductors in the complex. Much of the rhetoric around the Kaesong project focuses on improving North-South relations through economic cooperation. But it is worth asking who is really going to benefit from this. Surely a solution to the conflict on the Korean peninsula is only really going to be achieved at a political level, when all the sides involved are willing to negotiate sincerely?

Actually, today's piece on the Yonhap website is quite honest about the motivations behind the Kaesong industrial park project:
SJ Tech became the second South Korean firm to operate in the pilot zone of the complex being built by South Korea in the North's border city of Kaesong, a few kilometers from the tense inter-Korean border.The multi-billion dollar project, a product of the historic inter-Korea summit in 2000, is meant to help thousands of labor-intensive South Korean firms take advantage of the North's cheap but skilled laborers. The average monthly pay for a North Korean worker is set at US$57.
The cynicism of this statement from the South Korean government news agency is rather surprising. It shows that this is really the beginning of a 'unification' of the Korean peninsula for capital and nothing more. North Korea is potentially every South Korean corporation's fantasy - a country where the workers are skilled, speak the same language but are paid a fraction of South Korean workers and cannot organise to improve their conditions. A comment left under the Oh My News article points the finger at the South Korean unions for their failure to speak up about this. Personally I think this is a deliberate attack on the the left in the South disguised as concern for North Korean workers, but it does raise the important question of how the left should treat this issue.

I have no doubts that the only people who will benefit from projects like the Kaesong complex are the North Korean bureaucracy/ruling class (who will probably be taking large kickbacks of one sort or another) and South Korean big business who have found themselves a whole new set of workers to exploit. Unification cannot be left in the hands of either of these gangs of thieves - only the people of the Korean peninsula can achieve a just and lasting unification of their country.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Trouble in Toyland

The Guardian carried a good piece by Jonathan Watts on Christmas Eve about the continuing labour unrest in China's Guangdong province. It's hard to believe that
more than 80% of the world's Christmas trees and 75% of the toys that are wrapped up under them are produced within a 50-mile radius of Shenzhen port.
But what is most encouraging is that the workers there are not only fighting back against the worst industrial conditions in the new 'workshop of the world' but are actually winning.

With jobs easier to come by, workers are increasingly emboldened to take industrial action. Among the biggest of many recent strikes took place at the Haiyan Electronics factory, which makes DVD and CD players for the international market. In November, 3,000 employees blocked the streets for five hours in protest at a basic monthly salary of 230 yuan.

Nine of the organisers were arrested, but the demonstration worked - the vice-governor of Shenzhen intervened per sonally to fire the manager and triple salaries - which brought them to just above the minimum wage.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Kaesong here I come

I've wanted to go to Kaesong, the old capital of Koryo dynasty (932-1392) Korea, for quite a while. Not entirely sure why really, but it's developed a romantic glow in my mind, added to the fact that being on the North Korean side of the border makes it a rather inaccessible place. Anyway... the Korean National Tourist Organisation today announced that it will open an office in Kaesong inside the new North-South industrial park that is being constructed there. Hopefully this brings us a step closer to easy land travel across the border from Seoul to Kaesong, and even perhaps day trips (the two cities are actually very close to one another). At the moment such a trip would require a two-leg flight, via Beijing to P'yongyang and then a road journey down to Kaesong. Basically a day's (very expensive) travel to do a journey of less than an hour by car. This is assuming that you can get into the DPRK, which is obviously out of the question for most South Koreans and, in fact pretty much prohibitively expensive for anyone else.

As the article points out, Kaesong has many historical attractions and is said to be one of the better preserved cities in the whole of Korea. One can only hope that the city's character and environment do not become casualties of North-South rapprochement, unplanned mass tourism and industrial development designed to take advantage of the North's cheap labour.

In the mean time you can find out a bit more about Kaesong here.

