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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Seoul homeless update

A bit of a footnote to my earlier post about the homeless of Seoul. Since writing that I discovered that with impeccable timing the most recent issue of Ta Hamkke carried a piece about the problem of homelessness (written before the recent events) which has some interesting facts:
In 1998 [during the 'IMF Crisis'] the numbers of homeless people living on the streets and in shelters together amounted to well over 5000 people. By 2001 the number was around 3000. The government claimed that this as a success of government policy. But during that period 1700 homeless people had died...
Every year 400 homeless people die, that's roughly one every day. The average lifespan is thought to be somewhere in the late forties.
There is also more about the brutality meted out by security guards at Seoul Station:
In 2002, a certain homeless man named Mr. Lee was begging at Seoul Station when he was caught by the railway security guards and beaten. Mr. Lee lay collapsed on the street for a week before he was taken to casualty where he died. That year, another homeless man named Kim Yong-hyôn was taken to a security guard's office at Seoul Station where he was tortured by having hot water poured onto his neck. He suffered second degree burns on this neck.

This is what democracy looks like

The people's militia celebrate their control of the city, Kwangju, May 1980. Posted by Hello

The people of Europe take back Genoa, July 2001 Posted by Hello

South Korean workers rally in support of Daewoo Motors workers, 2001 Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 29, 2005

That's not what democracy looks like

I notice that Dog Stew has linked to my earlier post below on South Korean democracy (thanks are in order) and the subsequent discussion between myself and Skip. I have to say that although this discussion was useful, I was slightly disappointed that it got stuck on the details of what happened in Kwangju in 1980, on which myself and Skip obviously could not agree.

Under the current circumstances it would certainly be interesting to have a more wide-ranging discussion on the meaning of democracy and the strategic orientation of the US government toward it. There is no doubt that the US has staked much ideologically on the word 'democracy' using it as a sort of psychological pressure point designed to be repeated endlessly, eliciting a pavlovian response from the Fox-addled masses, but devoid of meaning. Zeynep Toufe of Under the Same Sun puts it thus:
All these precious words have now become something akin to brand names: "democracy," "freedom," "liberty," "empowerment." They don't really mean anything; they're just the names attached to things we do.
It should be obvious in the Iraqi case that free and meaningful elections under military occupation are highly unlikely. But when the occupying force has also recently destroyed an entire city, turning its residents into refugees, is backing its own favourite to the tune of millions of dollars and has an 'ambassador' who just happens to have run deathsquads in El Salvador and plans a reprise, then... (I'd like to add that even the limited and highly compromised form of democracy offered to the Iraqis this weekend could still cause as many problems for the occupiers as it solves. See the interesting recent discussion between Alex Callinicos and Gilbert Achcar on this at ZNet).

So the word democracy, as used around us on a thousand media outlets, is nothing more than an ideological tool in the armory of US imperialism. Of course US client states with a democratic veneer can also be strategically useful, but the US (and the UK of course) will quite happily settle for any sort of compliant regime, veneer or no (Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Uzbekistan... how much time to we have?).

The word democracy literally means 'people power' and we know that if the people of the world had real power over the things that affect their lives Iraq would not be occupied and Bush, Blair et al certainly would not be in power. The important point is, as Callinicos pointed out recently at a conference, we urgently need to contest and reclaim the word democracy. We need to refill it with meaningful content. All significant steps forward in democracy from the Chartists to the South Korean movement have had to be taken by the people themselves. Imperialist powers have this odd tendency to have their own strategic interests in mind when they intervene in other countries. They don't tend to provide the necessary conditions for democracy to flourish, even by accident.

Friday, January 28, 2005

LIght amid the darkness: Feith out

Every force ten hurricane has a silver lining... John 'Let's nuke North Korea' Bolton's already gone and now it's the turn of Doug Feith (Juan Cole's roundup, BBC report). Doug Feith was the no. 3 at the Pentagon under Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and ran the sinisterly named 'Office of Special Plans' which basically 'stove piped' incredibly dodgy 'intelligence' about Iraq up to the President (and from there to Blair it would seem).

Feith was also somehow responsible for post-war 'planning' in Iraq. Which was possibly what led General Tommy Franks to call him "the stupidest fucking guy on the face of the earth" (Plan of Attack, p281). He is also known as a paid-up Zionist and there are some suspicions that he was involved in passing information to the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Most amusing of all Feith-related incidents was his interview with John Pilger on his Breaking the Silence film - he obviously didn't have a clue who Pilger was:

PILGER: Isn't there a problem for us in the West of honesty about the reason for going to war in Iraq — and that was weapons of mass destruction?

FEITH: I don't think that was a lie. We went to war in large part because of the concern that weapons of mass destruction in the ... in the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime ... a regime that used such weapons ... in particular nerve gas...

PILGER: ... and was supplied by the United States and Britain with these weapons of mass destruction ...

FEITH: No, I don't believe that's accurate.

PILGER: Well, yes they were. Most, most of the weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein weren't built by him. The machine tools and the ingredients for his biological weapons all came from other countries, many of them from this country and Britain.

