How an NGO-union partnership suffocated the anti-asem struggle in Korea

By Iggy Kim

On October 20 (O20) and the days before, a series of lively demonstrations against the third Asia-Europe Parliamentary Meeting (ASEM) signalled Seoul's entry into the growing worldwide movement against the global generalisation of neo-liberalism.

First opened in Bangkok in 1996, ASEM represents European imperialism's bid to sharpen its focus eastwards and plant a firmer foothold in Asian markets. In the process, both through direct competition and by winning spheres of influence, the European Union (EU)—European membership of the ASEM is restricted to EU members—hopes to gain greater leverage against the US. In particular, following the economic liberalisation of the newly industrialised Asian economies forced by the late 1990s financial crisis and the intrusion of the International Monetary Fund, European multinationals have been eyeing the lucrative market opportunities, as well as the firms, and even whole industries, that have been put up for sale.

However, with all the wily rhetoric of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder's "Third Way", the EU has been touting ASEM as something far more humane than the reality. It prefers to dress up its hardball trade talks with honeyed phrases about "closer people-to-people contacts, which are indispensable to the promotion of greater awareness and understanding between the peoples of both regions".1 The bureaucrats in Brussels have been all too aware of the unpopularity of globalisation. This sentiment was even echoed by the Seoul police, who, nervous after the events in Prague, released an official statement in the days before October 20 saying that it was unnecessary to protest against ASEM because it was qualitatively different from the IMF-World Bank and the WTO.

O20 actions

Despite this, there was not a trace of uncertainty among the mass of protesters in their vehement opposition to the ASEM conference. They drew a clear connection between what was going on at ASEM Tower and the suffering of South Korean working people at the hands of local and global neo-liberal attacks since the 1997 financial crisis and subsequent IMF-imposed structural adjustment program, including rapid privatisation, mass lay-offs, a casual work force now over 50%, the mass bankruptcy of farmers exposed to cutthroat global markets, "efficiency"-driven education policy and the dismantling and overseas sale of South Korean industry.

On the eve of O20, about 5000 attended a lively People's Rally at Soongshil University. One significant theme was the 30th anniversary of the self-immolation of a young worker, Jun Tae-il, which sparked off the first wave of the democratic labour movement in the early 1970s. Also, there was enthusiastic applause for a delegation of Thai women workers who gave solidarity greetings on behalf of international guests who had come to participate in a parallel people's ASEM. However, more than 300 other overseas activists were refused entry into South Korea.

Early the next morning, as ASEM was about to open, a crowd of nearly 1000 gathered outside the conference venue to support movement leaders in their attempt to go inside to deliver a people's declaration. This was followed by a protest of 3000 in the centre of Gangnam, the wealthy district where ASEM was held. The crowd of mainly metalworkers and students denounced Kim Dae-jung's neo-liberal attacks on workers and the bilateral investment treaties being negotiated with Japan, the US and Chile. The protest was convened without police approval and resulted in violent clashes when, as protesters marched, the police tried to confine them to one traffic lane. After about a kilometre, police eventually massed several lines deep and succeeded in stopping the march altogether.

Later, at 2 pm, about 20,000 mobilised for the main official protest at Olympic Park. Again, it was a lively and colourful event, featuring many labour songs, dances and multicoloured flags in the tradition of the South Korean movement. There was a warm welcome for international speakers from France and Ireland. In particular, Pierre Rousset from the French pro-Tobin tax organisation ATTAC struck a chord with his message that workers in Europe and South Korea were fighting the same struggle against neo-liberal globalisation.

The mass of workers and students participated in O20 with a realisation that they were joining in a global struggle that began in Seattle. There were repeated statements by all speakers that O20 was a continuation of Seattle, Washington, Prague and Melbourne. Many placards and banners were written in English for the benefit of international media. The rally ended with a march to Jamshil Stadium via the World Trade Centre.

On the face of it, O20 looked like a successful mobilisation. But measured against the backdrop of both the growing worldwide movement and the history of the South Korean people's struggles, it represented a downturn. For O20 was to have been a continuation of the series of mass actions in Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and Prague, which had sought to obstruct directly the furtive huddles of the capitalists and their governments. This should have made the South Korean people's movement feel at home: it is a movement well schooled in direct mass action and confrontation with the police, a product of long fights against military rule and its continuing legacies. Unfortunately, however, if the vehemence of opposition to ASEM and neo-liberal globalisation was clear among the protesting masses, it was not so unequivocal among the tripartite coalition that organised O20: the People's Rally Committee (PRC), Korean People's Action Against Investment Treaties and the WTO (Kopa), and the ASEM 2000 NGO Forum.

