우물 안 개구리

2/7/2011

Police Torture in Egypt and 1987 Korea

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:08 am Print

Historical comparisons can open up new exciting ways of understanding events that have become trapped by a dominant narrative, or proposing solutions to pressing current issues. We do, however, have to be very careful when we juxtapose highly distinct clusters of events. As I have watched things in Egypt unfold (I emerged from my own research having missed Tunisia) the democracy movement in South Korea has constantly been on my mind, but some connections are more helpful than others. If forced to connect the dots, Jo Gap-je’s linking Jeon Du-hwan (전두환) with Mubarak and No Tae-u (노태우) with vice president Omar Suleiman playing a transitional role is easy to make but the comparison is deeply problematic in both descriptive and normative terms. Nor is a making a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Korean Christians useful in understanding the roles either played in protests.1

There are a whole number of questions, both small and large, we could ask about Egypt now and Korea in the late 1980s that might help us both better tackle general phenomena as well as understand the two historical moments in their own right. What is the role of the politics of self-immolation?2 How important is the symbolic power of specific physical spaces such as Tahrir square or Myeongdong cathedral? How do we evaluate the rapidly changing and internally divided US policies towards its authoritarian allies? How important are highly organized movements in these moments? How is middle class support gained in each case? In this posting I wish to explore another one of the issues where I think there are deep parallels between the Egyptian January 25 uprising and the momentous spring of 1987 in Korea: the role of police torture and brutality.

The Most Serious Eventuality

A CIA report from April, 1980, included this observation in its evaluation of the potential for unrest in South Korea:

Should a bloody confrontation develop, the most serious eventuality would be the death of a student at the hands of the police or military. Government officials are all too aware that it was the police killing of a high school student in Masan in 1960 that provided the student movement with a martyr, solidifying student opposition to the Rhee government, which led to Rhee’s eventual downfall.

Only a few weeks later a popular uprising in Gwangju was met with massacre, and followed by several years of renewed state oppression. The first fatality at the hand of paratroopers in the city, Kim Gyeong-cheol, contributed to an explosion in support for the protests.

The death of protesters would time and time again provide such martyrs. Byron Engle, who helped retrain police in US occupied Japan after World War II and for decades led controversial US training programs for police around the world, advised departments against using bayonets in riot control (advice apparently not heard by soldiers in Gwangju). His reason for wanting to remove these fixed knives from crowd control was more cynical. It was too easy, he argued, for a Marxist agitator to “push a demonstrator onto one” and thereby gain an instant martyr for the cause.3

Police torture and brutality tends to simmer for much longer. It is notoriously difficult to prove, especially when police use techniques that leave little mark.4 It is also double sided. Police torture can be a powerful weapon of intimidation by an authoritarian regime. It is not only used to extract confessions or reveal information; in both in Egypt and in South Korea it has been deployed as a form of punishment and to spread fear among those who challenge the state. Suspects might not even be processed, but instead given a thorough beating for a few hours or days and then released.5 To generate this deterrent fear impact, it need not be used in all or even a majority of cases, thus promoting deniability.

However, if the timing and circumstances are right, revelations about just one or a few cases of brutal torture at the hands of the police, especially if it results in the death of a prisoner, can have an effect that is arguably more powerful and long lasting than the death of a single or several protesters. Since these actions take place away from the chaotic and violent interactions on the front lines of a political demonstration, they cannot be dismissed as tragic accidents, but come to serve as a symbol of the systemic failures of the regime. Since revelations of police torture and brutality are often accompanied with shocking details of attempts to cover-up the brutality, they become a bitter cocktail of violence and corruption waiting to be set on fire.

One of the most famous Korean examples of this can be found leading up to the mass protests of June 1987: the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol. Before his death in January, the nation was already following another case throughout the previous year. The first woman to step forward and bring suit in accusations of police sexual torture, Kwon In-suk, had an especially powerful impact on the mobilization of women but was accused by the government of being a lying Communist sympathizer and cruelly humiliated in the censored press.6 In the tense January days that followed Jeon Du-hwan’s 1987 New Year’s policy message and tense debates on constitutional reforms, news emerged of the death in police custody of Seoul National University student Pak Jong-cheol (박종철 Pak Jung Chul). Officials announced he had fainted during questioning and died of “shock” but relatives who attended the autopsy immediately made accusations of torture. Anger and sympathy grew quickly, especially after memorial protests for Pak were held on February 7th and details of his water torture and the police cover-up emerged in May, leading directly to the resignation of the Prime Minister at the time, No Sin-yeong.

The outrage over the killing of Pak Jong-cheol went well beyond those already in the protests and sparked sympathy for the students throughout society, especially among parents. It also helped to mobilize students who had stubbornly refused to join the protests, including one Korean friend of mine who had up to then, “only smelled tear gas when it came through the windows of my classroom.” Another activist remembers the impact of the revelations about the Pak case, “From that moment on, I knew I could not live a normal life like getting married and having kids”7

Pak Jong-cheol Memorial
Students holding Pak Jong-cheol’s Picture

Worldwithouttorture
“I want to live in a country without torture”
From Pak Jong-cheol Memorial Protests 1987.2.7
See more pictures from the event here.

Since democracy movements are highly complex events, with a multitude of causes, actors, negotiations, and political changes, a case like the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol also provides a convenient marker for use in more compact historical narratives. For example, two 2008 Korean history textbooks for high school students I picked up last time I was in Korea note the importance of the Pak torture case (one with a photo) on their single page of coverage of the 1987 June democracy movement.8

We Are All Khaled Said

I couldn’t help thinking of Pak Jong-cheol when I first heard about the organization, “We Are All Khaled Said” (Arabic) in Egypt. A loose network of activists that formed in mid-2010 after the brutal beating and killing of Khaled Mohamed Saeed by Egyptian police, judged by its (Arabic) Facebook support alone, the group was already the largest human rights organization in Egypt many months before the January 25th uprising. Saeed was beaten to death before he even reached the station, leaving a number of witnesses, and a horrifying photograph that made laughable police claims of an accidental death caused by choking on swallowed drugs.

