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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Support Kifaya

I've posted before about the democracy movement in Egypt - Kifaya / Enough! - and the solidarity they received from socialists in Korea (some good pictures here). Aljazeera reports today that 15 members of the movement's leadership have been arrested while trying to organise a demonstration. Anyone who wants to support one of the most important democracy movements in the world today should find a way to show solidarity with Kifaya, perhaps by writing to your local egyptian ambassador.

These are matters that concern all of us, especially since repressive governments like that of Mubarak that attempt to stifle all political debate (with the staunch support of the US of course) are one of the major factors in the growth of jihadi movements and support for the politics of desperation that believe the only solution is to carry out terrorist attacks on civilians. If we don't show our support for democracy movements like this (which are actually supported by the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) it is the violent Islamists that will gain, with the kind of horrific results in seen in Sharm El-Sheikh recently. By coincidence, Jonathan Steele had a comment piece in the Guardian yesterday in which he made a similar point.

An update to my post yesterday. According to a news story on the BBC it seems that the crackdown by the Egyptian government was somewhat more severe than was reported by Al Jazeera. 19 of Kifaya's leaders were arrested and many demonstrators beaten (the story has video too).

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Why six party talks are like a cheese sandwich

I noted that the story about the 'upbeat' beginning to the new round of six party talks (North Korea, South Korea, US, Japan, Russia and China) briefly made it to the top position on the front page of BBC News Online yesterday morning. But the BBC soon realised the error of its ways and remembered that nothing important really ever happens in East Asia, only funny things like hats with umbrellas. Here is the BBC's latest story and also what the Korea Times has to say.

To be honest, I'm not that keen on writing about negotiations between North Korea and the US, because, well perhaps because it's more boring than a processed cheese sandwich. Perhaps also because I don't care much for either side (although I must admit that negotiations are better than what they could be doing to one another). On this occasion though there is something about the talks that has just about prompted me to put finger to keyboard. This is the palpably different atmosphere. I could be wrong but it seems that both sides may be nearing the end of their strange mating dance and be about to do what we've all been waiting for: get it on.

Seems to me that the Bush administration has never really had a solution for the old North Korea problem, but on the other hand was glad of a nice little bit of instability in East Asia (offering legitimation for its protection racket in the region, cf Giovanni Arrighi's article in the latest New Left Review [subscription]). But then along came a problem called Iraq and suddenly it seems like a better idea to get things tidied up at the far end of the Eurasian continent before they get too out of hand.

North Korea on the other hand seems to have been less and less willing to compromise for just the same reason: it knows it has a strong hand. But maybe, just maybe, they feel they've reached a peak and the time is right to cut a deal. With South Korea providing electricity and the US and Japan offering diplomatic normalisation and lashings of cash it certainly seems that the nuclear gambit may have paid off, although I would attribute this as much to 'lucky' timing (ie Iraq) as to the North's skill in brinkmanship.

Well, there you go, a bit of a pointless attempt at geopolitical analysis/speculation, which could very well be a load of bollocks.

Oh, by the way, if you want a better informed analysis of the situation from a left perspective you could check out this piece (in Korean) in the latest issue of Ta Hamkke. It also says that the new round of talks could produce results, but argues that any agreement would probably be pretty meaningless. Besides this, it includes some interesting criticism of the pacifist and pro-North (Juch'eist) sections of the left, all of whom seem to have great hopes in the talks. The author argues instead that power relations in East Asia will be decided elsewhere, principally by what happens in the Middle East.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Korean books 2: North Korean poetry collections

North Korean poetry collections

Just a bit of eye-candy for book-lovers really. These are six poetry collections from North Korea dating from the late fifties to early sixties. I think the prints are really nice and very much of their time, although of course things haven't moved on that much in the DPRK and you can pick up books from only a few years ago that have very similar covers.

One thing that is very noticeable about these books is that apart from the one in the top centre (건설의 나날) they all depict very rural or wild scenes and they have titles like 'The Embrace of the Earth' (대지의품). It is interesting and perhaps surprising to note that at a time of massive industrialisation the nostalgic/romantic fetishisation of nature seems to have been a major theme (ok so I haven't actually read the poems, but there's something to be said for judging a book by its cover). I say surprising because we tend to think of 'communist'/state capitalist countries as fetishising industrialisation itself.