The first two represent mass organisations of workers, farmers, urban poor and students, while the third is a peak body of liberal civic movement groups and NGOs. In one respect, this organised and disciplined convergence of all the popular sectors under an all-encompassing coalition represented an advance on the US, Australian and European actions. The fact that a uniform mass response to ASEM was seen to be essential showed the anti-globalisation anger that has been sharply aroused since the dissection of South Korea's economy under the auspices of the IMF. In another respect, though, O20 also illuminated the current impotence—bordering on paralysis—infecting the leadership of the movement of South Korea's popular masses. In particular, it showed the increasing turn towards liberalism by the reformist leadership of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the largest single component of all three umbrella organisations.

In Europe, Australia and the US, the rise of the new movement has begun to signal a significant break from an era of deadlock that prevailed in the 1990s. Even if their strategic bearing is still uncertain, a new generation of energetic radicals are now jettisoning the melancholy of their predecessors and have begun "doing it for themselves". In the process, they have begun inspiring older layers of working people and reawakening a sense of solidarity both among each other and towards the oppressed countries of the South.

The South Korean trend is different. The mass people's movement has entered a phase of downturn and hardening reformism in the past five years. Concomitant with this is the still relatively untested nature of political differences between the opposing trends. Most decisively, the revolutionary left is still quite weak, diffuse and currently undergoing reorganisation. In short, reformism is still a relatively new experience for the mass of working people; unripe, not yet exposed and worn thin by years of protracted retreat, impotence and collusion with neo-liberalism, as in the imperialist countries.


Following the 1980 massacre of the Kwangju Uprising, a radicalisation of the student and democracy movements culminated in a great upsurge in 1987, forcing a retreat of the generals and a transfer to civilian rule. The inspiration of this upsurge and the democratic space that it opened up sparked off a wave of mass struggles by industrial workers. In the course of numerous strikes, street protests and factory occupations, more than 3000 new unions were formed in the latter half of 1987, thereby launching today's democratic labour movement.

But just as the movement was ascending, giving rise to vigorous debate on political strategy and party organisation, the collapse of eastern Europe brought chaos. The majority of the left retreated politically while remaining active within the new labour movement. However, the broader ranks of the labour movement continued to escalate their activity and win major gains.

This escalation was in no small part due to the ongoing intervention of a layer of class struggle militants and revolutionaries: although their advance towards a party had been aborted, they persevered in defending and advancing the work of the democratic unions. The problem, though, was that while a number of political activists turned their backs on the revolutionary struggle, many others just remained confused and lethargic, giving rise to a murky amalgam of forces. Thus, instead of advancing to a new mass political formation, the eventual outcome of the upsurge was the establishment of a more defensive type of struggle body in 1995: the KCTU, a confederation of the democratic enterprise-based unions that had mushroomed since 1987. Even this partial advance was the hard-won fruit of the militant and revolutionary minority in the workers' movement.

The first major test was the general strike of winter 1996-7 against the revision of labour laws. This signalled the advance of the democratic union movement to a new level—a coordinated national confrontation with the state. However, its defeat clarified the political differentiation within the left. The reformist majority drew the conclusion that they needed friendly forces in parliament. By contrast, the advance of the labour movement to a general strike inspired the revolutionaries, who resolved that what was needed more than ever was a political leadership of the mass struggle.

These differences hardened further with the beginning of the economic crisis in late 1997 and the inauguration of the liberal-populist Kim Dae-jung regime in early 1998. Having no strategic alternative to capitalism, the KCTU leaders began compromising with the IMF structural adjustment program. In the course of this period, the differentiation came to be expressed organisationally. In early 1999, the parliamentarist Democratic Labour Party (DLP) was formed, primarily to contest the general elections in April 2000. While it is a relatively large party, the DLP was not formed on the crest of a mass upsurge, as a step towards a mass political offensive. Instead, it was founded in a top-down, administrative fashion by demoralised reformists seeking refuge in bourgeois politics from the bleakness of global neo-liberalism. This is precisely why, on April 13, the DLP failed to achieve the 1% of votes necessary to stay registered as a political party. It is currently planning to relaunch itself in February 2001.

