South Korea Overview: Crumbling Democracy and the Struggle for Minimum Wage

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US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea: Crumbling Democracy and Rule of Law

By: Hwang Jeongeun / Source: International Strategy Center / The Dawn News / July 2016


On July 8, Korea and the United States  announced that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would be deployed by the U.S. Forces in Korea in response to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. On July 13, Seongju County in North Gyeongsang was selected for deployment.

Lee Jaedong, president of the Seongju peasants’ organization, said that residents’ lives are threatened by having a weapon so close to homes without a safety verification. The Struggle Committee Against THAAD Deployment in Seongju was formed, and the group set up a sit-in site in front of the Seongju County Office demanding withdrawal of the decision. The committee is holding a session explaining THAAD to residents, collecting signatures,  and promoting their blue ribbon, a symbol of peace. The elders in Seongju went to the Blue House in Seoul to protest, and residents voluntarily held a candlelight vigil every night.

On July 21, over 2,000 residents went to Seoul to participate in a rally and read a plea to the people. Some conducted a silent protest against the media’s distorted coverage and shaved their heads. Detractors denounced the rally as a “not in my backyard” complaint and called the Seongju residents reds. As the struggle continues, Seongju’s protesters are witnessing the kind of negative backlash that the Sewol victims families suffered and are realizing that this is not just about THAAD but also about the media’s distorted coverage and anti-North Korean ideology.

In terms of deploying THAAD, there has not been enough examination on its effectiveness, military and diplomatic cost, impact and safety, let alone the process for gaining approval from the National Assembly and citizens. I met with lawyer Song Kiho to discuss the problems with the process and what will happen from here on.

– It seems the Korean government pushed for the deployment of THAAD. Why do you think the government did that?

The THAAD issue shows that democracy and rule of law in Korea are not solid. In theory, we have a constitution, an evaluation process on environmental effects and a public information act, but it’s been shown that they do not work properly in reality. It also reveals that the United States is the decision maker, and South Korea implements the decision due to unbalanced international relations.

The United States primarily uses Korean territory to its benefit, but the anti-North Korean ideology of the Korean ruling elite is also involved. For them, anti-North Korean ideology precedes the constitution. It is more beneficial for them and the United States to have THAAD deployed on the Korean Peninsula as soon as possible. In other words, it is for their vested interests. But on the other hand, it is not a simple matter because there are many people who consider the threat of North Korea as a real and dangerous one, which means it is directly related to the social and political situation in Korea.

– The Ministry of Defense argues that National Assembly approval is not necessary for deploying THAAD. Where was the problem in the process?

First of all, basic information on the agreement was not open to the public. To discuss and determine the merits of deployment through internal discussion, people should have objective information such as the exact deployment and restricted area, the operation cost, deployment duration, and its effectiveness. But currently, the government only reveals information that is favorable to them. For instance, the government announced the area was not subject to the environmental effects evaluation, since the area won’t exceed 220,000 square meters. If so, the government should reveal the exact area and what the agreement says.

Furthermore, it is not for the minister of national defense to determine whether approval from the National Assembly is needed. The Korean government bears about 94 million won of the military cost for U.S. Forces in Korea. THAAD will cost 1.5 trillion won to introduce and more to operate. This will burden the Korean government. According to the Korean constitution, when a agreement “brings significant financial burden to the country and people,” it should be approved through the National Assembly. While we don’t know the exact amount, it’s obvious that it constitutes a significant burden. Thus, it should be approved by the National Assembly.

– Given THAAD, some argue that the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the Republic of Korea and the United States should be amended or abolished since it is unfair. If it was amended or abolished, in which direction should we go?

The Mutual Defense Treaty that gave the United States the right to deploy armed forces after the Korean War is unfair. We should demand amending it since there is no time limit and the Korean government does not have wartime control. We should not limit this issue only to THAAD, but also to the United States’ right to deploy weapons in Korea and how to regulate it through the constitution in a democratic way. It is directly connected to the U.S. Forces in Korea. We should decide ourselves the timeline for how long a foreign force is stationed, but we are not preparing to decide. For example, there should be a law to evaluate the U.S. Forces Korea and discuss its role and long-term plan in the National Assembly.