We Are All Khaled Said began as an organization dedicated to opposing the rampant police torture that has been attacked by Human Rights Watch and in US Department of State human rights reports, though the US has been known to make use of their skills. The organization also collected video clips of Egyptian police torture and organized protests.

Jan 25 RevolutionAs I understand it, following the revolution in Tunisia We are All Khaled Said shifted into new gear, and cooperated closely with other older political organizations such as the April 6 Youth Movement that had experience in mobilizing workers and an emphasis on economic issues. These groups decided to combine their forces and on or around January 15th settled upon the date of January 25th for the beginning of a nationwide uprising. Of these organizations, We are All Khaled Said was the largest and, according to Freedom House researcher Sherif Mansour, “promoted the [initial] event widely and managed to get it to over one million people. They also were the central location for organization, instruction, sharing information and sharing materials could be printed out and distributed by hand.” The Facebook wall postings and event announcements on their site from the time already began to embrace a wider set of issues: unemployment, dictatorship, oppression and fear under the emergency law, and the stagnant economy.9 However, the day chosen was not random: it was Egypt’s annual Police Day – celebrating the police as nationalist heroes by remembering a moment decades ago when their officers stood up against the English colonial oppressor.10 In Youtube clips (2011.1.20, 2010.1.22) posted by the coalition and spread widely on Facebook and twitter, it was the theme of police torture that was most emphasized. One of the videos transitions from patriotic clips of the police fighting the English to scenes of police beatings.

There was no guarantee that Jan 25 would become what it did. Even before the internet was shut down in Egypt, the movement was already an organic force of its own, driven by deep structural circumstances that have been building for years. The protester victories of those first days were in a war fought directly with a clearly despised police force and their triumph was made visible to the world as the Egyptian interior ministry forces almost completely melted away. Torture in their hands, alas, has continued up to day I write this posting. New York times reporters who were detained on Friday were not themselves hurt, but during their short stay, they could hear the sounds of tortured detainees in cells nearby.

As we continue to watch developments in Egypt and calls for a calm and smooth transitional regime, I hope no one will forget that while this takes place, the repressive institution that continues to hold thousands of protesters will be free to continue its practices, especially under a vice president who is no champion against police torture.

Even when there is a clear and unambiguous message sent to police that torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, it takes years to reform an institution of that size, even without a process of reconciliation or retribution against torturers. That work needs to begin now.

  1. The Korean government did not, for example, frighten its US ally with ominous reports of Christian terrorists waiting in the wings. Beck’s short article can be found with slight modifications half a dozen places online. It mentions a spring 1987 election in the posting, but think this is an error. []
  2. Readers in Boston interested in this might be interested in attending an upcoming Harvard Korea Institute talk by Professor Kim Sun-Chul, on “The Politics of Self-Immolation in South Korea, 1990-2010” I am certainly looking forward to it. []
  3. A. J. Langguth Hidden Terrors (Pantheon Books, 1978), 54. []
  4. Judging from video clips, Egyptian police, for example, apparently like to engage in heavy slapping at the base of the neck or upper back as one of their milder forms of brutality. Does anyone know if this has some cultural significance or is done due to the ratio between pain caused and marks left behind? Also see the powerful arguments on rise of hidden tortures in Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2009) []
  5. On the Korea side, see Jerome A. Cohen and Edward J. Baker “U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights in South Korea” in William Shaw, Human rights in Korea: historical and policy perspectives (Harvard Univ Asia Center, 1991), 180. []
  6. The importance of the Kwon case goes beyond the democratization issue and is seen as pivotal in changing Korean views on sexual violence. Chilla Bulbeck, Sex, love and feminism in the Asia Pacific: a cross-cultural study of young people’s attitudes (Taylor & Francis US, 2009), 78. Also Ueno Chizuko argues that the Kwon case was important in motivating former ‘comfort women’ to step forward in the years that followed. Chizuko Ueno and Beverley Yamamoto, Nationalism and gender (Trans Pacific Press, 2004), 71. []
  7. Mi Park, Democracy and social change: a history of South Korean student movements, 1980-2000 (Peter Lang, 2008), 127. When the Korean democracy movement reached a dramatic climax in June 1987, the anger over the martyrdom of Pak was compounded by the ultimately fatal injury of Yonsei student Lee Han-yeol by a direct hit from a tear gas canister on June 9, yielding a photograph that has become one of the most famous in recent Korean history. Both of these cases are important and the Lee Han-yeol image especially can be found invoked by many protest movements in Korea since. []
  8. 김흥수 et al 고등 학교 한국 근 현대사 (천제교육 2008 5th edition, 304 and 한철호 et al 고등 학교 한국 근 현대사 2008 6th edition, 277. Interestingly, neither textbooks mention the death of Lee Han-yeol. []
  9. Here is one of the January 15th calls (screenshot) on Facebook for the January 25th protest. I’m only able to get a general gist through Google translation. []
  10. Korea also has its own annual Police Day on October 21, 경찰의 날. Does anyone know if there were ever a protest movement in Korea which chose the day to protest police torture and brutality? []

5/25/2010

A Question of Credibility: The ASCK

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:11 pm Print

Of late I have become depressed by what I see as a lack of credibility in some of the efforts to counter the flood of media reports and bombastic condemnations of North Korea. I believe that continued calls for dialogue and warnings against escalation must be accompanied by an honest and active critique of North Korean policies together with a full recognition of the agency of the North Korean state as an actor – not merely a re-actor to the policies of South Korea, the United States, or other parties.

Concerned Scholars

In 2005 I joined an organization called the ASCK, the “Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea.” I was only in the second year of my PhD program, but was delighted to hear of an organization of scholars and graduate students who were concerned about US polices towards the two Koreas and sought to promote dialogue, cooperation, and peace on the peninsula. I believed that this organization, reminiscent of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) that led academic opposition to the Vietnam War among scholars of Asia, could help provide historical context for the tensions among the Koreas, warn against potentially ineffective US policies, and perhaps spread a better understanding of the North Korean regime’s domestic and international polices that critiqued its many flaws without demonizing it.

