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South Korea: Mass movement stops the neoliberal bulldozer

By Christopher Kerr

July 12, 2008, Seoul -- The neo-conservative regime of President Lee Myungbak has been humbled by the spontaneous emergence of a mass movement — sparked by female middle and high school students. This movement has resulted in the largest and longest sustained demonstrations since the fall of the military dictatorship. 

The mass protests have been primarily against the imposed resumption of the importation of US beef but have, in the course of their development, tapped into latent anger against the implementation neoliberal policies.

In April, Lee, before meeting US President George Bush at his Texas ranch, agreed to lift all existing bans on US beef imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was detected.

The move was unpopular due to the perceived scientific risks that it posed to the Korean population and because the Korean market already substituted for US beef by consuming its own produce along with Australian imports.

It is also a symbol of class division, with the Korean elite who are vocal supporters importing US beef but don’t need to consume it, as they are wealthy enough to eat the much preferred but more expensive domestically produced beef. The rest of the population will be forced to eat US beef.

The Korean market is of high importance to US beef producers (the US’s third-largest market before the ban) and the ban’s lifting has been tied by the Democrat-controlled Congress as a precondition for ratification of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) already been signed by both governments.

Spontaneous mass movement

In opposition to the agreement, a relatively small group of female middle and high school students, who organised through the internet, organised a daily candlelight vigil outside City Hall.

These students also protested against proposed educational reforms designed to foster greater competition among already exhausted school students, as well as strengthening the elite schools. (A common day for an average Korean high school student requires a study schedule of 7am-1am.) However, the students kept their focus on the issue of US beef.

These protests drew media attention as well as a large amount of sympathy from Korean society. Thus, in the world’s leading internet-infrastructure nation, what became known as a “netizens” movement spontaneously emerged. The open space provided by the internet drew out an enormous amount of criticism about the government’s policies as well as discussion on how to oppose them.

The “netizens” movement was able to draw in large amounts of people from broader layers of society into the protests.

The protests grew in number and climaxed on June 10 — the 21st anniversary of the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship — with half a million demonstrators.

The demonstrations were more festive and less militant than those of the 1980s and ’90s. Instead of including just organised labour, students and the social movements, these candle-light vigils were filled with people from all ages and backgrounds.

Not only was this new movement not led by the more traditional protest leaders, it acted to revitalise them after demoralisation at losing the battle against the FTA, as well as the emergence of the current right-wing regime.

However, it would be wrong to characterise the candle-light vigil demonstrations simply as a single-issue movement. The protests have been both heterogeneous and extremely fluid in their dynamics. Despite strong debate and the existence of cultural differences, there has been a deepening convergence between old activists and the new “netizen” forces.

As the demonstrations grew, so did the issues taken up by participants. Demonstrators began producing placards and chanting slogans that also focused on Lee’s subservience to the US, as well as his program of privatising health, education, water and electricity.

Bulldozer crashes

Lee’s empty but popular electoral slogans have dissipated as his specific policies came under increasing scrutiny. The demonstrations have caused Lee’s support to crash from 75% in February to 17% in June. Some internal government polls even put his popularity at 7%.

The government has gone into emergency mode and attempted a number of symbolic gestures to rebuild support. It first attempted a mass resignation of all ministers involved in the signing the accord. It sent negotiators to the US to attempt to stop imports of beef more than 30 months old.

Lee, who has built a reputation as a strong-armed leader who takes pride in ignoring opposition and “getting things done” (referred to in the Korean media as “the bulldozer”) was humbled into making two separate nationally televised apologies, where he expressed remorse for not listening to the concerns of the Korean people and promised to change.

However, Congress did not back down and after much wrangling merely offered a temporary voluntary agreement by US farmers not to export beef over 30 months old without writing this condition into the accord.

The mass movement didn’t accept this concession and continued its protests, causing a drastic change in the government’s response. Lee proclaimed all that could be achieved had been done and that all demonstrations needed to cease immediately as it was hurting the economy and paralysing society.

Initially dismissive then apologetic towards the protests, the government made a strategic decision to crush it with force. Starting from late June, the government directed police to violently repress the protests, resulting in hundreds being arrested and injured.