The rise of Korea's Democratic Labour Party

A recent article (in Korean) on the Jinbonuri news website points to the remarkable progress that Korea's broad left Democratic Labour Party (민주노동당) has made over the last year (Jinbonuri is apparently run by a "community of people who give critical support to the Democratic Labour Party"). At the beginning of the year the DLP was still a minor party that tended to be dismissed by mainstream commentators, but in April it won 10 seats in the general elections to the National Assembly, gaining 13 percent of the vote. Since then, with huge disillusionment with the ruling Uri Party (president Roh Moo-hyun's centre right party, with vaguely progressive leanings) and the inabillity of the rightwing Grand National Party (한나라당) to get much beyond its base of 30 percent, the DLP has reached a steady level of around 18 percent in opinion polls. As the writer of the article points out, if non-voters are taken into account this gives the DLP 25 percent of the vote, meaning that under an all PR system (Korea currently has a partial list system) they would get 70 seats out of 300 in the National Assembly. Obviously this interpretation is a little on the optimistic side, but the important point is that the DLP has now broken through a number of barriers to become one of the mainstream parties.

There has been a long history in South Korea of attempts to form a viable leftwing party, and this project had various incarnations during the course of the 1990s. The Korean Democratic Labour Party was founded in the late 90s with the backing of Korea's leftwing union federation, the KCTU. In common with a number of other similar new(ish) left parties around the world it incorporates different people and groupings with a variety of political positions, from revolutionaries of various stripes to reformist social democrats. I remember when I was living in Seoul in 2000 during the last general elections there was some hope that the DLP might get one or two representatives elected, but in the end one candidate was narrowly beaten in the industrial city of Ulsan and not a single DLP candidate was elected. I was honestly surprised that a party with the backing of a massive trade union federation could not get anyone elected - surely if even half of the KCTU's membership voted for the DLP they would get one or two people in?

Obviously electoral politics doesn't work like this and the DLP had some massive barriers to break through - not least the stranglehold that regionalist politics still maintained at that time. This meant that people in Cholla province would tend to automatically vote for Kim Dae-jung's (now defunct) Milliennium Democratic Party while those in Kyongsang province would vote for the GNP and those in Ch'ungch'ong for Kim Jong-pil's ULD (자민련). So until recently, South Korean electoral politics really consisted of 'parties' which actually just represented shifting alliances between different sectors of the political elite (who basically represented the interests of big business and held the anti-communist / pro-US line) but which could call on the loyalties of particular sections of the population on the basis of regional background and patronage. And this in spite of the fact that through the 80s and 90s South Korea had one of the most militant labour movements in the world as well as very strong civil society and student movements, which together had succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian regime that had lasted through the 60s, 70s and much of the 80s. So all in all it is a massive leap forward for a 'real' political party with a social base and a left reformist program to have made so much headway.

The big question is, where is the DLP headed? It seems the leadership have consciously tried to model the party on Brazil’s PT (Workers’ Party) so this raises the spectre of a Lulaesque drive for electoral victory and then a swift accommodation to the real powers that be once in power. Something like a history of the evolution of the Labour party from a working class, reformist party to a centre right ‘social liberalist’ big business party but massively sped up. Even so, on the form of the PT it might take at least 15-20 years for the DLP to achieve power, and by that time, as Alfredo Saad Filho points out in this excellent Red Pepper article, the party itself would have had to change beyond all recognition.

Actually, Alfredo Saad Filho and Sue Branford’s discussion on the Lula government and the PT does raise some other important points of comparison between Brazil and Korea. Alfredo points out that there were two objective factors in particular that helped to push the PT down the road that it took of increasing compromise.

The PT was created in the late 1970s through the convergence of two groups of activists. First, the democratic movement struggling against the military dictatorship, including radical left organisations, Catholic base communities, academics and social movements. They needed a broad and powerful left party to accommodate their different views, express their joint platform, and give the movement organic unity. Second, the ‘new’ trade union movement, symbolised by Lula’s metalworkers’ union, but including other segments of the working class created by Brazil’s rapid development: bank workers, public sector workers, civil servants, teachers, and so on – the skilled working class and the lower urban middle class. Their demands were often corporatist, but they were organised and vocal. The coalition between these two groups led to the emergence of the PT as a party of a new type.