I became disillusioned with the organization, however, when I came to see that the most distinctive and consistent aspect of its portrayal of the Korean Crisis was what it avoided, rather than what it focused upon. In its statements, emailed calls for action, and on its webpage I found that, time and time again, the ASCK carefully avoided treating North Korea as a strategic actor responsible for its own actions. Either it treats North Korea as if it were some kind of otherwise harmless chemical substance that only explodes in reaction to certain other chemicals, or else when it calls for action, North Korea is appended at the end of a list of concerned parties, as if it were some minor last minute addition to a shopping list, “Buy me some milk, bread, carrots, oh, and while you are there, a pack of gum.”

Even on issues that did not directly involve tensions between the Koreas, I have been troubled by inadequacies in some of their campaigns. In the past few years ASCK has supported the efforts to spread the work of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has done valuable work, especially in uncovering information about atrocities committed during or just before the Korean War, but the overwhelming emphasis of reporting on their findings is about atrocities committed by anti-Communist forces in a way that occasionally leaves out context or perspective. ASCK has justly protested against heavy-handed political intervention into the revision of history textbooks by conservative forces in South Korea, a position I agree with, but if it cares about history education it should also then be willing to point out the problems in the narratives of existing South Korean textbooks and call for their reform. The ASCK has supported House Resolution 121 on the “Comfort Women” issue, again a laudable cause, but given how distant this is from the organization’s professed goals, one would hope they would direct somewhat more energy into a statement condemning North Korean treatment of returning refugees, or the abuse of its own people, which is undeniably closer to the heart of their mission.

Silence, and Other Sins

It is in its handling of the tensions with North Korea, however, that the ASCK has been truly disappointing. When North Korea carried out its nuclear weapon test in October, 2006, I expected a strongly worded statement of condemnation from the organization attached to an appeal for calm and a realistic appraisal of the alternatives going forward. Nothing. Following North Korea’s May, 2009 nuclear test, I thought surely this time the ASCK would be forced to make a statement condemning the test. Almost all of the current ASCK steering committee and other leading members did stir in June, 2009, but in an unexpected manner when they signed a circulated “Statement from Professors in North America Concerned about Korean Democracy” (English | Korean) deploring the fact that, since the election of Lee Myung-bak, “Korean democracy had lost its way.” It condemned the suppression of candlelight vigils, and problematic government moves against the freedom of press and online activism.

I too was concerned by Lee’s handling of the protests, even if I believe it is too much to say that Korea’s young democracy had “lost its way.” If anything it has been the progressive movement that has lost its way, and as a result, lost the trust of the Korean people who subsequently elected a conservative President. It is now a time to regroup, rethink, and plan for the next election. It was not, however, so much the position espoused in the 10 June 2009 statement signed by over two hundred professors (I’m not sure what organizations led the drive to collect them) that dismayed me as the fact that the ASCK or its members put together no statement and collected no signatures at the time condemning a North Korean nuclear test that happened only a few weeks earlier on 25 May, 2009 and coming, rudely, only two days after the suicide of former president Roh Moo Hyun. Compared to the more muted response to the 2006 test, which nevertheless led to the unanimous passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, this time even China and Russia were surprisingly vocal in their strong condemnations, which helped lead to the passing of the more sharp-toothed UN Security Council Resolution 1874 in June of last year. But ASCK mobilized no scholars against these tests, or even bother, at this point, to weigh in on the dangers of United Nations sanctions being unproductive, even if justified in their condemnation.

I don’t think North Korea would have cowered at the spectacle of having its nuclear tests criticized by a few academics: it is not about that. It is about credibility; it is about taking the right position, of being willing to make a clear honest statement about something that touches the heart of one’s issue, and avoid the hypocrisy that plagued so many progressives in the Cold War who took a stand against American imperialism but fell silent when faced by the horrors of Communist oppression.

Sometimes the ASCK does speak up and mention North Korea, but when it does so, it is reluctant to treat North Korea like a full participant in the crisis, even when arguably (and I’m not even asking them to go this far) it is the primary source of tensions.

Let us look at two representative examples:

1) “Time to End the Korean War” (2003)

It is always the United States which is the primary target for the ASCK. Article two of this statement singles out the US for criticism and accuses it of pushing the Korean peninsula “perilously close of war” (Poorly chosen words, at any rate, since a major push of the ASCK is to get everyone to realize that the war never ended) and specifically mentions its “threats of embargo, preemptive strikes and regime change” but nowhere in the statement is there an acknowledgment that the DPRK plays a significant role as an obstacle to peace on the peninsula.

It is very unfortunate that the supporters of the statement listed at the bottom which, to ASCK’s credit, includes almost all of the leading scholars of Korea in the United States and Europe—many of whom I deeply respect—did not point out this disturbing asymmetry. At the very least they could have appended a watered down phrase to article two saying something along the lines of, “and the policies of the DPRK haven’t exactly been helpful, either.”

2) “A Transnational Appeal for Peace and Security in Northeast Asia” (2009)

The ASCK is a master of passive constructions designed to avoid difficult questions of responsibility, except when such responsibility can be directly attributed to anyone except North Korea. In this appeal, found on the positions page of the ASCK, we learn that “The United States, South Korea, and Japan are tightening sanctions” but “Tension is rising,” “military tensions actually increased,” and the “Northeast Asian region was swept by fears by a sudden change in the nuclear situation.” This sudden change, we learn, came at the end of a chain of events which places North Korea in the position of the victim. Here is the narrative as portrayed by the ASCK:

In April Pyongyang “announced that it would launch a satellite.” There is no mention of why this might be a very bad idea, completely counter productive, a potential violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, and that a communications satellite is not the best use of an economically failing state’s resources. President Obama and the Security Council condemned the launch and tightened sanctions. North Korea then, on May 25, “responded to what it viewed as the statement’s infringement on its sovereign right by conducting a nuclear test.” The UNSC passed Resolution 1874 to punish North Korea “for what it believed” to be a violation of previous resolutions, and North Korea “in turn” tested more missiles. This was all part of a “vicious cycle of confrontation.”