FEITH: I don't think that's right. I think, I really think that the...

PILGER: Well, it's on the record...

FEITH: Well...

PILGER: ... in the Library of Congress...

FEITH: I think that... I think that the premise of your question is wrong.

Pilger minced him good and proper on a number of other issues too and Feith's army minder standing behind the cameraman had to stop the interview.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Reading matter

Have not been able to post due to an attack of evil flu. Not the bird variety (but just to cheer you up, it is coming).

Anyway, while I try to get my brain back into shape by drinking huge quantities of fluids and wait for my body to stop aching, I thought I could at least point in the direction of some reading matter.

Rendering the name of Seoul in Chinese characters sounds like a rather arcane business, but it's obviously a matter that has deep political meaning hiding just under the surface. Antti Leppänen has written a very comprehensive post on South Korea's proposed new Chinese name for Seoul. Kirk Larsen also weighs in with some thoughts.

Antti also introduced us to this great Korean stencil artist, who put me in mind of the brilliant Banksy. If you still think that stencils are all about cheap house makeover programmes circa 1999 then check out stencil revolution, which I found via the excellently named Apostate Windbag.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Seoul's homeless fight back

Last weekend saw riots around Seoul Station (the central railway station), but it wasn't strikers or farmers protesting. This time it was the homeless who live in their hundreds in and around the station who fought with police after two homeless men were found dead in suspicious circumstances. Rumours apparently spread that the men had been beaten to death by the station's security guards. It seems that autopsies have since shown that the two men died from disease rather than violent causes, but for Seoul's homeless to react so strongly and with such suspicion suggests that they are frequently on the receiving end of violence from security guards.

It perhaps says something about South Korean society that even the most dispossessed and marginalised layer of society is able to take some form of collective action and show solidarity with one another.

Seoul city government is now responding in a fairly typically heavy-handed fashion by saying that it will force homeless people into a new shelter because "many taxpayers claim they have had unpleasant experiences or been inconvenienced by homeless people staying in public facilities such as Seoul Station."

Signboard update

Didn't have to wait long for some moaning about the decision to remove Park Chung-hee's calligraphy from the Kwanghwamun gate. This Joongang Daily (English edition) editorial has a good old whine about how there must be political motivations behind the move and links it to the government's recent decision to release documents relating to Park's normalisation negotiations with the Japanese in the 1960s (see previous post). It's obviously all part of an evil North Korean conspiracy to discredit the leader of the opposition Grand National Party, Park Keun-hye (who also just happens to be the daughter of Park Chung-hee).

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Signboard of the times

I do have a vague memory that someone once told me that the signboard above Kwanghwamun, the gate in central Seoul leading into the main palace (Kyôngbokkung), had calligraphy by the great dictator Park Chung-hee himself. I'm not sure I ever really believed them, but it is in fact true. Of course the symbolism does make sense because it was customary in times past for the Korean king, Chinese emperor or other suitably eminent people to have their calligraphy adorn the outside of important buildings. President Park may not have acheived a personality cult on anything like the scale of his pal up North, but he obviously wasn't averse to a little self-aggrandisement either.

But now this vestige of South Korea's erstwhile autocrat is to be removed and replaced with something a bit more in-keeping with the grand gate. Apparently the new sign board calligraphy will be based on a rubbing from a stone inscription of King Chôngjo's (1776-1800) writing. The former sign, dating from the gate's reconstruction in 1865 was unfortunately lost when the building burnt down during the Korean war.

The most obviously difference between the two signs is the fact that while Park Chung-hee's is written in han'gûl the new one will be in Chinese characters. It is also worth noting that while the han'gûl version was written in the modern (Western influenced) style from left to right, the new sign will be written authentically from right to left.

It sort of amazes me that Park's calligraphy has stayed up there in such a prominent position for so long, especially when so much effort seems to have gone into the authentic reconstruction and refurbishment of Kyôngbokkung palace in the last few years. Even so, I wonder if the surviving members of the Park Chung-hee fan club will be complaining about this one?

I forgot to mention that Park Chung-hee apparently left millions of dollars in a special account which can be yours if you are lucky enough to receive this e-mail.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Off topic in Tehran

Just discovered that Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar has a really nice photo essay type post about his recent trip to Iran. Tehran sounds like a really interesting city which I'd like to get to someday.

Can I shoehorn Korea into this post? Well... I did notice from one or two of his pictures that Tehran looks quite like Seoul with its high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by much smaller older houses. I wonder if any of the big Korean construction companies had a hand in building any of them? There have definitely been quite close economic relations between Korea and Iran so it would make some sense. I'm sure this is also the reason why one of the main streets in southern Seoul is called Teheran-no (Tehran Street). By a twist of fate this street has become synonymous with Korea's high tech and new media sector and is lined with gleaming skyscrapers.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"I hate Hwang Chang-yôp." I second that emotion...

There are some excellent articles in the new issue of Ta Hamkke (no48) including the second part of their series on Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 by Han Kyuhan, whose writing is usually very good and interesting. If I get a chance I might translate some extracts from this (I've been meaning the to do the same for Han's excellent series of articles from last year about the Koguryô history controversy but haven't got around to it yet).

