Apr. 16  2024
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Struggle Against Neoliberalism Continues in Korea

- Latest update on resistance against FTAs, WTO and liberalisation policies of the Korean government

Source  :  Korean People\'s Action against FTA & WTO (KoPA)

On 14th April, the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy, Yoon Jin-shik, reaffirmed that the government will expand financial incentives for foreign capital saying, "We must open up the economy further... to promote more trade and increased investment by foreign companies in Korea." (Korea Herald, 15th April 2003) The next day, just as Bush administration declared "class war" within the US, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy, Kim Jin-pyo, also said that the government will find ways to lower corporate taxes. These statements are just a couple of recent manifestations of the commitment to neoliberal policies of the Noh Moo-Hyun's so-called "participatory government".

The Korean government is promoting a package of neoliberal polices, aimed at attracting foreign direct investments and liberalising trade. From July this year, the government will put to implementation its plans to establish "Special Economic Zones", which will give direct cash support for transnational companies investing in Korea, in addition to tax reductions and other incentives. The first "Special Economic Zones" will be established in Seoul, the port-cities of Inchon and Busan, and Gwangyang, with others following on request from local governments. The zones are expected to have severe ramifications on Korean workers, the environment, and public education and health services. Foreign corporations are to be exempted from certain labour regulations such as paid menstrual leave and those on worker dispatchment. Regulations on development projects that result in environmental destruction will also be dismantled. Schools and hospitals will be opened to foreign investment, commodifying and undermining public education and healthcare. What is more serious, however, is that Korean companies are demanding equal treatment, and the government is considering expanding the zone to the whole nation. Despite neoliberal ideology that praises foreign direct investment as the driving force of the economy, statistics have shown that liberalisation of investment has merely resulted in increased speculative activities, jeopardising the economy. The amount of FDI in 2000 was a five-fold increase from the amount in 1996. However, only a minimal amount of FDI resulted in building of factories, creation of employment or technology transfer.

At the same time, the Korea-Chile Free Trade Agreement(FTA) waits ratification of the National Assembly, while the groundwork with relevant counterparts to promote further bilateral FTAs with numerous countries including Japan and Singapore is being sped up. Bilaterial FTAs have been promoted since 1998 after the economic crisis but were slow to take form. However, with uncertainty increasing within the multilateral regime of the WTO and the world economy, the government is hurrying to consolidate FTAs. The Korea-Chile FTA seeks to eliminate tariffs on agricultural products from Chile (which is in fact dominated by transnationals such as Dole and Unifrutti), in exchange for the elimination of tariffs for industrial products from Korea. The FTA is estimated to bring over 2,000 billion won loss in local agriculture, mainly from the import of fruit and livestock. Following the Korea-Japan Bilateral Investment Treaty, the government is also pushing for a FTA with Japan. The request for the FTA has particularly been strong from Japanese capitalists, who are eager to include a clause that directly calls for suppression of workers, should collective action take place in a Japanese-invested corporation.

Furthermore, the Korean government is fulfilling its duties to the WTO, once again proving to the world its willingness to be servile to the doctrines of trade liberalisation. By the proposed submission date of 31st March, less than 10 countries had handed in their offers in services. Developing countries are especially reluctant to hand in their offers, since offers basically mean opening up their public services to transnational capital of imperialist countries. However, Korea was one of the few countries that had submitted the offers, despite calls from the citizens to hold. So far, the Korean government has shown willingness to open most of the markets that have been requested from developing countries. Also, although the government has publicised that it will demand developing country status during the controversial agricultural meetings, it remains adamant to its plans to open the rice market and undergo an agricultural "structural adjustment program" in accordance with the demands of the WTO and transnation capital. Already, hundreds of thousands of peasants have become bankrupt or are struggling to survive under immense debt burden, and more peasants are expected to be ousted from their lands under the so-called structural adjustment.

However, the Korean people are not willing to let the government go ahead with the neoliberal deals. After a subdued period since last winter, Korean organisations are reviving and renewing the fight against the SEZs. The "Committee for Repeal of SEZ", consisting of more than 100 civic/social organisations, and coalitions such as KoPA and Korea People's Solidarity, have held press conferences, picket campaigns and mass demonstrations against the SEZ. In particular, about 500 people gathered and marched through central Seoul on 26th April, demanding for the government to abrogate its plans. Larger mobilisations are planned during the upcoming months.

At the same time, farmers are camping out in front of the National Assembly against the Korea-Chile FTA and the WTO. The National Assembly was scheduled to ratify the FTA during April, at which farmers led by Korean Farmer's League set up a camp in front of the assembly from 7th April. Farmers have been camping out and demonstrating and marching every single day since then. The biggest struggle was on 17th April - International Farmers' Day - when around 2,000 farmers demonstrated around the country. The largest demonstration took place in the Gwangju area, where 500 farmers came out onto the roads in 370 farming vehicles and blocked the highway to Seoul. Similar actions took place in six other regions. While camping in front of the assembly, the KFL also organized assembly members from each locale not to vote for the FTA, successfully organizing 130 members to date and making the assembly postpone the vote to June. Korean farmers are remaining firm in its stance against the FTA, the WTO and other liberalisation policies of the government.

The struggles against the SEZ and FTAs are themselves struggles against the WTO and neoliberalism; however, actions that directly target the WTO process are being formulated among Korean social movements. The first series of struggles against the WTO was triggered by the Korean Education Network Against GATS (KENAG), consisting of the teachers' union, students and activists, which mobilised mass action against the submission of offers in services during March. Actions before and during the WTO Ministerial Meeting in September, as well as protests during the unofficial meeting in June, are being discussed and planned among the fifty organizations of KoPA. KoPA will host strategy meetings, perform teach-ins and campaigns to propagate the struggle among other mass coalitions, form broad solidarity to mobilise mass action, pressurise the government and strengthen international solidarity.

Korean People's Action against FTA & WTO(KoPA) is a coalition of 50 Korean organisations committed to fight against neoliberalism. Member organisations range from trade unions and peasants organisations, to women's, student's, environment and cultural groups. It was formed in 1999 and has been working as the center of the struggle against liberalisation policies and the WTO, Third World debt and other issues of neoliberalism.

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