However, these two pillars of the PT have collapsed. On the one hand, the restoration of democracy in 1985 was the product of an elite pact that shifted the political form of the state but brought no economic change. Civil liberties were restored, but the left was disarmed and demobilised. All political organisations were legalised; any newspaper could be published; all social movements were permitted; most political fronts and umbrella organisations collapsed; and dozens of platforms competed in the political marketplace. Paradoxically, political democracy disorganised the Brazilian left.

On the other hand, the democratic transition was followed by the transition to neo-liberalism, which disorganised the working class. Deindustrialisation led to the loss of one third of manufacturing sector jobs in Brazil, most public enterprises were privatised, the civil service suffered terribly: the social base of the PT was decimated. The party responded to these challenges by shifting to the political centre and claiming the mantle of ‘honesty’ and ‘good local administration’. The economic reforms were increasingly sidelined. Finally, in 2002, the PT leadership walked the extra mile and ditched the remainder of its reformist platform in order to seal Lula’s electoral victory. It is now clear that that victory was hollow.

The positive side of this analysis, as far as South Korea is concerned at least, is that both of these objective factors have not really been fulfilled there (yet). On the one hand, the arrival of democracy in South Korea, two years later than in Brazil, does not seem to have "disarmed and demobilised" the left. Of course the intensity of struggle has not been the same since the late 80s and there has been much made of the post-80s generation of students being disinterested in activism, while the ex-student activists (the so-called 386 generation) turned to 'getting on in the world' in the 90s. But this seems to be, partially at least, wishful thinking on the part of the rightwing media - the student movement is still strong, the civil society and democracy groups are still influential and active and people as a whole are, if anything more leftwing than before. And ready to come out on the streets to prove it, as they have done in recent years to protest against the actions of US troops or the attempted removal of Roh Moo-hyun from office earlier this year.

Likewise, despite the attempts of the Korean ruling class and the IMF, what Alfredo calls the "transition to neo-liberalism" has not been completed in South Korea, partly of course, as a result of fierce resistance from the working class, lead by the KCTU. Of course there have been great changes in the Korean economy (which I don't feel qualified to comment on in any detail) with a great increase in the number of casual (or 'irregular') workers. However, one of the KCTU's main campaigns recently has been to get rid of this kind of casual labour and prevent the government from expanding it.

Alfredo goes on to say of the PT:
Instead of attempting to make up for the decline of its core constituency by extending its sources of support vertically, to relatively more privileged social groups, the PT should have focused on horizontal expansion to other segments of the working class – among unorganised workers in the formal sector, informal sector workers, working class women, rural workers and the unemployed.
So the KCTU and DLP's fight against casualised labour look somewhat like this sort of "horizontal expansion", as do two of the other main labour flashpoints in recent times - the formation of a (previously illegal) teachers' union and the recent struggles of the outlawed civil servants' union (whose members are currently fighting a rearguard action against massive state repression).

If the DLP and the Korean left in general can manage to either fight off the huge structural changes that sections of the ruling class would like to force on the economy, or can learn from the PT and find ways of remedying any disadvantages this might produce for the left, rather than turning automatically to the right, then its future development as a radical left party is still open.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"Santa's little sweatshops"

Asian Labour Network has this story (originally from the Telegraph) about death and resistance in the sprawling industrial zone of China's Pearl River Delta. As in the NYT piece posted in the Chinese strikers' blog mentioned below, this article points out that one of the roots of the current unrest is the labour shortage in the region. This is obviously giving workers quite a bit of confidence to fight back against their abysmal conditions.

The Telegraph article also brings up the issue of 'death from overwork' (gulaosi 過労死). This is a concept that has been well known in Japan and South Korea for some time (pronounced kwarosa in Korean, karoshi in Japanese), although it is used as much with reference to white collar workers ('salary men') as to industrial workers. In Japan it is recognised as enough of a problem for there to be a national 'Karoshi Hotline'.