Also in this issue is an interview with a North Korean defector (which must be something fairly unusual for a leftwing publication in South Korea). It’s particularly interesting on the sort of discrimination that North Koreans receive in South Korea (I heard about this first hand when I had the chance to meet some defectors). And the interviewee is quite scathing about the government’s special centre for adjusting defectors to South Korean life – the Hanawon, saying that it provides little of any use to defectors.

However it is good old Hwang Chang-yôp (황장엽) who seems to come in for the most invective from the young defector. Our friend the one-time architect of Juch’e thought and Kim Il-sông loyalist turned born-again Neocon hawk is given a proper pasting:

There are some defectors like Hwang Chang-yôp who commit crimes in North Korea and then defect. I hate Hwang Chang-yôp. Every time I see him jabbering away on the internet I say I’m going to start a movement to send him back to North Korea. That bastard could talk about what he liked with Kim Jong-il, but when he’s out of Kim Jong-il’s sight he says he defected because he hates the dictatorship. Now he’s just a tool of the Americans and he’s going on about how we have to have a war with North Korea.

[I think my translation might be a bit sketchy, but hopefully it gives a flavour.]

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Death of the Korean Dream"

Oh My News has an article (with lots of pictures) about the 8 Thai women workers who are suffering from a form of paralysis called 'multiple neuropathy' due to prolonged unprotected exposure to extremely dangerous solvents while working in a Korean factory. I hope this story is capturing the imagination of the Korean public a bit because they need to care about the sorts of conditions that migrant workers in Korea are having to endure working at the lowest end of the manufacturing industry. This is particularly important after the government's recent crackdown on migrant workers overstaying their visas, which was in full swing when I was last in Korea in late 2003 and sent hundreds of workers scurrying into hiding in the mountains with only box or two of ramyon (instant noodles) for company. There have subsequently been attempts by politicians to smear migrant workers and in particular those who fought the crackdown as terrorists or anti-Korean.

But as this English editorial from Hankyoreh pointed out:

In Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations, and even amongst ethnic Koreans in China, South Korea has for some time now been criticized as an "ugly country" for exploiting foreign laborers just because it has come to enjoy a higher standard of living. Late getting into the act, the Labor Ministry is confusedly scurrying around trying to do something about it, announcing it will engage in a "special inspection" of 367 worksites with similar conditions. This is not, however, something that will be resolved by putting on a "response for show." ... It was only a matter of time for the working conditions of migrant laborers to turn even worse when the government [started its] crude arrest offensive in the name of a "crackdown on illegality." ...
There must be an end to instances where foreigners who come to Korea for work are exploited or worked to death. This latest incident involving the Thai women needs to be the beginning of the end of the "ugly Republic of Korea."

NB: The term 'Korean Dream' is used in the Korean press to refer to the hopes of those who come to Korea seeking to earn money for their families back home - an interesting usage reflecting the importance of the idea of the 'American Dream' among Koreans. There are something like 4 million ethnic Koreans living in the US (don't quote me on that figure).

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

SK democracy: In spite of / because of the US?

I've been having a bit of a two way barney elsewhere, attacked from one side for saying horrid things about the role of the USSR in formation of North Korea and from the other for claiming that South Korean democracy is not a result of the US intervention on the peninsula, but quite the opposite.

I won't deal with the former issue right now (maybe soon...), but I want to make a few brief points about the latter and direct readers toward some more in-depth reading.

To summarise, South Korea is cited as an example of a country where US military intervention in the Korean War prevented the whole country from becoming a dictatorship under Kim Il-song (for a recent example of this sort of throw away reference see this recent comment on a post at Lenin's Tomb). Of course, what's been left out here is the fact that the Korean War was followed in South Korea by a string of dictatorships backed financially, militarily and politically by successive US administrations (and people wonder why the scourge of 'anti-Americanism' is so rife in South Korea these days).

Right-leaning Korea commentator the Marmot provides quite a neat list in this post of the ugly regimes and incidents that the US either tacitly supported or outright encouraged. First there was Syngman Rhee's government and its violent suppression of various uprisings, then when he was finally overthrown by a student revolution in 1960 it wasn't long before the US gave its approval to Park Chung-hee's military coup and proceeded to give him large amounts of financial aid. The list can of course go on, but probably the most infamous incident in the whole history of the US relationship with South Korea's autocratic rulers was the Kwangju Massacre of 1980. This has been covered in one or two excellent English-language books, particularly the rather enigmatically titled Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age.

At particular issue when it comes to Kwangju is the question of US culpability. The facts that the US government knew about Chun Du-hwan's plans to suppress the pro-democracy uprising using his Black Beret special forces and that they did nothing about this are indisputable. In fact, it is clear that the US government thought this the best option and were much more worried about what would happen if the uprising was not ruthlessly suppressed. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher said at the time "We agree that we should not oppose ROK contingency plans to maintain law and order." And less than a year after the massacre that had left still-unknown hundreds (or thousands) dead, Chun was invited to the White House (after making the necessary 'democratic' gesture of commuting moderate pro-democracy leader Kim Dae-jung's death sentence to life in prison) where Reagan declared to him "You've done much to strengthen the tradition of 5,000 years' committment to freedom." (New York Times, Feb 2, 1981). For more detail on Kwangju and the documents implicating the US government in the incident see Chalmers Johnson's summary and Tim Shorrock's in-depth piece on the Cherokee Files. (I've just discovered that Tim Shorrock has a blog with recent piece on Kwangju which is well worth checking).