– Xi Jinping, the president of China, and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, declared in a joint statement that “the deployment of THAAD harms the strategic interests of China and Russia” and they would therefore cooperate on the issue. And right after the announcement of Thaad deployment, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile into the East Sea. What is the impact of THAAD deployment on peace and diplomatic relations in East Asia?

Can THAAD eventually bring denuclearization and peace? I think it would make the situation worse. North Korea will develop more weapons and try to find a way to bypass THAAD. According to the logic of deploying THAAD, peace is achieved by neutralizing attacks. History shows that this logic fails. There has been no case in which peace was kept when one force perfectly neutralized the other. Rather, that kind of state causes more tension and even war.

– On July 14, 44 civic organizations and religious groups gathered and declared that “the deployment of THAAD should be repealed because it threatens peace in East Asia and infringes on people’s right to a peaceful life.” Will it be possible to repeal the decision?

If the Korean government has the will, it is possible. But it is not likely to happen because there is not even a basic discussion on the long-term role of the U.S. Forces in Korea. The other option is to oppose the agreement passively through domestic policies that obstruct its implementation. For example, we can say we cannot deploy it after conducting an evaluation on its environmental effects and effectiveness.

In the Status of Forces Agreement, the United States agreed to pay all operation fees for the army, but as the U.S. trade and financial deficits grew, the Korean government began sharing the fees after making a separate agreement. And after Korea and the United States made an agreement on beef imports, it was changed because of fierce opposition from Korean citizens. These examples show it is a matter of will. That is why it seems harder to change, because there are active players in the Korean government who have a clear ideology.

– What do you think will happen regarding THAAD issue? What should we do?

I think it will be a starting point to discuss the U.S. military presence in Korea. In history, an imperial order cannot continue due to its own contradictions and greed. The United States could preserve its interests while being in harmony with a growing China but chooses not to. That is why I think it can serve as momentum to shake U.S. imperialism. Deploying THAAD may have immediate desired effects, but the contradiction will exacerbate. It also accumulates elements that make an unstable situation for Korean capitalists. The ruling elite in Korea will surely react to that. Then there will be some fundamental changes. I think we should keep discussing this issue patiently and closely without losing direction so that we can make fundamental changes in Korea’s democracy and rule of law.

The Minimum Wage: Lifting Up Youth, Women, and the Elderly

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By: Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, World Current Report) / Source: International Strategy Center / July 2016

What do a 30-year-old friend, middle-aged aunt, and elderly uncle have in common? They all receive minimum wage, and the amount they receive each year is determined by a single body: the minimum wage committee. Recently on July 8, the committee voted to set the minimum wage for 2017 at 6,030 won an hour, about the cost of a Starbucks coffee and a cookie. The labor movement had been demanding a 10,000 won minimum wage.

Some 3.8 million people receive minimum wage; 7.4 million workers would benefit from a 10,000 won minimum wage. Such an increase would have large repercussions throughout Korean society: it would lift up low-wage workers, mom-and-pop shops, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and challenge the dominance of Korea’s large corporations. However, victory will be achieved by a political fight fueled and driven from the bottom up. For this not only challenges the large companies that are starving the domestic economy with their accumulating internal reserves, but also a Cold War mentality that Korea has yet to cast off.

Since 1988, the minimum wage has been annually set by the minimum wage committee. It has served as a safety net for unorganized workers with no recourse to collective bargaining – a large number of these are the country’s 6.3 to 10 million irregular workers. Their precarious position means that only 2 percent are organized into unions. Yet, the problem with this minimum wage committee is that its majority pro-business. While equally divided between labor, employers, and the government, the government appointed members are pro-business, leading to wage votes that favor employers. Thus, despite promises by all the political parties – including the conservative party of the president – for a 9,000-10,000 won minimum wage, the minimum wage for the next year has ended up at 6,030 won. The ruling party washes itself off responsibility by shifting responsibility of the decision onto the “impartial” committee, despite the government’s great influence on the committee by appointing those members that effectively cast the deciding vote.  