If you look closely at the two books to the bottom left you will see, however, that the pastoral scenes do include some form of farm machinery or tractors - clearly a hint at rural progress.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Autonomism in Korea

Reading conservative or liberal commentators on Korea, expat bloggers, experts or professional journalists, one thing that irritates is the tendency to lump together the Korean left into an amorphous mass of crazed stick-wielding students with a grudge against all things American and bolshie workers and farmers, who probably get paid too much anyway (to be 'globally competitive' that is).

Some of these stereotypes may exist in real life (I dunno), but the Korean left is actually quite a diverse and rapidly changing place. In some ways this is nothing new as anyone who knows about the various factions of the 80s (handily denoted by easy-to-remember abbreviations like NL and PD) will know. But the biggest difference these days is that much of the left is no longer dominated by Stalinism of one form or another as it was 20 years ago. There are social democrats of various stripes, Trotskyists of different hues and, as the title of this post indicates, the current vogue for autonomism is also present on the Korean peninsula.

I thought about making this the first of a series on the 'new' left in Korea, but I'm not sure I can actually come good on the promise of a series, so we'll see what happens. I might write some more on other aspects of the Korean left... and I might not.

The term used for Autonomism in Korean chayulchuûi (자율주의) must be of fairly recent coinage, although I'm not sure whether it reached Korean via Japanese, as many other newish words have done. Another interesting term that is relevant here is tajung (다중/多衆), a term that I've not seen used elsewhere on the left and which is used by the Korean Autonomists to translate Hardt and Negri's concept of the 'multitude' (their alternative to the proletariat as the modern world's revolutionary agency).

Anyway, according to people I've spoken to, the ideas of Autonomism, particularly in its recently revived form championed by Hardt and Negri, John Holloway, the Tute Bianche and the Zapatistas, have gained quite a bit of popularity on Korean campuses. This is perhaps a result of the general crisis of the old Stalinist left (in Korea and around the world) and the turn by quite a bit of the old Korean left toward social democratic politics.

Of course Korea did have a tradition of non-Stalinist revolutionary politics during the colonial period with the Korean anarchism of Sin Ch'ae-ho and others. But since liberation, anarchism or alternative forms of Marxism seem to have had little chance to make any impact on the left. Now, however, there is a Autonomist publishing house called Galmuri with the slogan 'Intellect of the Multitude' (다중지성).

There is also an Autonomist journal called Chayul P'yôngnon - 'The Autonomy Review'. The July issue (no. 13) is recently out, containing articles on subjects ranging from the debate on the left over the European constitution to the work of Giorgio Agamben. Much of it is translations of the work of European Autonomists, but there is also some interesting-looking writing by Koreans, including some debate between Autonomists and socialists like Ch'oe Il-pung.

So there you go, if Autonomism is your thing and you can read Korean, you now know where to go. Just don't let it be said that the Korean left consists of a load of North Korea-loving America-hating bbalgaengidûl.

Wanted to add some extra information from one of my Korean correspondents who put this in the comment box:
"The [Korean] autonomists also emerged from the disorganisation of the old PD faction. Part of the National Students' Conference (전학협) and the Socialist Party (사회당), particularly the students, became autonomists or other sorts of anarchists... At the moment the PD faction is not only isolated but in an extremely severe state of disintegration, and there are a lot of areas [where the members] are no longer under their control."

Blogger doesn't really seem to do trackbacks, so I'll manually link back to Marmot's link to me here and Budaechigae's here. Thanks for the links guys.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Meanwhile in Korea

A round up of some recent coverage / bloggage of Korean matters.

Two Koreas continue their excellent coverage of labour issues in South Korea with a post on what looks to be a hot summer season of disputes with the conservative FKTU union federation appearing to take an increasingly militant stance. For Korean readers the latest issue of Ta Hamkke newspaper also has quite a bit on the joint struggle that the two big union confederations are planning to wage this month.

Plans to expand the US Army base at P'yôngt'aek, to make space for troops who are to be redployed from the Yongsan base in central Seoul, seem to have a created another flashpoint and a great deal of resentment among locals. Once again Two Koreas are on the case (this blog is in danger of becoming a list of links to Two Koreas...) providing a very good overview of the way in which this particular site of protest has become a focus for quite a number of different causes (the old-school National Liberation types of the Hanchôngnyôn students, the new anti-war movement, the farmers' movement and of course, local families themselves who will be turfed out with the expansion plans). Oh My News also had their usual excellent picture story on last weekend's protests. And serious protests they were too - as the pictures of students charging police lines with 2-metre wooden poles show.

On the subject of the military, BBC correspondent Charles Scanlon has finally got around to doing something in-depth on the problems in the ROK Army that led to last month's one-man shooting spree that left eight men dead. A decent overview.