Much has already been written about Kwangju so I won't go on here. The point I want to make is that the people of South Korea were able to achieve the freedoms and democratic representation that they have now (albeit both are somewhat limited) as a result of their own efforts and particularly through the brave struggles they fought in the 1980s.

My hope is that the Koreans living in the northern half of the peninsula can follow the example of their brothers and sisters in the south and achieve the same things. There are some signs of new dissent (see these posts 1 / 2 /3) in North Korea, but what direction this goes in depends to a great extent on how the US intervenes. Unfortunately, I feel that it is likely to use the tens of millions of dollars released by the North Korean Human Rights Act to fund those groups or individuals who it believes are most likely to create the kind of pro-US regime it wants to see, or to cooperate with the most rightwing elements in the South to the detriment of the left - a sort of 'killing two birds with one stone' strategy. The future of North Korea also depends, of course, on the ambitions of the lower-league wannabe imperialist powers - China and Japan, and how the US interacts with these two powers in this geopolitically crucial part of the world. I think that just as in the South, US intervention is highly unlikely to bring freedom and democracy, because US interests will not be compatible - the North Koreans are going to have to do it for themselves.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Sixty years on...

This year will see the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule (August 15, 1945), but it's also the 40th anniversary of the Park Chung-hee regime's diplomatic normalisation agreement with the Japanese government. As a result of pressure the present-day government has today released 1,200 pages of documents relating to these negotiations, causing an instantaneous storm of protest and compensation claims.

It turns out that the Park regime used the estimated 1.03 million Koreans who had been forced into military service or sexual slavery during the Pacfic War as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. It asked for $360 million and actually got $300 million, but only a few thousand people were actually compensated and the rest of the money is thought to have been used for construction projects in Park's inimitable 'developmental dictatorship' style.

The good news is that this looks as though it could cause a few headaches for both governments:

<>The Association for Victims of the Pacific War said that it will take legal action against both governments for failing to compensate those forcibly conscripted for labor and military service under Japanese colonial rule.
"The Treaty on Basic Relations Between the Republic of Korea and Japan signed in 1965 is the outcome of a collaboration between the two governments that ignored the rights of individuals,'' Yang Sun-im, president of the association, said.
Just as startling is the fact that the back wages Japan was supposed to pay to the victims run to the tune of 1.63 trillion yen at today's currency value (I make that around 8.5 billion pounds, I think).

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Real f**king gone

Keeping with the cultural theme... (back to politics tomorrow I think).

Just been listening properly to Tom Waits' new album 'Real Gone' and it's absolutely blinding. Particularly the second track 'Hoist that Rag' which is a sort of demented, distorted salsa that's barely listenable to. His 'singing' sounds like one of those new-age therapy sessions where people go into the woods and do primal screams, except he sounds like he wants the world to end. It's a theme song for Iraq. Sort of a cross between Buena Vista Social Club and Napalm Death. (Which is entirely appropriate considering the US army's penchant for locking people up in Cuba or raining napalm on them from a great height.)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Going bendy

Sometimes I wonder what right I have to write about a far-flung country where I wasn't born and didn't grow up. Of course this is a fairly stupid thought, but it is true that European/American commentary and 'expertise' on other parts of the world is often far too much of a one-way street.

So it's always interesting to read something (preferably well-informed) by a Korean about where I come from. The ever-useful Oh My News has this nice article today on the end of the 50-year-old Routemaster bus.

The reporter talks about the anguish this is causing among many Londoners who have very affectionate feelings for the old buses. He also wonders how this will affect the image of London, which he says is represented more by the doubledecker buses than anything else. This is an excellent article that really goes out of its way to find out what Londoners think and get a sense of how people here feel about this aspect of their lives.

The author mentions in passing that many of the old routemaster routes are being replaced by 'bendy buses' (learnt a good bit of new vocab here: 굴절버스 - never seen one in Korea though, maybe thay used to have them), which I have to say that I rather like.

I think perhaps my own feelings on this subject are combination of nostalgia and neophilia. I remember travelling on routemasters with my mum as a nipper just about as far back as my memory goes. Even then (late 70s, early 80s) they seemed pretty ancient and had that very distinctive chugging, trundling sound. Now my local route, the no. 12, the same one I travelled on from East Dulwich to Peckham or Piccadilly or wherever as a kid with my mum, has gone bendy forever. But as I said, I can't help liking the shiny newness and slightly exotic 'European' air of the spanking mercedes machines with their big concertina in the middle. I agree with the author of the article that it was very sad to see the conductors (차장 - another good bit of vocab) disappear as they were often very recognisable characters who you saw again and again and became part of the 'scenery' of London. But on the other hand most people round here seem to like having no conductor because it means you can travel for free...