Later in the document, again in reference to North Korea’s launch of a satellite, a whole paragraph is supplied to present North Korea’s argument in defense of its satellite-loaded missile launch, but not a single sentence is spared in the document to outline why most of the world, except for such noble supporters of democracy as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, have expressed sentiments ranging from concern to outright shock and condemnation. No mention is made of the fact that it is highly likely that delivering a satellite into orbit was not the only, likely not even the primary purpose of the launch. Instead, North Korea’s claims are presented without any skepticism.

This entire narrative only functions, however, if we see each step as directly connected to the previous one – of each move being a reaction to some previous provocation. This, I believe, is not only incredibly naive, but seriously underestimates the intelligence and strategy of the North Korean regime.

More troubling in this statement is how little is expected of North Korea. It calls on Obama and Chairman Kim Jong-il to “return to a course of dialogue” but all of the rest of the demands made in the statement are directed to other governments: the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan. It does not ask North Korea to stop nuclear tests, stop firing its missiles, or end its constant threats of war. It brings up the Japanese frustrations with North Korea over the abduction question but does not ask North Korea to address them. On the contrary, in what must be an ominous reference to colonialism it notes Japan’s “historical responsibility for the present crisis,” and notes Japan’s “refusal to fulfill its obligations to provide oil to North Korea under the Six-Party agreements” without any reference to North Korea’s failures to follow through with its many broken promises.

In other words, if someone is coming to this issue without any prior knowledge of the background of events, they can not be blamed for getting the impression that North Korea is a pitiable, if feisty victim of international bullying.

A Call For A New ASCK

These two examples are part of a pattern that is deeply troubling. Barring a major shift in its approach, I believe graduate students and scholars who might sympathize with the noble goals set out in the ASCK mission statement should distance themselves from this organization, and refuse to support any statements such as those listed above. I sincerely hope a new cooperative alliance of scholars concerned about Korea will eventually take its place. There is a desperate need for such an organization, but the statements put out by the ASCK risk creating suspicion and attracting ridicule. Progressive supporters of direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, a defusing of the military tensions, and a final peace treaty are often vilified as “pro-North Korean” or seen as apologists for its oppressive regime. I believe the vast majority of ASCK members and statement supporters are strongly opposed to North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship and its oppressive policies and their individual writings often confirm this. Doubtlessly some of them believe that there is enough in the media already which condemns North Korea’s nuclear tests, its domestic oppression, and its brinkmanship, and that therefore an organization such as the ASCK plays an important balancing role by focusing on its counter-critique. To those friends I can only say that I think this is both a tactical mistake in terms of lost potential support, as well as morally troubling.

As historians and academics studying Korea, there is nothing wrong with us taking a firm political stand. There is no apolitical history, the very questions we ask in our research already betray the assumptions that guide our scholarship. However, some questions, when asked, present themselves like a mirror, reflecting naturally, if uncomfortably, back upon ourselves.

Now, as tensions are reaching a new peak following the likely North Korean sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan, it is more important than ever that all of us engaged in the academic study of Korea who are deeply concerned about the future of peace on the Korean peninsula speak up. If we support continued dialogue, a carefully moderated response, and oppose any talk of military retaliation, we should do so without denying North Korean responsibility and, despite our justified skepticism of all state parties, tentatively accept the most likely explanations provided. If the ASCK refuses to provide such a voice and live up to its mission, then we should either create an alternative organization or individually make our positions known.

-Konrad M. Lawson

7/16/2007

KTX female attendants – “contingent labour” fights back

Filed under: — noja @ 1:33 pm Print

There was a time in Korean labour movement history in the 1970s when it were the female workers who actually led the most militant part of the struggle. The reasons were obvious – while the wages were held generally low and grew on much lower rate than the economy as the whole (in the 1960s, the growth rate for economy were whopping 10%, but for real, inflation-adjusted wages in the manufacturing – modest 2,4% on the annualised basis), the female wages were always lower than the male ones, and military-like systemized bullying on the part of the male supervisors used to make factory life a miserable, constantly humiliating experience. Accordingly, some of the most moving struggles of the 1970s took place on the female-dominated textile factories – KyOngsOng Pangjik (1973) and Tongil Panjik (1978) strikes being the best known ones. In the latter case, the striking female workers were eventually assaulted by their male colleagues (?), beaten and showered with human excrements. Their response? On the Easter, 1978, they came to the public worship place on YOUido Square and succeeded in taking microphone for 5 minutes and shouting to the city and world – “우리는 똥을 먹고 살 수 없다!”. Of course, more beatings and arrest followed immediately, but the phrase ended becoming a tale-telling slogan of the female labour movement.

Now, I feel sometimes that the 1970s are returning, in a way. After 1997 crisis, females were first to be sacrificed on the altar of Washington consensus and “national interests” – put on contract (many of the contracts for tellers at the large malls, for example, are for 3 months or even 1 month), send to work on much worse conditions for a subcontractors, to which large part of the tasks was now “farmed out”, “re-employed” by some shadowy intermediary with proporationate part of the salary being withheld “for introduction”, and “flexibilized” in a million other methods, too diverse and creative to describe here. Now, 70% of Korea’s female workforce is “contingent” and “flexible”, on short-term contracts, subcontracted or supplied by “manpower agencies” – a world record of sorts. The women fought back, and the most protracted and bitter of all the struggles witnessed so far by the 2000s is the marathon strike by KTX (express train) female attendants – now well over 500 days and showing so far no signes of coming to an end. Below is the text of the appeal for their sake, prepared in its English form by a group of Korean female professors and sent to me by Prof. Na YungyOng (Culture Studies, Yonsei University):

“URGENT APPEAL for INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY

On March 1, 2006, approximately four hundred women who work as train attendants (similar to flight attendants) on the KTX “bullet train” began a strike to demand the end of discriminatory and unjust outsourcing practices of the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL). Despite KORAIL’s promise that workers hired under short-term contracts via an external company would be granted permanent status as direct employees of KORAIL after one year, the KTX Crew Workers Branch Union’s demands for direct and permanent employment have yet to be met.