By contrast, in August 1999, revolutionaries and militants in the democratic union movement began to regroup by forming the Power of the Working Class (PWC). The PWC has since aimed to consolidate a fighting opposition to the reformists and prevent a backdown by the mass movement in the face of neo-liberal attack. In September 2000, it began taking steps to consolidate and expand its work in order to advance towards a stable party organisation.

Earlier, with the downfall of military rule in 1987, an ideological differentiation had emerged more openly between the liberal and radical wings of the democracy movement. In contrast to the class-oriented development of the democratic union movement, a liberal civic movement had come together to reform the deeply conservative and repressive features of South Korean society and culture. Primarily, through an NGO framework, it worked to open up and institutionalise lines of communication and dialogue with the new civilian state apparatus. But, under the Kim Young-sam government, which was a compromise with the political party of the previous military regime, the liberals did not make great headway. Consequently, in order to maintain relevance, the liberals continued to pay lip service to the mass workers' movement and the 1996-7 general strike.

But under the liberalising Kim Dae-jung regime, which represents the first real severance from the old apparatus, the civic movement has been truly coming into its own. An increasingly cosy relationship between Kim Dae-jung and the liberals has helped the latter gain high profile, influence and legitimacy through government endorsement and consultation processes, while the regime has been using the civic organisations as cheerleaders and propagandists among the progressive sector for its program of social consensus—essential to its program of neo-liberal attacks. In the process, as they have settled on a new power base, the liberals have become increasingly detached from the concerns of the mass of working people, excepting the odd rhetoric here and there.

The marriage was consummated in the run-up to the April 13 general election, during which the civic movement ran a campaign of Citizens Solidarity for the General Elections (CSGE). Their chief objective was to use electoral manoeuvres to put the heat on corrupt candidates. The CSGE eventually homed in on 60 such politicians as the pivotal political question for the whole election. The sole criterion for electoral support became the competence and cleanliness of individual politicians, rather than the overall policies of the regime and party. In the process, the CSGE ended up providing a convenient escape hatch for Kim Dae-jung's ruling Millennium Democratic Party, which enthusiastically endorsed the CSGE's campaign while maintaining its offensive against working people. Thus, the civic movement acted as a serious obstacle to the development of a movement against the anti-people policies of both capitalist parties and of capitalist politics as a whole.

However, the deeper problem is that, instead of seeking to oust the liberals' influence in the people's movement, the DLP-oriented KCTU leadership has been flirting with the civic movement in its search for a wider base outside the working class to cover its ongoing retreat. One prominent instance of this occurred when both movements came together to oppose the right of doctors to strike during a (reactionary) strike in July. Of course, this flirting is harmonious with the DLP's own basically liberal outlook and corresponding acceptance of the premises of capitalism.

'Critical engagement'

While O20 was officially organised by the tripartite coalition, in substance its overall success was in the hands of the reformist leadership of the KCTU, the single largest mobilising force in the coalition, commanding the leadership of more than 500,000 organised workers. The KCTU leaders' political orientation towards ASEM was shared with their liberal allies in the leadership of the ASEM 2000 NGO Forum, of which the KCTU is also an official participant.

At bottom, the forum views ASEM as a qualitatively different institution from those such as the WTO and IMF. It believes ASEM can accommodate an NGO-based "people's agenda" in a way that the other, more trade-oriented, institutions cannot. Thus, it has a policy of "critical engagement" with the ASEM process.

A spokesperson for the forum stated in the week before O20, "ASEM is different to the WTO ministerial meetings and the general meetings of the IMF-World Bank which only deal with economic issues. It's more realistic to reflect the views of civil society through critical engagement [with the ASEM process]."2

Sadly, the liberals are doing nothing more than parroting the rhetorical claims of the ASEM governments, particularly the EU countries with their longer history of liberal pluralism and social consensus. It is not surprising, then, that the love-and-hate perspective towards ASEM was pioneered by the European liberal organisations which, through their Asia Europe People's Forum (AEPF), have been at the forefront of trying to "humanise" ASEM right from the start. In that sense, these European liberals are functioning as surrogates for their own imperialists' bid to capture Asian markets. This "vision" of partnership with the official ASEM is openly expressed in the AEPF's A Proposal for a "Social Forum" in the ASEM Process, adopted on July 11 by the forum's International Organising Committee and subsequently presented to the ASEM governments:

ASEM reflects the openness of the partner governments not only to promote economic cooperation, but also to engage in political and security dialogue and to consolidate cultural links between the peoples of both regions within its framework. This commitment makes ASEM a unique initiative by the governments of the partner countries in Asia and Europe.