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Miscellany 1: Maps and brass

Mapping mountains
Articles in the Korea Times on mapping Korea's mountains have stimulated some debate on the Korean Studies discussion list. According to this article textbooks are going to be changed to reflect the fact that Korean academics now believe that maps of the peninsula have been wrong since 1903. The claim is that due to the malign influence of the Japanese colonialists the standard maps, which have been used during and since the colonial period, chopped up Korea's mountain backbone (the 'Paektu taegan') and diminished the number of her mountain ranges.

Of course it is not hard to detect in this a good dose of the classic post-colonial nationalist discourse that is so common in Korea, with a healthy helping of quasi-environmentalist rapid industrialisation nostalgia and perhaps a smidgen of old school geomancy (風水地理) thrown in.

Here's what Prof. Marion Eggert of Ruhr University Bochum had to say about it:
Critics of the colonial tradition in geography like Yi
Uhyông (d. 2001) maintain that the Japanese division
of mountain ranges five major and seven minor) purposely
hacked the unified body of the Korean landscape into
pieces... This concern with Korean physical geography
has deep roots but became,as far as I know, rampant
in South Korea from the late 90s onward, echoing early
20th century nationalism: The geographic unity of the
Korean peninsula, symbolically expressed in the unity
of mountain ranges descending from Paektu-san, was an
important topic to Ch'oe Namsôn, for example.
One outflow of this recent interest is Kim Sôngbae's
book "Paektu taegan-ûl kada" (2003) which documents a
foot journey (actually, many individual journeys)
following "paektu taegan" from south to north (of
course only in South Korea). The author reports that
a geography reform acknowledging Paektu taegan, although
under another name, has taken place in North Korea in
Needless to say, both concepts of Korean geography are
constructs of the mind. When I once saw satellite photos
of the Paektu-san region, I was impressed by the volcano's
isolated elevation rather than by its connectedness.
if I remember correctly, this is, in fact, the way
pre-18th century maps of Korea tended to depict the

In another post Gari Ledyard points out that how many mountain ranges Korea (or anywhere) has depends on how you define a mountain range. I have to say that all this has really got me thinking, as I'd never really thought about (physical) geography before as a "construct of the human mind."

Making brassware
The English edition of Oh My News today has an excellent photo essay on brassware craftsman Lee Bong-ju (李鳳周).
I have two sets of sujô (spoon and chopsticks) made by him and I have to say they are very satisfying to use. If you live in Seoul you can buy his wares at a brassware shop on Insadong-gil. Not sure what it's called but it's about halfway up on the lefthand side, if that's any help.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Compare and Contrast: Ukraine and South Korea

Ukraine (fourth largest troop contingent in Iraq): Parliament last week voted by 257-0 for the withdrawal of the country's contingent of 1650 troops in Iraq and outgoing president Kuchma has now ordered plans to be drawn up for the pull-out. Ah yes, you say, but surely Kuchma is the nasty anti-democratic, anti-American guy who helped fix the recent elections. Well yes but... president-elect Yushchenko, helped into office by the US, also made it an election pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq.

South Korea (third largest troop contingent in Iraq): The National Assembly voted to extend the mission of Korea's 3600 troops in Iraq on December 31, just two hours before their official mission expired. President Roh Moo-hyun has a somewhat shaky relationship with Bush and is reviled by the Neocons in Washington as an 'appeaser' of North Korea and someone they would like to have 'regime-changed' almost as much as Kim Jong-il. Eg:
For all intents and purposes, South Korea is now a runaway ally: a country bordering a state committed to its destruction, and yet governed increasingly in accordance with graduate-school "peace studies" desiderata--while at the same time relying on forward-positioned American troops and a security treaty with Washington to guarantee its safety. It is not too much to describe this utterly unnatural and unviable situation as our "second crisis" on the Korean peninsula.
So we have one country in which a pro-US president is promising to withdraw troops from Iraq and another where a supposedly anti-US president is promising exactly the opposite.

Roh Moo-hyun has always been quite candid about his reasons for supporting Bush's war, saying that he needed to maintain good relations with the US, largely so that Bush wouldn't sabotage his attempts at rapprochement with North Korea. (This brings to mind for some reason that old school teacher classic - "If Billy told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?") Of course the Bush administration seems to have done everything it can to sabotage South Korea's 'sunshine policy' toward North Korea and it is impossible to see what Roh has gained.