To date, the KTX Crew Workers’ Branch Union’s struggle is the longest and most bitterly waged fight by women workers in the history of Korea. For over 500 days, women who work as train attendants on the KTX bullet trains have held public rallies and marches, occupied buildings, lectured in classrooms, and conducted outreach on the streets and at train stations throughout the country. KORAIL’s continued refusal to meet the union’s demands for gender equality, safe working conditions and secure employment have led union leaders to engage in desperate measures to expose the unjust and unequal conditions under which they are forced to work. After exhausting every tactic, 31 union members began a hunger strike on July 2, 2007. As the hunger strike surpasses its 14th day, many union members have been rushed to the hospital..

Despite KTX’s sleek and high-tech image as the fifth fastest “bullet train” in the world, it is the site of blatant sexism and labor abuse. Of those train attendants who are irregularly employed under outsourcing agreements, the majority are women. In contrast, their male counterparts who perform comparable duties are directly employed by KORAIL as “team leaders.” Simply by being women, KTX train attendants are subject to lower wages, harsher working conditions, and heightened job insecurity. In addition, women workers face the perpetual threat of dismissal if they speak out against unfair conditions and sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, KORAIL’s treatment of KTX female train attendants is a clear example of gender discrimination and a basic violation of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission has strongly recommended that striking KTX women workers be granted fair and just conditions of employment. The South Korean Minister of Labor, the legal community, various media outlets, 500 university professors, 300 members of the literary community and a wide cross section of NGOs including the Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea Women Workers Association United, and the People’s Coalition for Media Reform have also called upon KORAIL to reinstate the striking workers as directly hired employees, not as contingent workers contracted through a third party. However, KORAIL continues to disregard this overwhelming public outcry.

KORAIL, the nation’s largest public enterprise and employer of over 30,000 people, refuses to abide by the most basic and fundamental standards of fairness and equality. KORAIL’s actions violate South Korean laws that prohibit all forms of discrimination, as well as international standards established by the ILO to protect the rights of workers. KORAIL is also failing to comply with the international standards that the company itself pledged to uphold when it joined the UN Global Compact in May 2007.

KORAIL’s blatant violation of the basic principles of democracy and human rights deserve international criticism. KORAIL’s actions are indicative not only of the pervasive inequality facing contingent workers in South Korea, but also of systemic gender discrimination in South Korea. We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the KTX Crew Workers in its brave fight for justice. We respectfully request your signature on this petition letter in support of the KTX women workers. This letter will be sent to President Roh Moo-hyun and UN Secretariat General Ban Ki-moon, as well as to the CEO of KORAIL.”

The letter of the appeal is enclosed below. Dear friends, if you think that the cause of the KTX workers is worthy, I beg you to sign it and return with you sign to ktxworkers@gmail.com (please, indicate your position and affiliation). More info in Korean is available at: http://ktxworkers.blogsome.com. This thing is URGENT, since only the Almighty knows how long the hunger strikers will be physically able to hold on.

6/11/2007

The June struggle in the British newspapers

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:22 pm Print

Over at my own blog I’ve decided to mark the anniversary of the events of June 1987 in South Korea by following contemporary reports from the British newspapers on a day-by-day basis. Twenty years ago today, the real action of the June events was getting under way with serious violence on the streets of central Seoul, and the famous siege of Myŏngdong Cathedral began.

Personally I find something exciting about looking back at an event that happened within my memory (at least I have vague memories of the TV news reports) and seeing it as ‘history’. It is also interesting to see how perceptions of the event here and in Korea may have changed since the correspondents first filed their reports from the scene.

All the posts will be accessible from this link.

Meanwhile, at Japan Focus, Paik Nak-chung has an article on the June Struggle and its legacy.

3/2/2007

Getting Out the Vote

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:56 pm Print

In the weeks leading up to May 10th, 1948, the United States run interim Military Government in southern Korea was busy preparing the national assembly elections that create the first legislature of a soon-to-be independent Republic of Korea. Things were not going well, however, for America’s trusteeship in Korea. A general strike broke out in February, a rebellion erupted in Cheju-do in early April, and the only two major alternatives to the aging future president Rhee, Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, frequently voiced their opposition to the elections and went north to Pyongyang to participate, or at least, hang around the entrance of, a political conference in North Korea designed to condemn the separate elections in the south and argue for the creation of a united “democratic” Korea. While much greater violence was to come, several hundred Koreans died in political violence in the first few months of 1948.

Meanwhile, in civil war China, the country’s ruling GMD nationalists were in steep decline, suffering major defeats in the summer of 1947 and as a Communist offensive in September of that year got underway Lin Biao and other commanders of the CCP began to make serious progress in destroying nationalist opposition all over the northeast of China. The partition of India in August of 1947 sparked massive ethnic and religious violence in the migrations that followed. In January 1948, however, both of these countries would have delegates in the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) set up to monitor the May election in Korea (They may have been a Y. K. or a Y. W. Liu for nationalist China and K. P. S. Menon on the India side).

The US Military Government had its hands full with everything from designing ballot boxes (I found nice diagrams of them in State department archival documents), fixed the rules for post-election review procedures, releasing thousands of political prisoners (some half of the political prisoners that UNTCOK expressed concerns about) in an amnesty, and launched a massive public relations campaign to encourage voter registration (including the dropping of at least a million leaflets from the air). The election date was even moved from May 9th to May 10th on UNTCOK Liu’s recommendation because the solar eclipse on that day was seen as a bad omen by some. However, there were several very serious concerns that seem to dominate US discussion about the election in documents from April and early May: 1) A fear of low voter turnout 2) Concerns about Communist and leftist anti-election protests and violence in the lead up to the election 3) Violence and intimidation tactics by the many right-wing “youth groups” around the country (A “Youth” conference which representatives of many of these groups attended was held in late March and US representatives did their best to encourage responsible behavior. They also urged “youths” over 25 years in age to join organizations for grown-ups) and 4) Concerns that Korea’s police officers, whose propensity for random violence and brutal torture somehow reflected, to quote one US report, “oriental ideas about policing” would be a major obstacle to a free and fair election come May.