… A systematic and structured involvement of the civil society and NGOs in the policy making process has become a norm in most international institutions, as reflected in the 1994 UN report, Agenda for Development.

… The Asia Europe People's Forum, as a part of its intervention on the occasion of the ASEM III and the preparation for the ASEM 2000 People's Forum to be held in Seoul, calls on the ASEM partner governments to recognise the need for the establishment of a "Social Forum". This call aims to create the means to bring into reality the recognition and commitment already made by the partner governments as contained in the official statements.

"Social Forum", linking the civil society and the official ASEM process and institution, will be a coordinating hub for the participation of the civil society representatives in the various ASEM meetings and programs.

It will facilitate civil societies in Asia and Europe to examine the social aspects of all the issues that are addressed in the ASEM process. It will channel the concerns and visions of the civil society to the official process, enriching the social dimension.

"Social Forum" will be a mechanism of communication and consultation which will strengthen transparency and the democratic process of ASEM. This will enable the society and people to identify with the process.3

Essentially, then, what the AEPF strives to do is convince the ASEM to establish a permanent officially recognised but "independent" social component in the overall inter-governmental ASEM process. The AEPF's principal strategy for this is the holding of alternative people's ASEMs, parallel to the official conferences, which amount to nothing more than lobbying events. Smartly, the European imperialists have gleefully gone along with this self-deception and have been leading the AEPF firmly by the nose since the first people's ASEM in Bangkok in 1996. This is amply revealed by a European Commission statement in April:

Outside the official ASEM process, civil society groups have also organised a series of events and networks drawing inspiration from the spirit of the new partnership established by our Heads of Government. This has for example led to contacts between NGOs from Europe and Asia, on the margins of both the Bangkok and London Summits. It will be important that the output from these encounters can be heard in the "official" ASEM process, and indeed that the scope and intensity of civil society dialogue between our two regions can be strengthened in a wide range of areas.4

The NGO Forum in South Korea came together in October 1999 as the ASEM 2000 host country's adjunct to the AEPF. Initially, the initiative brought together about 130 organisations, including the KCTU and many others originating in the class-oriented movement of popular masses. Thus, at the outset, there was arguably a fluidity and openness in the NGO Forum's direction and agenda. This was reflected in a dual plan for both a people's forum and a Day of Citizens' Action, the latter of which was to become the responsibility of the KCTU.

However, with the umbrella body's leadership firmly in the hands of liberals aligned to the European NGOs and the AEPF (in the form of the International Organising Committee), the key focus hardened more and more towards the convening of the Seoul people's ASEM from October 17 to 21. This led to internal schisms as the liberals talked more and more openly of the need for "critical engagement" and dialogue with the official ASEM process.

The first major concrete issue around which differences of perspective emerged was the change of venue. The people's forum was originally to be held at the Bong-Eun-Sa, in the vicinity of the official ASEM conference. However, nervous about the stirring movement of opposition to ASEM, the police prohibited this venue as part of their overall policy of tightly controlling the Gangnam district. The NGO Forum sharply divided between those who insisted on maintaining the original venue and those who advocated a retreat. After much debate, the leadership unilaterally brought down the decision to retreat to a new venue.

Then there was the far more lurid problem of financial sponsorship from government. As the PWC put it in an October 19 statement, "The NGO Forum clearly showed what the 'critical engagement' line is all about with their acceptance of sponsorship of 120 million won [over $100,000] from the German and other European governments, and 150 million won from the Kim Dae-jung regime, for the opening of the people's forum which, to them, is the all-important event". This caused great strife within the NGO Forum as the farcical character of the supposedly independent "Social Forum" was thrown into vivid relief.

As early as June, the human rights groups had begun to object to the perspectives of the NGO Forum and demanded a general meeting of representatives of all the member organisations. A meeting was eventually called in July, but the outcome was the withdrawal of many organisations, led by the human rights groups. Further, the remaining human rights groups ended up pulling out in September, over the issues of the subsidy and change of venue. Additionally, at this time, stating that the workshop on agriculture did not clearly oppose the opening of agricultural markets, the National Confederation of Farmers' Associations (NCFA) also pulled out. The human rights groups held an alternative "Human Rights Forum in Opposition to Capitalist Globalisation" during the period of ASEM.