One other thing should be added: Ukraine and South Korea have something else very important in common - in both countries there has been overwhelming public opposition to sending troops to Iraq.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Tikhonov on NK defectors

Vladimir Tikhonov (aka Pak Noja / 박노자) of Oslo University has pointed out to me an interesting aspect of the current changes in South Korean governmnent policy on North Korean defectors that hadn't occurred to me:
On the issue of North Korean defectors - I am afraid that recent statement by Roh's minister is unconstitutional in terms of S.Korea's own legal system, as, so far, the Constitution regards all residents of Republic of Korea's "legal territory" (Korean Pen. and the adjacent islands) as (South) Korean citizens, without giving North Korea the benefit of legal recognition. So, in principle, the N.Korean defectors may take the S.Korean government to court for preventing them, as born (South) Korean citizens, from travelling to their motherland. The problem is that for the N.Koreans, the idea of legally challenging a state they are either living in or planning to go to, may seem somewhat outlandish. But I hope they will soon learn about this legal mechanism.
He adds:
there are recently some moves in S.Korea in the direction of changing the constitution in the direction of recognizing N.Korea's statehood and modifying the description of what constitutes (South) Korean territory appropriately. But once made, these changes might produce not only good (closer ties to North Korea), but also lots of bad consequences - for one, if N.K. regime were to fall and China was to move its troops into Pyongyang to prevent the Americans from doing so, S.Korea would be at a loss for legal arguments against it. Then, such constitutional changes will effectively stem the growth of the N.K. refugee community inside S.Korea - which is, after all, a seed of unification in itself, despite all the discrimination and adjustment difficulties.
On a related matter, Oranckay has an interesting post from yesterday about the decision by the South Korean government to change the term used to used to denote defectors from t'albukcha (탈북자) to the seemingly more positive-sounding saet'ômin (새터민).

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Roh Moo-hyun's Iraq gamble

It seems as though two South Korean citizens may have been kidnapped in Iraq by a group calling itself 'Jihad in the country of the two rivers' (reports: English - Yonhap, Korean - OhMyNews). The kidnappers released a statement on January 6 saying that the two hostages would "receive the judgement of Allah" if the Korean government did not agree to withdraw its troops from Iraq within 72 hours. This could be an ominous development for Korean president Roh Moo-hyun who has so far managed to avoid too much collateral damage from his unpopular decision to send troops to Iraq.

So tricky was the plan to send troops that the Roh government took almost a year to implement it and sent numerous 'inspection teams' to Iraq to find somewhere that would be safe enough. They finally settled on Irbil in the autonomous Kurdish zone, well away from any insurgent strongholds... or so they thought.

A few days ago Juan Cole covered a story that has got very little, if any, attention in the mainstream media: the mysterious attack by US helicopter gunships on the dormitories of Saladin University in the city of Irbil. It seems that the troops were going after the group called Ansar al-Islam which the US believes may have been linked to the recent mess tent suicide bombing. This operation has upset Kurdish organisations a great deal, to the extent that Juan Cole believes that conflict between US troops and Kurdish militias is "imminent".

The Korean National Assembly has just approved an extension to the mission of the 3600 Korean troops in Iraq, once again in the face of popular opposition. But these sorts of events show just how precarious the positions of leaders like Roh and Blair can be once they have irrevocably hitched themselves to the Bush adventure. Even the most careful precautions intended to ensure that the presence of Korean soldiers never goes beyond a symbolic show of support look like coming apart in the heat of Iraq.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Topsy-turvy world

Apparently, the US is planning to buy 300 million bullets from Taiwan. It seems that there has been a disappointing lack of conflict between Taiwan and China and the former country therefore has a bullet-surplus. Meanwhile, due to their recent mission to bring freedom to large swathes of the Mooslim world the Americans are running low. You can imagine some planner in the Pentagon slapping palm against forehead: "Hey, I think I got it..."

It might seem banal but I suddenly started wondering what happens to all these bullets. Assuming that only a fraction actually get to fulfill their destiny and rip through human flesh (I'm basing this assumption on the fact that the US army has only killed or injured hundreds of thousands rather than hundreds of millions), where do the rest end up? Is there such a thing as "bullet pollution" in Iraq and Afghanistan?

By the way, I was sure that the US was supposed to supplying Taiwan with arms to defend itself against Communist aggression... when did things change? As a friend of mine might put it "world gone crazy rudebwoy".

North Korean defectors and the left

There has been much consternation in the Korea-related blogosphere about the recent announcement by the South Korean government that it would stop welcoming large groups of defectors/refugees from North Korea and crackdown on the brokers that arrange for refugees to get from China to South Korea (see for example: NKZone Marmot). Seoul is also planning to cut by two thirds the amount of financial aid given to defectors for settlement once they arrive in the South.

I have to say that I also disagree with the new policy of the South Korean government and I don't think this is an issue that should be left to the rightwing, regime change lobby. This is an important issue for the left too. Unfortunately, as Chông Chin-hûi points out in the latest edition of Ta Hamkke some sections of the Korean left have welcomed the government's new policy, including sections of the Democratic Labour Party (apologies for rough translation - it's late):
This policy arises from the cynical calculation that the economic burden of the rising number of defectors needs to be reduced and that diplomatic friction with China and North Korea must be avoided... The Democratic Labour Party's decision to "welcome" this callous and hypocritical policy is regretable. The DLP's delight that this policy "positively reflects" the demands that it has been making for some time brings shame upon the name of a progressive party... If maintaining the stability of "north-south relations" means ignoring the basic rights of defectors, who is this stability for? What kind of socialism is a socialism that doesn't even recognise the freedom to migrate and seek asylum?
If the DLP wants to be a consistent progressive party it must have regard for the situation of the ordinary workers and people of North Korea rather than the problems of the North Korean ruling class.
We urgently need an internationalist perspective that welcomes North Korean defectors and opposes the government's attempt to put a curb on the numbers entering the country.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Random fowling up north

