By Donald Kirk
Here I thought the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was a done deal, having been approved by the legislatures of both the U.S. and the Republic of Korea, and I get back to Seoul after a few weeks away and discover protesters are out there every night vowing to get it ``nullified.”
The whole show is puzzling to this observer, who’s been watching such displays so often and so long as to have little or no idea which side is right and which is wrong.
The more I hear outfits like the American Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Korean Industries talking up the KORUS FTA as if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, however, the less confidence I have in their protestations.
I mean, who can place all that much credibility in organizations of extremely wealthy people telling everybody what’s good for them? Ok, I’m prepared to believe the KORUS FTA will enrich individuals and companies that belong to these august bodies, but I’m not at all sure of the degree to which all that extra money will trickle down.
There was a time when I did believe more or less in the adage, ``What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” but those days have faded into the miasma of ancient history, and not just because GM would not have survived without a lot of help from the U.S. government. My confidence began to ebb as the U.S. economy lurched from crisis to crisis and the graphs showing the ups and downs of the New York Stock Exchange started to look like the fever chart of quite a sick person.
The U.S. federal government bailouts provided temporary relief, but who really believes the stock market will recover to its pre-crisis highs? The deepest fear is it may go quite the other way while U.S. unemployment stays high, more homes go into foreclosure and the global economy sinks ever deeper into trouble amid rising prices for everything.
Korea, of course, was supposed to be different. Other countries might wallow in a trough of little or no growth, but at least we could count on the Korean gross national product to keep rising by a few percent a year. The problem was and is, how much does that mean when it turns out chaebol, and chaebol families and chaebol chieftains, above rebuke by media beholden to them for ad revenues, are sopping up most of the gains while other people just stagger along.
If Korea seems to have escaped much of the uncertainty afflicting the eurozone and the U.S., the country still suffers from the rising price of education and a widening rich-poor gap, isn’t that what the anti-FTA is all about, and hasn’t President Lee Myung-bak sided with chaebol by removing rules and regulations on monopolies and investments in banks?
That realization, though, is just one side of the story. The fiercest foes of the FTA would oppose just about anything the government was doing no matter what. They latched on to the FTA as a hot issue for want of anything else to protest. Sure, they could raise the usual objections to the American military presence, and they will warm up such familiar complaints when convenient.
The trouble is, anti-U.S., and anti-military, protests went out of style after the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea more than a year ago. Anti-government zealots might go on blaming the sinking of the Cheonan, a navy vessel eight months earlier on a dastardly American plot, but that argument lost credibility after the ministry of national defense published an extremely detailed report that left no doubt the North Koreans did it. As the saying goes, you couldn't make that stuff up.
Leaders of the Democratic Party, and the extremist Democratic Labor Party, will get back to the military issue at an opportune moment. They will surely go on demanding the Americans give up their bases and will call for good riddance to the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Much though one might like to sympathize with the plight of the stagnating middle class and the young people out of work and the poor getting poorer, the fact is the anti-FTA protest has a lot to do with anti-Americanism, anti-bases bias. By no coincidence, those most against the FTA are also most against the U.S., period. It was, after all, a member of the Democratic Labor Party who tear-gassed the National Assembly as the Grand National Party was about to railroad FTA approval.
It’s hard, though, to be all that critical of the tear-gassing. It did provide a moment of relief from the tedium of the normal pushing and shoving, chair-throwing and punches that characterized the minority’s attempt to tyrannize the majority. Minority members apparently are unaware of the real problem with such mayhem. It’s not that they disgrace the ideal of democracy. Rather, they become an international prime-time joke.
It’s all very well to inspire criticism and condemnation, but they should avoid becoming targets of ridicule. That’s if they’re at all serious about anything.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering protest in South Korea for years. He can be reached at email@example.com or visit www.donaldkirk.com.