Park Nae-gun, a leader of one of these groups, pointed to the NGO Forum's ambiguity towards neo-liberal globalisation as the primary reason for withdrawing:

It's already been proven historically impossible for civil society to reflect its views within institutions of globalisation through pressure and lobbying … The Seattle action has shown that the most suitable method is direct action. It's the same with the question of the venue. The Bong-Eun-Sa was not merely a conference venue, but a stronghold in the ANTI-ASEM struggle. It had great symbolic value. We gave it up too easily.5

Role of the KCTU

But the greatest problem was not so much the liberal leadership of the NGO Forum itself as its influence over the vacillating KCTU bureaucrats within it. Even after the clear exposure of the Forum's bankruptcy, the KCTU did not withdraw; instead, it continued being the central organiser of the Day of Citizens' Action.

Therefore, when Kopa and the PRC in August began moving to organise mass direct action against the ASEM conference, with a clear line of opposition to neo-liberal globalisation, they faced the difficulty of their core mass organisation, the KCTU, being tied up with the NGO Forum's activities. In late August, activists from Kopa and the PRC met with the KCTU leaders to discuss this issue. In particular, they were most concerned about the confusing murkiness of perspectives represented by the KCTU's roving presence in all three bodies. That meeting decided to propose to the NGO Forum that the October 20 Day of Citizens' Action be turned into a joint rally of all three organisations, entitled the Seoul ASEM 2000 Anti-Neo-liberalism Day of Action.

While the NGO Forum formally agreed to this, it continued to concentrate all its energy on the parallel people's ASEM. Together with the problem of the government subsidy and the ambiguous position of the forum towards ASEM, this increasingly led the PRC and Kopa to the conclusion that they needed to organise a separate "people's action"—as opposed to a "citizens' action"—on O20 for the purpose of delineating a clear line of struggle against ASEM. The result was the plan for a cultural rally on the eve of O20, to gather the forces for a blockade against the opening of the ASEM conference the next morning.

However, there was confusion in communication and liaison over these plans between the KCTU and the rest of the PRC-Kopa forces. Originally, the KCTU was going to mobilise its ranks on October 20-21, particularly for the Anti-Neoliberalism Day of Action, as well as a KCTU rally the next day. Still, the PRC-Kopa had considered it important to go ahead with the rally in order to build the morning blockade effectively. For this, it decided to focus on the students and social movement organisations. Various scenarios were examined concretely: a blockade of the hotel where the ASEM governmental heads were staying, as well as a surprise action on the road leading to the ASEM Tower.

Then, to avoid being seen to be completely out of step with the rest of the movement, the KCTU ended up changing its dates to October 19-20. Despite this, however, the KCTU leadership's nervous hesitation and vacillation made it impossible for the wider PRC-Kopa forces to work out how extensively the confederation was going to mobilise and prepare its ranks for an all-out confrontation. This consideration was vital for the organising committee to be able to assess realistically what dynamics and strength the action would be capable of and thereby to plan carefully its tactical options. Faced with the constant attempts by police to shut down mass actions, the South Korean movement has built up a tight, organisationally disciplined system of careful tactical planning and preparation since the early 1980s. The very tangible danger was that the KCTU leadership was going to undermine this planning and potentially jeopardise the mobilisation. The fact that the confederation is the central, most dynamic mass organisation in the alliance meant that the rest of the PRC-Kopa forces were largely left to chance in working out the tactics for the people's action.

Eventually, on the night of the cultural rally, it became clear that the worker contingent at the blockade would not be large, and a change of tactics followed. This was also due to the emergence of divisions in the student movement when the DLP students came out against the plans to blockade the hotel and road. As a result, it was decided for the students to break up and execute a series of small-scale, "guerrilla" protests in the district surrounding the ASEM Tower in order to draw away the police. Simultaneously, the workers were to mass outside the tower as leaders of the people's movement attempted to deliver a People's Declaration to the conference. Everyone was then to regroup at 10 a.m. in another part of Gangnam to march on the conference as a single group.