I have to say that my theory on kwarosa / karoshi when it comes to salary men is that part of the problem stems from having to do a ten-hour day and then another six hours of corporate entertaining / drinking with the boss. And still get up at 6am the next day to commute to work.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Karaoke on the Euphrates

In today's Counterpunch, Gary Leupp describes Japan's base in the Iraqi city of Samawah as an "unconstitutional fortress" striking a blow at the heart of Japan's pacifist constitution. The Japanese troop deployment, like the Korean one to Irbil, has been very unpopular, as reflected in Koizumi's low approval ratings. However, it seems that the anti-war movement has not been able to create the necessary momentum to really put Koizumi's position in jeopardy.
I don't know much at all about the strengths and weaknesses of the movement in Japan, but having joined a number of anti-deployment marches in Seoul last year and talked to friends there, I really got a sense that in South Korea at least, demonstrations with an internationalist orientation are something of a novelty.

Seoul, November 2003

Koreans have spent decades fighting successive authoritarian governments for democracy and workers' rights. These domestic battles have been fought tenaciously and, at least partially, they have been won. However, with this (understandable) emphasis on domestic issues and the added complications of a divided country, strong Stalinist influences and the small matter of 37,000 US troops in residence, the left has always had something of a nationalist tint (perhaps more of a full-blown peroxide colouring in some cases).
A turn out of 5,000 for anti-troop deployment demos might seem small in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who have turned out in the last few years for political or labour rallies in Seoul. But the very existence and character of these anti-war mobilisations has definitely heralded a new direction for the Korean left and anounced the arrival of a new generation of young Korean radicals with a more internationalist perspective than ever before.
Koizumi and Roh Moo-hyun are both leaders in trouble and, like Tony Blair, how deep that trouble gets now depends, at least in part, on what happens in Iraq and how well that new generation can mobilise itself.

Blogging like tigers

Striking workers in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, who make mobile phones to supply Walmart, are blogging their strike (here, via Rebecca MacKinnon). Unfortunately I can't read Chinese, but they have linked to some articles in English. This from an NYT piece on the dispute:

All the women interviewed seemed determined to press their demands, the most important of which, they said, were shorter work hours and enforcement of minimum-wage laws.

Asked if they were afraid of losing their jobs, they scoffed at the idea, saying workers were in short supply in Shenzhen's vast manufacturing zone.

"If we were men, there would have been a strike a long time ago," one woman said. "Women are easier to bully, but we have hearts of steel."

For an overview of workers' struggles in China, written by a Korean friend, look here.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A change is gonna come (or is it?)

North Korea 'watchers' spend most of their time craning their necks trying to catch the tiniest tidbits of information coming out of the most secretive regime on earth / hermit kingdom / Leninland / rogue state (delete according to your preferred cliche). But recently a whole load of tidbits have come along at once taking up half the road like a load of shiny new No. 12 bendy buses. First there were the disappearing portraits (Kim Jong-il's face has gone from the walls of buildings frequented by foreigners in Pyongyang), then the disappearing generals (rumours are rife that a number of high ranking be-medalled types have done a runner to China or the US) and then the disappearing food (this year despite a bumper harvest in the DPRK the country will still need plenty of help from the WFP because farmers appear to be taking advantage of the new market reforms to hoard their crops, ironically causing food shortages for the urban bureaucracy).
At NKZone Andrei Lankov has linked a couple of excellent articles (1 and 2) of his on changes in the DPRK. Rather than focusing on the odd juicy but unproven story, he looks at a whole range of indicators showing what has been happening in the country over the last few years.
There are a few things that really stood out in Lankov's articles. First, writing like this really knocks on the head the nonsense about how we know nothing about North Korea - if you're willing to look there's plenty of information out there, and I suspect that US intelligence knows plenty more too.
Second, there's Lankov's conclusion that North Korea is now basically capitalist. Well I wouldn't argue with that because I don't think it's ever been anything but part of the world capitalist system (albeit in its own peculiar way). But I suppose the more significant thing is that he is pointing out just how much an informal market system has come to replace the old centrally-planned state capitalist system.
Third, something that really caught my eye was Lankov's description of the fascination that the urban middle classes and younger members of the elite have developed for South Korean culture:

The first VCRs turned up in the North around 1990, but for a decade they remained beyond the wildest expectations of the average North Korean.