A 10,000 won minimum wage has the potential of drastically equalizing Korea’s economic structure by lifting up workers and SMEs and lowering large corporations. Lee Nam-sin likens the 10,000 won minimum wage to the first button on a shirt – if you put on the first button right, the rest will follow. That’s because the 10,000 won minimum wage will only be possible with a redistribution of the 700 trillion won that large corporations hold in internal reserves to everyone else: low-wage workers, the self-employed and SMEs. It would not only create a more equal society but a healthier economy. Increasing the minimum wage would limit and bridge the widening gap between the poorest and the wealthiest.

It would provide worthwhile job alternatives for those forced into self-employment by the meager minimum wage. Those who remain self-employed would benefit from a smaller self-employed population. Currently, six million people are self-employed, creating fierce cut-throat competition that bankrupts businesses and depletes life savings. “The number of the self-employed has to go down to three to four million in order for them to survive,” Lee says. “Six million is just too high.”

Higher wages would also allow SMEs to claim a fairer share of the wealth that large corporations have been hoarding. That’s because the 700 trillion won in reserves comes from the exploitation of not just workers but also the SMEs connected to the large companies’ supply chain. “All the parts in a Hyundai car are made by SME subcontractors. Hyundai simply assembles the parts,” Lee explains. “If the SMEs get their fair share, then giving a higher minimum wage won’t be so burdensome.” In fact, it would help SMEs attract the kind of skilled and talented workers who currently flock to large corporations.

The Justice Party is fighting in the National Assembly to get a 10,000 won minimum wage by 2020. Choi-young, director of policy for the Justice Party, says his party has two bills that would change the composition and power of the minimum wage committee and establish a minimum wage floor. That minimum wage floor would be 60 percent of the average wage in workplaces of five or more people. The increasing minimum wage (starting at 7,500-8,000 won) would have a feedback effect driving up the average, with the minimum wage reaching slightly over 10,000 won by 2020. Only when a minimum wage higher than this 60 percent is being considered will the minimum wage committee be involved. It would be composed of equal parts labor and management. Their results would not be binding but would be reviewed and approved by the National Assembly. Choi confesses, “Effectively it would mean the 60 percent average wage would come into effect.”

Yet, while change may become law through the political fights in the National Assembly. The only thing that can pass the Justice Party’s bills and overcome the interventions and barriers enacted and erected by the large companies will be grassroots movement that swells into a tidal wave. Talking to my aunt, uncle, and friend, it is clear that their excitement for a 10,000 won minimum wage is tempered by corporatism, pessimism, and despair. “Only when the corporations do well will workers do well. For someone like me, a 10,000-won wage would be great, but what if it means fewer jobs?” says my 58-year-old aunt who earns just slightly above the minimum walking house to house checking for gas leaks.

“A 10,000-won wage would be great, but we are too weak to achieve it. There are many others eager to take my minimum wage security job. Old like me that can’t find a job anywhere else,” says my 70-year-old security guard uncle.

“A 10,000-won wage would have been great, but given our realities it seemed difficult,” says my 30 year-old friend who does accounting at a day care center.

It is clear that the first step to change will have to be a shift in the paradigm. This will not be easy in a country with a collective psyche mired in the Cold War. A large portion, many of whom are elderly and receive minimum wage, have a red-fear complex and believe joining a union is what communists do. As Lee who was also part of the minimum wage committee, explains, “The correct solution is not a minimum wage committee, but for workers to organize themselves and fight for their rights ‘cause there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But since we are not there, we rely on this committee.”

A minimum wage ordained from the top by a minimum wage committee and politicians can be realized only when people organize at the grassroots level and fight for it. The labor movement continues in its attempts to organize low-wage irregular workers. And civil society organizations stand in solidarity with their efforts. My friend recently joined the civil society organization Together Labor, which organizes people, shifts their thinking, and builds power.

“After joining, I started to be more interested in what is happening around me. I started to go to protests and to rallies on issues that before I only heard about in the news,” she says. The minimum wage was set for workers who are too weak to fight for their wages. Yet, winning a 10,0000 minimum wage through committee or by legislation, may only be possible when workers are strong enough to fight and take their lunch money back.

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