The July English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique has an interesting leader on Korea. As the title - 'Korean Blues' - indicates the subject is the mood of pessimism in South Korea, particularly about the economy. The focus is also on Korea's role as something of a pioneer in the field of precarity and flexibilisation:

In no other part of the world is the precarious labour market as advanced as it is here, having been created under the pressures of globalisation.

As the trade union officials explained: “Between the company that submits the original order and the worker who carries it out there are sometimes seven layers of subcontractors. The worker never knows exactly for whom he is working. The responsibilities of the main beneficiary of the production are diluted in a jungle of subcontractors. In the event of problems the occasional worker often has no recourse, because the trade unions for precarious workers are not recognised.”

Good to see a European take on what's going on in Korea.

Finally, news from a couple of weeks ago about the establishment of a new progressive veterans' association in Korea. Traditionally the mainstream Korean Veterans' Association has been a bastion of rightwing retired generals, so the planned new group seems to be making some powerful enemies before it has even got off the ground.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Fake solutions and real ones

Before I return to East Asian matters I wanted to write something a bit more editorial on the recent bombings in London. I don't really want to address the bombings themselves or the complex issue of the factors that lay behind them as I think this has been done better than I could ever do by some of the commentators I have linked to in previous posts (especially Gary Younge). So I thought I would look briefly at one slightly tangential aspect that interests me.

The issue is one that I've mentioned here before: ID cards. Until the bombings the government's plans to bring in ID cards were definitely on the slippery slope, suffering from spiralling projected costs, rapidly waning public support and about to become victim to a concerted effort by the opposition parties to upset the (much weakened) Labour government's new legislative programme. It will be interesting to see how things pan out, but I suspect that it will be much harder to defeat them now and the government has already moved to use the bombings as justification for ID cards (among a number of other 'necessary measures'). Funnily enough, though, even Home Secretary Charles Clarke in his post-bombing advocacy for ID cards has admitted that they would not have stopped the attacks. He argues rather that "on balance they would help rather than hinder" the investigation of terrorist attacks like this one. This seems like an incredibly weak justification from a government minister who is supposed to be pushing for ID cards. (And it should be noted that it would have been completely irrelevant in the current case as the attackers seem to have been totally unconcerned about concealing their identities and were carrying documents from which the police have been able to identify them easily).

However, I think in a strange way Clarke is actually being considerably more honest that much of the media rhetoric around that repeatedly uses the old cliche about how such bombings are "almost impossible to prevent in a free society like ours." The problems with such a statement are almost too many to unpack. First, it implies that technocratic solutions would be helpful and perhaps even prevent terrorism, but that we cannot implement them as we value our freedoms too much. But this government (like those before it during the 'troubles') has introduced a number of measures already that reduce our freedoms considerably and yet terrorism only seems to have become more likely. More broadly, I think the correlation between the degree of freedom granted to citizens in a particular society and its vulnerability to terrorism is a highly dubious one. In fact I think the correlation could almost be reversed: it seems highly repressive states are particularly good at breeding terrorism against themselves and there really is no way that a population can be 'locked down' to the extent that some people will not be able to commit acts of violence should they have the desire to do so. This is especially true of countries that are brutally occupying a another country - Russia and Israel come to mind straight away, but any number of other cases could be cited. Israel has opted for the ultimate technocratic measure: a massive concrete wall with watchtowers turning the West Bank into a prison, but I doubt that even this can be entirely effective in protecting Israelis.

Of course governments love technocratic solutions (even when they are honest enough to admit that they won't work) because they cannot commit themselves to the real solutions (and technocratic solutions have useful spin-offs too). In a rare moment of clarity, Blair said the other day that we have to tackle the 'roots of terrorism', but we all know that the reality is that he is completely incapable of doing this, tied as he is to Bush's disastrous 'war on terror'. While it goes without saying that security, prevention and (hopefully) justice are necessary when dealing with terrorism, here are a few suggestions for political rather than technocratic solutions to the problem:

  • Troops out of the Middle East

  • Self determination for Iraq, Palestine, Kurdistan, Chechniya and Afghanistan

  • No more military and financial support for regimes that oppress their own or neighbouring peoples, eg: Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia
  • Tuesday, July 12, 2005

    London at peace

    Some pictures from the last few days in London.

    Sealed Tavistock Sq
    Police stand guard close to a sealed off Tavistock Square, where a bus was blown up last Thursday morning killing at least 13 people.

    Peace vigil sign
    A sign on a tree near Tavistock Square advertises a peace vigil organised by the Stop the War Coalition on Saturday evening at the peace garden of the nearby Friends Meeting House.