In case you thought that the North Korean authorities were only interested in military-first politics and flailing the imperialist aggressors, this story from the DPRK's Central News Agency shows that there are also concerned about woodpeckers:
Pyongyang, January 5 (KCNA) -- The number of white-bellied black woodpecker has increased in the Mt. Myolak area, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The bird, found out in Kyonggi province for the first time in the summer of 1886, had inhabited in the area south of Mt. Songak and Mt. Chonma in Kaesong, Korea and in Tsushima, Japan. But the environmental deterioration and random fowling compelled it to disappear in Japan from October 1920. And it was hard to see the bird even in Korea. The DPRK government took a step to protect and propagate the bird in Juche 41 (1952) during the hard-fought Korean War, and designated the bird found in Mt. Songak as a natural treasure in 1956.
In September 1969 the DPRK Cabinet issued an ordinance on protecting and propagating white-bellied black woodpecker and the areas of Phyongsan and Rinsan Counties in North Hwanghae Province and Pongchon County in South Hwanghae Province were designated as reserves for the bird.
This made it possible to increase the number of the bird, which had been once on the brink of extinction.
It has been living in the Mt. Myolak and Singye areas in North Hwanghae Province far north of the original habitat.
This bid for environmental credentials is only slightly spoilt by this passage from the following article 'DPRK in General Onward March':
The workers of the Musan Mining Complex successfully carried out the blasting for blowing 150,000 ton earth on the New Year's Day to open a broad vista for increased iron ore production.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

History for a change

I've just discovered that Alex Callinicos' out of print Making History has just been republished in the new Historical Materialism book series. This is one of those books that is extremely important but for some reason has been completely unavailable for years. The blurb:
Making History is about the question - central to social
theory - of how human agents draw their powers from the
social structures they are involved in. Drawing on
classical Marxism, analytical philosophy, and a wide range
of historical writing, Alex Callinicos seeks to avoid two
unacceptable extremes: dissolving the subject into an
impersonal flux, as poststructuralists tend to; and treating
social structures as the mere effects of individual action
(for example, rational-choice theory). Among those discussed
are Althusser, Anderson, Benjamin, Brenner, Cohen, Elster,
Foucault, Giddens, Habermas, and Mann. Callinicos has written
an extended introduction to this new edition that reviews
developments since Making History was first published in
1987. This republication gives a new generation of readers
access to an important intervention in Marxism and
social theory.
Ok, so that was a bit on the wordy side, but if you're still with me and at all interested in historical theory then you should definitely read this book. Actually, I must admit that this applies to me too as I've not read it cover to cover, having only been able to find it in a somewhat inaccessible library. There is some bad news: it's one of those academic editions where you have to take out a small mortgage... but Amazon have it for 26 pounds which isn't too bad I suppose.

By the way, I'm definitely going to start blaming things that go wrong in my life on impersonal flux.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

More on China

Another very interesting article on the rising social unrest in China, this time from the New York Times. There are now regular largescale strikes and mass protests taking on the character of uprisings against China's increasingly unequal society. The article really gives the sense of a society reaching boiling point. However, as the author points out, the Chinese working class has no organisations of its own comparable to Solidarnosc in 80s Poland (or for that matter working class organisations that have arisen in numerous dictatorial regimes like Apartheid South Africa).

Conveniently enough, at the China Labour Bulletin website there is an article on the possibility of workers reclaiming from below the All China Federation of Trade Unions. Somehow I have my doubts about this - trade union bureaucrats seem to be bad enough even when they're elected by the membership so I don't see a state-controlled union bureaucracy giving way to workers too easily.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Uses and abuses of defectors

It definitely seems as though there has been a rise in the confidence of Washington's North Korea hawks since Bush's re-election in November. This may also have something to do with the recent passing of the North Korean Human Rights Act (modelled to some extent, it seems. on the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998). This act specifically allocates money ($80 million between 2005-2008 - see Section 203c) to assist North Korean defectors and refugees outside of the country. It does not actually say that this money is to be used to support political organisations or the formation a government in exile as the Iraq one did (Section 4a), but one wonders where all this money is going to go.

There are certainly quite a few NGO-type organisations who appear to have a very strong agenda for regime change alongside their much vaunted concern for the human rights of North Koreans - the North Korea Freedom Coalition for example (why does the use of a torch as a political symbol always make me suspicious - maybe a reminder of the Tories' crappy logo?) . Along with all the recent rumours about goings-on inside North Korea there has been a marked rise in talk about North Korean defectors / refugees and criticism from various quarters about China's supposed policy of repatriating them. The NK Freedom Coalition also organised an international day of protest against China's repatriation of defectors on December 22.