For the 10 a.m. action, the key tactical consideration was how to secure and expand the necessary street space, because there was no police permit. There were expectations that the police would tightly surround the protest, prevent a march and arrest many protesters. However, in reality, things turned out differently. The police did not crack down, and a march was allowed as far as the Gangnam subway station (about one kilometre from the assembly point).

But upon reaching the several-deep lines of riot police at Gangnam station, the KCTU leaders refused to push through. This would have been very difficult anyway, because the leadership had clearly neglected to organise the "advance detachment" traditionally responsible for leading the breakthrough with a coordinated, physical offensive armed with steel pipes. The will of the marchers to fight had been demonstrated earlier against the police line that had confined them to one traffic lane. However, the KCTU leaders went into overdrive to dissipate the steam and dispersed the action with repeated announcements about the official 2 p.m. rally. In short, instead of focusing on how to advance the march to the ASEM Tower, the leaders were far more anxious to prevent an escalation of the action in order to ensure that the official rally would not fall flat.

The KCTU's true intentions had been revealed a few days before, in its tailing of a manoeuvre by the NGO Forum against the PRC-Kopa. At the outset, there had been a sharp difference between the forum and the PRC-Kopa over the venue of the 2 p.m. rally. Eventually, it was agreed by everyone that the final decision would be made at a meeting of representatives of the PRC's component organisations on October 17. However, at a preemptive media conference on October 16, the KCTU looked on in silence as the NGO Forum unilaterally finalised and publicised the rally to be at Olympic Park, far from the ASEM venue. Additionally, in an earlier sectarian manoeuvre, the NGO Forum had preempted a media conference to be held by all three umbrella groups on October 10. On October 9, the forum called a separate conference in its own name to promote the parallel people's ASEM and the Day of Action.

A key problem identified by the leftist People's Solidarity for Social Progress is that there was no clear position or perspective of how the people's movement organisations would work within the NGO Forum. This was especially necessary considering the role of the KCTU in taking responsibility for the 2 p.m. rally. Thus, after the withdrawal of the NCFA and human rights groups from the forum, what should have taken place was a complete separation of the perspectives and activities of the civic and people's movements, and negotiations from these distinct standpoints when joint activity became necessary. Instead, due to the contradiction of the KCTU's vacillating role between the camps and its central role in the actions, the differences of strategy were haphazardly pasted over and gave rise to tactical weakness.6

What ultimately prevailed, then, was the NGO Forum and AEPF's narrow use of O20 for their international strategy of politely begging the ASEM governments to establish an auxiliary Social Forum in the official process. The KCTU leadership fell in behind these efforts and acted as agents of the NGOs in the people's movement. This was the fundamental reason why the KCTU bureaucrats were so half-hearted about the people's action and so overly anxious not to offend the ASEM dignitaries.

Thus, even more clear is the harmonious convergence of the social democratic and civic brands of liberalism, characterised by their joint search for a partnership role with government and capital within the framework of bourgeois democratic pluralism.

Partners in global neo-liberalism

Correspondingly, as revealed in the attitude towards ASEM, the South Korean NGOs and civic movement are equally ambiguous and "pluralistic" towards capitalist globalisation. The liberals see the cause of the 1997 economic crisis in the remnants of the centralised, nationally insular, command capitalism (replete with five-year plans) of the long Park Jung-hee regime (1961-79), with its lack of operational flexibility, its cronyism, entrenched hierarchy and managerial rigidity. They see international (read "liberal, Western") influence as being a primary and vital force in carrying through to completion the liberalisation of this authoritarian legacy. The corollary to this is the acceptance of Western (neo-)liberal globalisation as an ally in breaking up the collusion between the chaebols (giant conglomerates) and the state and progressing towards a more plural, flexible, Western-style corporate culture.

Oh Sae-chul, former president of the PWC, explains:

The [liberal] viewpoint explaining the Korean financial crisis is the perspective that it was caused by collusion between the chaebols and the political dictatorships, present ever since the 1960s. However, there is a double standard for this viewpoint, for this structure has been praised in the past for being the reason for Asia's economic miracle. The praise of the developmental dictatorships by Western economists, related to Asian values, is even being followed by China, which strives for a socialist market economy. However, underlying the about-face conversion of the cause of economic growth into the reason for the economic crisis lies the liberals' assertion that a change is unavoidable in the strategy for capital accumulation in order to adapt to the changing world economic environment.