However, the militant traditions of the Korean student and labour movement allowed the movement to stiffen its resistance to police violence and respond in kind. The corporate media ignored police provocations and focused on the demonstrators removing police barricades and confronting the riot police head on.

This allowed the government to isolate the movement and increase the violence against it — drawing the most militant sectors into an escalation of violent confrontations, while isolating the movement through the mass media.

This tactic worked to an extent with polls showing that while people opposed the imports of US beef they also wanted to see the demonstrations stop if they became too violent.

But another unforeseen twist occurred that again changed the balance of forces. Just when it appeared the movement was on a downturn, a group of well-known progressive Catholic priests that had played an important role against the military dictatorship intervened — inserting themselves as a physical buffer between demonstrators and police. Supporting the movement’s demands, the priests also called for the resignation of the police chief.

This inspired progressive Protestant priests to do the same, followed by Buddhist monks (who are under attack from the Christian fundamentalist Lee). This has given physical breathing space to demonstrators as well as revitalised public support. The latest mobilisation drew hundreds of thousands again, with many fearing that Lee will return to the authoritarian style of his ideological predecessors during the military dictatorship era.

The union movement has also actively participated. At one point, the government ordered the national distribution of US beef that had accumulated in various ports, but waterfront workers who refused. In early July, around 45,000 workers from Lee’s old company Hyundai, went on a two hour walkout in solidarity with the protesters.

Lee’s position is becoming increasingly difficult. He was elected in a landslide victory last year with a historically low voter turn-out. His neoliberal policies were not show cased, with grand promises combining with empty slogans.

His main electoral slogan was “Lee Myungbak will definitely revive the economy”, with the promise being that he will achieve 6% economic growth in his first year while, in the long term, doubling the average income of the Korean people.

The economic growth of the previous government came at the expense of a major internal redistribution of wealth and a large social polarisation that created a large sense of economic insecurity for the working- and increasingly squeezed middle-classes.

Neoliberal agenda

The central piece to Lee’s initial program to revitalise economic growth was the FTA with the US. The Korean ruling elite is haunted by the spectre of Chinese capitalism and fears its former economic success, based on a model of autonomous state-capitalist export-oriented development is now being usurped by the rise of China — forcing it create a new niche in the world market through information technology and other services.

The FTA agreement will give big advantages to the giant Korean conglomerates (known as Chaebol), but spell disaster for many other aspects of the economy that can’t compete with US business.

Unlike the two previous administrations, which had many cadres recruited out of the democracy movement, Lee has surrounded himself with big business spokespeople and his fundamentalist Protestant church. Where as the previous two regimes were able to use their organic links to the democratic movement to co-opt and demobilise opposition, Lee enjoys no such capacity.

Furthermore, the current mass opposition hasn’t emerged from the established movements but from previously inactive sectors, making it more difficult to control.

The FTA cannot be implemented without the prior implementation of the beef agreement. And if Congress doesn’t implement it before the end of the Bush administration, it is likely that it will not get implemented at all. The next likley US president, Barack Obama, has proclaimed that it’s too favorable to Korean industrialists and will need to be reviewed.

Consequently, it is imperative for Lee to implement the beef accord. But it has come at the cost of losing all political momentum for future privatisation projects, as well as causing disenchantment with his administration.

It has also led to a revitalisation of the activist movements, which now have much greater confidence to resist Lee’s neoliberal agenda. It has also led to a new form of activism that has transcended the previous traditions, which were born as a product of having to work underground but were less effective in building the movement under new conditions.

The emergence of a mass movement has already begun to scare away foreign investment and the economic paralysis has contributed to a significant increase in inflation, with all economic factors doing worse than under the previous government.

With no central leadership, it’s difficult to gauge the movement’s direction — even in the short term. The collapse of support for Lee has not translated into a significant increase in support for the traditional opposition political parties.

What is certain is that this unpredictable upsurge has fractured the seemingly monolithic aura of Lee and his neoliberal bulldozer.

[A longer version can be found at http://venceremosonline.org.]

From Green Left Weekly issue #758 16 July 2008.

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