One despatch to the State department noted approvingly that on March 2nd, 1948, National Police director Cho Pyông-Ok gave a speech arguing that South Korea was not a “police state,” that Korea’s “young” police force was coming along nicely in its development and they would all work to play a helpful and constructive role in the election to come. The very next despatch in the microfilm I was reading through in the National Archives yesterday offered something a little less optimistic in its tone. It was a summary of one side of a conversation between the then Seoul Metropolitan police chief (and often a political rival to Cho), Chang T’aek-sang and America’s military commander in Korea, Lt. General John R. Hodge on March 22nd. Chang opened up and gave his appraisal of the situation:

I speak to you unofficially. I am expressing my private opinion but it is an honest one. Perhaps I am a pessimist but I have become convinced that Korea is doomed. Financially, spiritually, and morally Korea is bankrupt. People speak of emancipation. Emancipation from what? Korea is divided and caught between the Russian-American struggle. She can only be united by one of two ways – turning the country over to the communists or through a Russo-American war. The UN can never unite Korea. The Commission they sent to Korea does not care what happens to Korea. They are here only to hold an election but they can’t even do that without causing confusion. They insist upon “free atmosphere” and blame the police because it doesn’t exist. What is “free atmosphere”? The right to allow communists to burn, plunder, and kill whenever the urge strikes Stalin? Today, three police boxes were burned by the communists. Does the Comission know how many Koreans have been killed by communists since UNTCOK’s arrival? If the police try to prevent such action the UN bellows about infringement upon political freedom. Two-thirds of China is overrun by communists yet that ‘son of a bitch Liu’ is trying to solve Korea’s problems. And as for that Indian Delegate, why, more people are killed in India in one day than in many years in Korea! El Salvador has a population smaller than the City of Seoul. These are the representatives they send to solve our problems.

In my honest opinion no more than 25 to 30 per cent of the eligible voters will vote in the coming election. Americans fail to realise that 80% of the Koreans are illiterate. Will they walk many miles with a lunch box under their arms to vote for someone they don’t know or care about or for his political program which they will never understand? How does General Hodge think we manage to fill the stadium every time a demonstration is held? Those people didn’t go there willingly nor will they vote willingly. If the police don’t force the people to turn out for election day the government elected will never be recognized by the General Assembly. A government elected by 25% of the people will make nice propaganda for the Soviets and poor propaganda for the Americans when it is declared void by the General Assembly. It is necessary that the police ‘interfere’ in the election or the majority of the Korean people, who are little more than animals due to their educational deficiencies will sit in their ‘bloody, stinking rooms’ and not budge one foot to vote. The police should not attempt to tell the people how to vote but if they are not forced to the polls the Americans are due to be greatly embarrassed. (National Archives RG59 Department of State 895.00/3-29 49, p2)

It is hard for me to judge how much of this is a version of Chang’s views or Chang’s ideas mixed up with Hodge’s own similar hard-nosed pragmatic anti-communist views. Just as interesting in my view is the fact that the record of this meeting said nothing whatsoever about Hodge’s own replies to Chang. How did the US respond to this Seoul police chief’s plea to allow his men to engage in a massive herding of people to the polls—though without, of course, making any suggestions about who the people should vote for?

On May 10th, about 90% of the registered voters cast their ballots. Despite non-trivial election violence, an election boycott by many on the left and some other parties, localized irregularities and plenty of accusations, both the United States and at least some of the delegates UNTCOK were pleased with the results. Other delegates in UNTCOK voiced serious concerns about the election, including the high turnout, but did not launch any significant challenge to the election’s legitimacy in the aftermath. Since Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik did not participate in the election and had suffered a considerable blow to their popularity upon their return from the pre-election anti-election and pro-unification conference in North Korea, two of “the big three” found themselves quickly marginalized and Rhee continued his bumpy political rise towards authoritarian rule. The 1948 election is now remembered mostly as one big step on the road towards a permanent division of the Korean peninsula. In my next posting here, I’ll post some more contemporary views about the degree of “free atmosphere” in pre-invasion South Korea.

1/23/2007

Is there such a thing as an innocent nation?

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:34 am Print

Moving away from the news reports for the moment, something a bit more speculative. The above question is one that crops up in my mind every now and then when I read something about how Korean history is distinguished by the number of invasions the country has suffered or hear a Korean say that their country has never invaded anyone else.

Reading this post by Jay (an English teacher in Inch’ŏn), set me off thinking about his some more (this is slightly circular as Jay’s post itself was inspired by Noja’s post below on anti-Americanism). In his post, he notes the bits of Korean history that are not taught in Korean schools:

· the massacres of Vietnamese peasants by ROK forces
· political prisoners, imprisoned for 40 years
· WW2 crimes committed by Korean soldiers
· the widespread and calculated terror pursued by Rhee’s regime, from 1948 and continuing into the civil war
· reference to the war as a civil war
· patriotism as something other than loyalty to the state
· a defence of the right to withhold labour
· the dangers lurking in “pure blood” mythologies
· feminist, race, queer theories of any kind

Perhaps the easy answer to the question posed above is simply no, since the whole point of the nation as it was conceived in the late nineteenth century is to impose the will of a minority of people on others. If it can’t do this externally via imperialism, then the nation will sure as hell do this internally by stifling dissent, enforcing conformity through nationalist education and militarism and creating an ‘identity’ that necessarily closes off one group of humans from another (thus helping to prevent us from collectively realising the global transformations that are so clearly required if we are to survive).