I've just come across this article from a month ago by David Wall of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (AKA Chatham House) in which the author presents a very different picture of Koreans living in the Chinese border region (both long term residents and new arrivals from North Korea) :
Many of the migrants stay near the border, for short or long periods, protected by these [Korean] communities. There is growing legal and even cross-border investment in which the Chinese Korean community is active. Every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, of traders and tourists cross the borders. They are not closed. It is easy for the migrants to move between the communities and send goods and money back.
He goes on to write:

Of the millions of permanent Korean residents in China and of the hundreds of thousands of more recent Korean migrants, only a tiny handful, a few score, accept the offers of the publicity seeking anti-North Korean nongovernmental organizations to help them storm foreign embassies with the hope of getting to South Korea eventually. Who knows what they were told to induce them to engage in this high-risk activity in the full glare of television cameras and lights.

Most of them would have been better off staying in their communities in China, or traveling along the well-worn routes to Vietnam or Mongolia.
There has been some debate on the Korean left over the issue of defectors, and the 'organised defections' that Wall mentions in particular. The generally pro-North Juch'eist section has been arguing that the South Korea government shouldn't be welcoming defectors or helping them to come to the country, thereby undermining the North. Kim Ha-yong of All Together, on the other hand, has argued that the US is only really interested in protecting or fostering high-level defectors which it thinks might be useful in forming a future pro-US government in North Korea (Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi suddenly come to mind for some reason...). She also argues that the vast majority of ordinary defectors escaping hardship should be welcomed in the South (the Korean article summarising her argument in the recent debate is here).

I think it is clear that there are a number of organisations, most likely with connections to US hawks and perhaps the US government, who are using the human rights issue and the defectors as a way of pushing their regime change agenda. It also seems that there is a certain amount of disinformation going on when it comes to the real situation of refugees and Korea migrants in China. David Wall claims that there is absolutely no witchhunt of North Korean defectors by the Chinese authorities. At the same time, there is no doubt that North Koreans have many legitimate reasons to leave their country and they should be welcomed elsewhere just as I think refugees and asylum seekers from any country should be welcomed. Let's hope they do not become pawns in a dangerous international geopolitical game.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Reefer madness

I know this story is a bit out of date now, but as I recover from the usual New Year hangover I just felt the need to throw in a few thoughts on the subject.
Back at the beginning of December a number of Korean celebrities got together and held a news conference to call for South Korea's harsh laws on cannabis to be relaxed (OhMyNews article). This opened up a bit of debate on the subject in an environment where previously drugs=evil had been the prevailing idea.

The Korean socialist newspaper Ta Hamkke (다함께) provided a good overview of current knowledge about the effects of cannabis smoking and some good comparisons of the harm caused by alcohol and cigarettes. (Dependency on nicotine is apparently 6 times stronger than cannabis and alcohol 4 times stronger).

Obviously you can rehearse various arguments about individual freedoms versus the right of the state to intervene to prevent people form harming themselves or those around them. But to be honest I think these arguments often miss the point. We really have to ask why it is that governments find it convenient to ban some substances and not others, often regardless of scientific evidence about their relative harmfulness. Obviously there must be historical reasons for these idiosyncratic laws, but personally I think that the prohibition of drugs also has a lot to do with social control. Of course is would be foolish to argue that drugs are some sort of revolutionary force that can change society, but they are often associated with the sorts of things that governments are afraid of - youth culture, artistic expression (especially with a political edge) and sexual freedom.
Not only this but prohibition also gives governments a good excuse to clamp down on people who say things it doesn't like. It can also act as an ideological bogeyman to create a backlash against a wider sense of political and social change in society or to pin the blame for social problems on the 'decline' of youth or often on 'foreign' influences. This was the case in Britain in the 60s when various musicians were charged with possession, and right up to the present day (despite the recent relaxation of laws) suspicion of possession has been used as the perfect all-purpose excuse for stopping and searching people (with a heavy bias toward the young and ethnic minorities).

In Korea the use of cannabis is not particularly widespread, and like Britain in the 60s it is artists and entertainers who have borne the brunt of prohibition and who are used as examples to the rest of society. I know of one or two people through personal experience who have been on the receiving end of this treatment, including one quite famous and venerable old traditional musician who should be celebrated by the goverment rather than thrown in prison for having had the odd reefer. Handing out prison sentences for the possession of tiny amounts of marijuana seems irrational in the extreme. Hopefully the new debate on this subject is a sign that another remnant of the old days of authoritarian rule might be on its way out. I have a feeling though, that the ideological and control value of cannabis prohibition is still too important for the establishment in Korea.

On a historical note, I often wonder how much marijuana was used in Korea in premodern times. Hemp has been one of the basic fibre plants used by the common people to make clothing for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Since it is known that cannabis (particularly hemp seeds) was long used in Chinese medicine it seems likely that it was also used for medicinal (if not recreational) purposes in Korea too. Evidence on this is probably rather hard to come by, but
this site
does give some interesting hints on the historical use of cannabis in Japan. To this day large fields of hemp grown to make cloth can be found around South Korea. I remember seeing a documentary once about the growing problem of people raiding farmers' hemp fields at night. Typically for Korea all the farmers in the programme were rather old and seemed completely perplexed by the idea that people would come and steal their plants so that they could smoke them.