The situation changed around 2000 when northeast China was flooded with cheap DVD players and newer VCRs. Old machines are now sold very cheaply by their owners, and then smuggled to North Korea via its porous (essentially, uncontrolled) border with China. In North Korea the used VCRs are resold at high premiums, but a machine still only costs the equivalent of US$35 or $40 - definitely within the reach of a more successful North Korean family. VCRs are largely used for copying and watching tapes of South Korean TV soap operas, which have become major hits in North Korea in the past few years. The South Korean actors and actresses are much admired, and their hairstyles and fashions are eagerly imitated by the Pyongyang youth.

The more affluent, better-educated and younger segments of the population are more eager to fall under the spell of this "imperialist pollution" - much like the former Soviet Union, where in the 1970s and early 1980s the scions of the party bosses were avid watchers of James Bond movies and proud consumers of Levi Strauss' blue jeans. Younger North Koreans are no different, and it is the youth from the best universities, largely well-connected - spoiled brats, some say - who now sport the eccentric haircuts and outfits straight from the Seoul TV shows. Even a few North Korean students have dyed their hair, mimicking South Korean fashion. (Visitors from the North didn't say whether anyone they saw dyed his or her hair green or adopted a punk hair style, but anyone apart from the severe, heretofore unchanging norm is notable).
Reading this suddenly reminded me of Vladimir Tikhonov's (박노자) description in the introduction to his excellent book Tangsindul ui Taehanmin'guk of his disillusionment with his generation of young Russians and their turn away from politics and social movements toward consumerism and a fetishism of things Western.
Of course we all know from the Russian example how easy it can be for the state capitalist nomenklatura to transform itself into a free marketeering oligarchy. What worries me is that in the absence of change based on workers' struggles in the North, the privileged layers of North Korean society could become the best allies of the old rightwing establishment in South Korea and their pals in Washington. Certainly, we've already seen a number of high-level North Korean defectors (most prominently Hwang Jang-yop, the supposed architect of Juch'e thought) end up far to the right of even the South Korean government, with said government having to keep them practically under house arrest in Seoul so that they won't swan off to Washington to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of assorted Neocons.
One other thing: I liked this story from the English section of OhMyNews on computing in North Korea. Apparently people there know about the computer games like Starcraft that seem to obsess most South Korean young'uns. North Koreans take note: too much gaming can be fatal.

Out of the US frying pan into the Chinese fire...?

Aljazeera's English-language correspondents have been providing some very interesting articles over the last few months, reporting on 'third world' stories that get little or no coverage in the UK press / TV news. This one in particular caught my eye, concerning the as yet undecided fate of Uighur Chinese prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. I really find it hard to imagine a worse position than that facing these people - caught between US imperial power and Chinese state repression.
The two nations are of course, temporarily and superficially, allies in the 'war on terror'. The Chinese government has used 9/11 as an excuse to crackdown on resistance to their rule in the far west, but the US is clearly slightly embarrassed by this particular appropriation of a rhetoric created in Washington.
The US government quite obviously doesn't care much about the welfare of these people (it has in all likelihood been treating them in much the same way as other Gitmo prisoners/hostages), but at the same time, what would sending them to (more) torture and (possible) death in China do for US human rights rhetoric re the PRC?
The last few paragraphs are particularly interesting on the question of what the US is going to do with these men:

In early November, Norway, which was approached by Washington as a possible candidate, rejected the idea, saying it was a problem the US should solve on its own.

One possibility has been for the European Union to split the burden of taking the prisoners, possibly linking it with the proposed lifting of the arms embargo placed on China after Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Failing that, the US could decide to take the prisoners themselves, or they could just stay in Guantanamo, permanent guests of the Pentagon.

So there's a possibility of bribing China to keep quiet about the fate of the Uighur prisoners with weapons (European arms manufacturers have been desperate to get rid of the post-Tiananmen embargo for ages). The humanitarianism of our rulers knows no bounds.
And what is it with Norway? Why does everyone try to dump people on them? With all the political exiles living there, it must be one of the most dangerous places on earth.
By coincidence, I visited Stavanger this autumn, but fortunately escaped unscathed (not sure the same can be said for my wallet).