But perhaps this is too simple: there really are historically determined differences in the way that different countries behave at different times; and there really is a hierarchy of strong and weak states in the modern world.

Chosŏn Korea, for example, is not a society that I would aspire to live in (assuming that time travel technology was perfected). Like other feudal/tributary societies it was based on the brutal exploitation of the great majority, who lived short lives and for much of the time barely subsisted, even as they saw the fruits of their labour taken from under their noses by the magistrate’s tax collectors and the local landlords. On the other hand, perhaps because of its particular geographical and ideological location within the Sinocentric world order, it was a country that showed no interest in expanding beyond its borders, conquering and subjugating other peoples, in clear contrast to Hideyoshi’s Japan or Qing China.

I’m not sure whether there is a conclusion to my meandering thoughts. But perhaps my uneasiness whenever I hear someone tell me that Korea has, in effect, ‘always been innocent’, comes from the fact that class societies, whether premodern polities or modern nation states, are always guilty in some way or another.

As a side note to these thoughts, I heard the excellent Gary Younge speak last night at a meeting on Islamophobia and racism. Discussing the press reaction to the recent furore here in the UK over racism on Celebrity Big Brother, he wondered how it was that whenever countries like Britain and the US ‘lose their innocence’ in a controversy like this they seem to be able to regain it again so quickly.

1/10/2007

Orthodoxy, or more revisionism? (History news round up II)

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:18 pm Print

Time for part two of my history news round up. Another big history-related story toward the end of last year concerned a proposed new rightwing history textbook designed for use in Korean high schools. Now it was the turn of ‘leftist’ politicians (scare quotes denote my extreme scepticism about calling Uri Party politicians in any way leftwing) to be upset by distortions of history, ideological bias and so on. Actually things kicked off properly when a press conference held at the end of November by a New Right-affiliated textbook group called Textbook Forum was invaded by progressive civic groups and a punch up ensued.

It seems that the new textbook is rather pro-Park Chung-hee and as historian An Pyongjik claims, attempts to get away from history teaching as the ‘history of movements’ (the independence movement, the democracy movement etc). Its critics particularly took issue with its treatment of the April 1960 Students’ Revolution which overthrew President Syngman Rhee, since it bascially denies that it was a revolution at all, but rather a ‘student movement’ controlled by leftists. Han Hong-gu of Sungkonghoe University (bastion of all things progressive) commented that the textbook was no different from those currently being promoted by the Japanese far right.

As usual, the Hankyoreh cartoonist had a good take on this:
Hani textbook cartoon
(Hankyoreh Geurimpan, 4 December 2006)
On the left, a former Japanese collaborator and a (presumably dead) Park Chung-hee are addressing a member of the New Right who is carrying a copy of the textbook, saying:
“What the hell are you doing revealing our true intentions so carelessly?”
On the table behind them sit books which praise the dictatorial Yusin system of Park and attempt to justify the actions of Japanese collaborators.

But then almost as soon as it looked like it might get interesting, the storm blew over and the erstwhile opponents met and agreed to cooperate, after the Textbook Forum people had agreed to use the word ‘revolution’ to describe the April 19, 1960 movement. Amazing what a difference a word can make.

Anyway, something is definitely afoot here and no doubt the Korean right really is trying to take a leaf out of the textbooks of the Japanese right. It also strikes me that this attempt to rebrand a conservative view of history as ‘new’ (part of the whole ‘New Right’ rebranding project) is rather disingenuous – there is nothing new or daring about claiming that what Park Chung-hee did was wonderful or in the best interests of the nation (even if it was a bit painful) this is just the old propaganda warmed over for a new generation of school students. That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that current Korean school history textbooks are above criticism or revision.

1/2/2007

Revisionism (History news round up I)

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:23 pm Print

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, but hopefully that will improve with the new year. To kick things off this year I thought I’d gather together the various thoughts and abandoned posts that have been knocking around for the last few months and do a series rounding up recent history news that has caught my attention.

There was much talk of ‘revisionism’ in Korea a couple of months ago. It’s a word that fascinates me purely because its meaning is so completely dependent on context. First President Roh Moo-hyun was accused of this crime for referring to the Korean war as a civil war during a visit to Cambodia. This is significant for Roh’s rightwing detractors because it appears to reflect the ‘progressive’ view of the Korean war that owes much to Bruce Cumings’ masterwork, The Origins of the Korean War. So, setting aside for the moment the fact that it would be perfectly feasible to call the war a civil war (ie two parts of a country going to war against one another), Roh’s statement was revisionist in the sense that it appeared to ‘revise’ the standard South Korean government position that the Korean War was simply a war of aggression initiated by Stalin. As the Chosun Ilbo put it in its usual blunt style:

“The Korean civil war” is a term coined to glorify the invasion by North Korea. It does not appear in our elementary, middle and high school textbooks. Yet it comes out of the mouth of the president, who symbolizes the legitimacy of the republic, and who doesn’t mean anything by it.

After Roh, his candidate for Unification Minister, Lee Jae-young joined in, in his confirmation hearing, apparently causing general apoplexy among GNP politicians.

Irrespective of which side one agrees with in this dispute,* what we learn from this is that in the specific context of South Korean society, the term revisionism (수정주의 修正主義) means questioning the orthodox view of history created and maintained by successive rightwing governments in the postwar decades. But as Wikipedia shows rather nicely, revisionism means many other things elsewhere. In the UK for example, it has been used to refer to the (now orthodox) historical view that attempted to overthrow Christopher Hill’s earlier Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution. In the Soviet Union, it was constantly used as a term of abuse for anyone straying from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line (ie the ideology of the Soviet regime), while in Maoist China it became a term of abuse for the Soviets under Krushchev. Most notoriously, the term revisionism is used to refer to people like David Irving (recently out of an Austrian jail cell) who attempt to deny or minimise the Holocaust. In other words, just about anyone can be a revisionist.