The liberals assert that the Korean economy should have moved from low-value industry to high-value industry to increase competitiveness after 1987 but was unable to due to an economic system based around the chaebol, which relies on the expansion of production through loans rather than flexibility of operations. This structure, in turn, made it hard for the Korean economy to respond to the neoliberal strategy of world capitalism. They claim that the seriousness of the crisis is much more severe in Korea and that unhesitating reform of the chaebol, opening of the market, deregulation, and flexibility of the market is needed to adjust to the changing environment of world capitalism.7

The liberals also have an ambiguous attitude towards privatisation: in the classic liberal style, the public sector is equated with the corrupt state. Correspondingly, liberalisation is idealistically seen as achieving a more inclusive, popular participation in the overall capitalist system, which can then maintain checks and balances on the arbitrary powers of the state. The principal means for this are a diversified structure of popular stock ownership, institutional mechanisms for social consultation and a recognition of the role of civil society. In short, the civic movement wields the timeworn, petty bourgeois "solutions" of the rule of law, economic opportunity for small people, equality of opportunity, and a system of government responsive to the "general will" of the people.

At best, even the left-leaning liberals regard capitalist globalisation as the only possible system of economic globalisation; and since the general global integration of human society is not in itself a bad thing, capitalist globalisation is fundamentally—if begrudgingly, by some—tolerated as the necessary economic complement to the socio-cultural, people-to-people integration of the globe. The only possible path of humane progress, then, lies in a social partnership of "constructive engagement" between the NGOs and the commanding forces of globalisation in order to "tame" and broaden the present market-oriented agenda. For instance, the AEPF's Social Forum proposal respectfully acknowledges the Europe-Asia "business community" as a legitimate non-government sector, rather than the very class basis for the globalisation of neo-liberalism. All that is needed, argues the AEPF, is the amicable and polite assertion of a people's agenda in order to balance the imperatives of business in this Parsonian wonderland of functionalist harmony.

In this pursuit, ASEM is considered a precious, enlightened beacon of "alternative", pluralistic capitalist globalisation vis-à-vis the more cutthroat WTO, NAFTA, APEC and IMF-World Bank—far too precious to endanger with rowdy blockades by the unenlightened rabble. This is the essence of the AEPF's Proposal for a Social Forum.

But without a fundamental alternative to capitalism, the liberals and NGOs will be made to compromise more and more cosily with capital and act as roadblocks against the gathering march of the new people's movement. In the current worldwide context of such unequivocal opposition to the globalisation of neo-liberalism, gaining strength with each confrontation against meetings of the international neo-liberal institutions, the approach of the AEPF and its member organisations amounts to nothing less than a de facto partnership with neo-liberal governments. Already, in South Korea, this was amply demonstrated in the liberals' diligent manoeuvres and compromises to kill the mass actions during O20.

Their success then, however, has served to discredit their allies in the KCTU leadership. Immediately after O20, a furious wave of criticisms and denunciations of the leadership boiled up in the workplaces and among the ranks of the people's movement.

On the weekend of November 11-12, the traditional National Workers' Rally began to show signs of reversing the decline in militancy, including taking on the police in the streets. Most importantly, in the planning and execution of this action, there was a shift in the balance of forces within the movement. This year's rally saw a break in the stifling hegemony of the KCTU and the unity of the left with the ranks of the movement. The left-wing student organisations shared equal responsibility for organising the sun-bong-dae, the advance guard that is the crucial component of a serious action. They made up the third order of the sun-bong-dae column, behind the metalworkers and the other union federations. In this process comrades of the Power of the Working Class played an important and active role.


1. Chairperson's Statement, asem I, Bangkok, 1996. 2. Shin Yoon-dong-ook, "Seattle, Prague … then Seoul!", Han-gyoreh 21, October 12, 2000.

3. A Proposal for a "Social Forum" in the ASEM Process, Asia Europe People's Forum, 11 July 2000, as reproduced on the KCTU's web site .

4. European Union, Working Document for the Commission (Com 2000 [241], April 18, 2000, "Perspectives and Priorities for the ASEM Process (Asia-Europe Meeting) into the New Decade").

5. Han-gyoreh 21, op. cit.

6. The October ASEM Struggle: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (the PSSP's Initial Assessment), October 2000, p.7.

7. Oh Sae-chul, Neoliberalism and South Korean Capitalism in the 21st Century, document for the PWC web site, written in November 1999.

At the time of writing Kim was an activist of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia living in South Korea.