    Peace vigil 2
    People pack into the peace garden for a minute's silence, after which a wide range of speakers addressed the crowd.

    Peace vigil 1
    Overhead picture of peace vigil (me perched slightly precariously on high wall).

    Peace vigil 3
    George Galloway MP addresses the crowd. He was followed by Jeremy Corbyn MP.

    Some more good writing in the papers today:

    Gary Younge in the Guardian produces an astonishingly good piece, perhaps the best he has ever written (I only say perhaps because I doubt I've read every one of his columns). A small sample:

    It is no mystery why those who have backed the war in Iraq would refute this connection. With each and every setback, from the lack of UN endorsement right through to the continuing strength of the insurgency, they go ever deeper into denial. Their sophistry has now mutated into a form of political autism - their ability to engage with the world around them has been severely impaired by their adherence to a flawed and fatal project.

    In the same paper Karen Armstrong discusses the terms we should use to describe terrorists.

    More interesting letters in the Independent today, where a battle of ideas is clearly raging over the factors behind the London bombings.

    Images from Thursday, selected by the Guardian's photo editor.

    Monday, July 11, 2005

    Korean Studies saved my life

    Perhaps a slightly unserious title for such a serious subject, but a bit of lightheartedness doesn't go amiss at times like this.

    Let's just say that if I hadn't been at the AKSE conference in Sheffield last Thursday, it is possible that I would have been on a bus into central London (although coming from the opposite direction to the one that was blown up) , or possibly sitting working in the SOAS library as a bomb went off on a bus less than a hundred metres away, killing at least 13 people.

    (Addendum: I've just checked the timing of the bus bombing and it was somewhat earlier than I believed, so to be honest, had I been in London I would probably have been saved from being in the vicinity of the explosion by my innate student laziness and inability to get to the library that early in the morning.)

    So strange to think of the many times that I've sat at SOAS listening to the sounds of ambulance sirens, thinking "perhaps this is it now". And then of course when it does finally happen I'm not even in the city. To make it more surreal, of all the places to choose in this city, the bombers go for two targets in the close vicinity of London University and the area of Bloomsbury where I come every day.

    My point is that we/I have been expecting this for a long time: really since Blair's involvement in the murderous invasion of Afghanistan and certainly since this government's decision to particpate in the Iraq catastrophe. This, and the strength of the anti-war movement in the UK, will undoubtedly have an effect on the nature of the response from British people toward this horrible terrorist attack. We will have to see how things work themselves out over the next few days and weeks, but there are already signs that people here have a very good understanding of the connections between people suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine etc and now here in Britain.

    Fortunately, it seems that everyone I know, has escaped this attack unscathed. But I think the sadness and anger that will be most acute for those most closely affected by this tragedy will also be felt to some extent by huge numbers of people in this diverse and tolerant city.

    I hope to post a few pictures tomorrow, but in the meantime, some links on the London bombings:

    The Independent's letters page, Friday July 8, 2005.

    Raed Jarrar, a man who knows plenty about the innocent civilian victims in Iraq, gets to grips with the real options for solving the problem of terrorism.

    Robert Fisk writes on the 'bombing of the Bush-Blair alliance'.

    Dilip Hiro in the Independent.

    Robin Cook in the Guardian.

    Tak has provided a round up of interesting blog coverage on the bombings.

    Finally, if you can bear it, the BBC is posting a very impressive, if harrowing, log by a survivor of the blast in the tube train that was travelling from Kings Cross to Russell Square.

    Friday, July 01, 2005

    Service announcements

    A couple of things: first, blogging may be very light over the next week or so as the AKSE conference has finally arrived (woohoo, a whole week of undiluted Korean studies) and I will be in Sheffield next week, where I hear the internet is almost unheard of. Who knows, perhaps Antti and I will live-blog the proceedings of the conference (but somehow I doubt it).

    Second, I've been trying out a new bloghost that uses wordpress software. Wanted to set this up on my own webspace but I'm not enough of a techie to handle it so I'm using the handy blogsome. I'm not sure whether to go with this yet and I've got quite used to blogger. On the other hand wordpress is much nicer to use and has features I've been hankering after like categories (how cool is it that they get picked up straight away by technorati). So I'd be interested to know what people think, should I cut the blogger apron strings? Comments welcome here or there. (Of course that last sentence only works if you're reading this post on blogger... confusing business having two blogs).

    Finally, good luck to anyone who's heading up to Scotland to fight the power. Sorry I can't be there.