So, my advice is that any time you need an all-purpose but suitably intellectual-sounding piece of invective with which to assail your opponent, calling them a revisionist will probably fit the job. Unless of course you have something better up your sleeve.

*My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that most people outside of Korea would rightly view the position of the South Korean right as somewhat absurd – there was no doubt an element of civil war in the Korean War, whatever way you look at it. On the other hand, I don’t agree either with the view that the war was simply some sort of ‘revolutionary civil war’ in which the imperialists interfered to prevent the unification of the Korean people under a glorious socialist government, as the DPRK and its supporters in the South would like to paint it. The Korean War seems to show that wars can be both civil and international (perhaps they often are?); can have elements of social war and elements of senseless fratricidal bloodshed; can be both inter-imperialist wars for territory and influence and personal squabbles among rival aspirants to the leadership of a country.

On that rather depressing note…
여러분 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

7/27/2006

“Mass-based dictatorship”? A little info on S. Korea’s welfare policies in the 1960s

Filed under: — noja @ 10:59 am Print

In South Korean academia, one of the most long-standing and productive discussions (I have been following it for around 3 years now, but it may have begun even earlier) is that between Prof. Lim Chihyŏn (임지현, 한양대학교), who maintains (to make a very complicated story as simple as possible) that Park Chung Hee’s regime was a “mass-based dictatorship” (대중 독재), which managed to obtain quite active consent from the mass of the ruled by showing the results of economic growth and cleverly manipulating them with nationalist rhetoric, and his opponents (prominently, Prof. Cho Hŭiyŏn 조희연, 성공회대학교), who view Park’s regime as primarily an oppressive one (without denying the fact that it used the Bonapartist tactics of socio-political maneuvers).

If we accept Prof. Lim’s views, it will basically mean that Park’s regime should be perceived as identical to, say, the fascisms of the 1930s in the more or less well-developed European countries, for example, Germany or Italy, where (not really that generous) welfare packages were supposed to placate the working classes deprived of any opportunity to pursue their own politics. Or otherwise, if we follow Prof. Lim’s line of reasoning, we will begin making analogies with the post-1956 Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, where workers were much more thoroughly co-opted by “free” housing, pension benefits and some prospects of upward mobility for the most talented and conformist minded. Of course, that Park employed some state capitalist methods with close analogies from the Soviet experience, is quite undeniable. But when it comes to the relationship with the ruled, I begin to seriously doubt whether any “cooptation by welfare” ever took place in the stone jungles of Kuro and Yŏngdŭngp’o in the 1960s and 1970s.

Look, for example, at the data given in a very interesting article by Pak Chunsik (박준식), entitled “1960년대의 사회환경과 사회복지정책” (in 1960년대의 정치사회변동, 백산서당, 1999). He shows that, for one thing, the real wage in manufacturing, although it did grow, was growing painfully slowly for workers in the 1960s – it reached a level matching the minimal monthly expenses for food (월별 최저 음식물비: 9390원) only at some point between 1968 and 1969. It was possible to pay these below-survival-level wages because there was still an enormous pool of “excess” labour – the unemployment rate in the non-agricultural sector was 16% in 1963, and still around 8% in 1971. The huge “informal” sector remained a part of slum and semi-slum life in the early 1970s, and around 15% of all formally employed were hired on a daily/short-term contract basis – a very precarious sort of life in a semi-starving society. The real wages (adjusted for inflation) grew at an annual rate of 8.5% in the late 1960s, but labour productivity grew much quicker – at a rate of 16%. If we add that prices grew at 15% annually, the picture of quite a vicious over-exploitation becomes very clear.

Since much of the Labour Standard Law (근로기준법) sounded like stories from the Arabian Nights against the backdrop of what really took place on the ground, the only tangible form of welfare was probably the workplace accident insurance – still company-based, and it applied only to 7% of all workers in 1971. State servants and army officers got their separate state pension systems in 1960 and 1963 respectively, but for the toilers of Kuro that was a story from another world. So, was Park’s kingdom really that “mass-based”? I suggest that passive (and very passive) consent was “obtained” through a combination of repression, all-out militarization, nationalist demagogery (helped by the spread of TV-sets and very high literacy by the end of the 1970s) and some limited opportunities for individual upward mobility through education in a rapidly expanding economy. The last feature does resemble the really “mass-based” Soviet model of the 1960s-70s, but the Soviet-type welfare was nowhere in sight. And the degree of the viciousness of repression was incomparable with Eastern Europe – much closer to the Latin American experience.

3/1/2006

The use “chunghung”

Filed under: — jiyulkim @ 5:22 pm Print

Does anyone have any thought or evidence on whether the use of chunghung (restoration/renovation/rejuvenation) during the Park Chung Hee years was generic or deliberate in an historicized way?

I refer specifically to the evocation of the term in the slogan “minjok chunghung” (national restoration) and the use in “munye chunghung (culture and art renovation) 5 year plan.”

I am wondering if it is possible to consider whether the use of the term chunghung was purposefully designed to evoke its deep Chinese/Confucian connection. Mary Wright’s book on the T’ung Chih Restoration (The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism) provides a good chapter on the term’s significance in Chinese dynastic history. Andre Schmid’s Korea Between Empires has two mentions of the use of chunghung to refer to Kojong’s efforts with the Taehan jeguk (Kojong chunghung?). Bruce Cumings mentioned in a manuscript review that minjok chunghung was a term that has colonial origins (although by who and in what source I am not sure).

In an earlier brief discussion on the Korean Studies Discussion List on the term “yusin,” Prof. Ledyard talked about the Chinese/Confucian roots of that term and speculated that Park Chung Hee was very possibly aware and deliberately used the term with that connection in mind. Vladimir Tikhonov in the same discussion speculated that Park’s educational advisor Park Chong-hong would have known that historical significance and would have been in a position to advise PCH and that the evocation of the term/concept embedded in Chinese imperial ideology was “hardly accidental.”

I wonder if we can make a similar inference about chunghung. Better yet, does anyone have any evidence that can take us beyond speculation.

Jiyul Kim

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