Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is this the first victory for Occupy Wall Street?

Last week, labour activist Kim Jin-suk's 309-day sit-in on top of a crane at a Hanjin Heavy Industries near Busan came to an end (sappy Hankyoreh article, another piece by the Los Angeles Times). For almost a year, Kim had been the darling of the South Korean political left, turning the dismissal of workers at the factory into a hot topic on the Internet, thanks in part to heavy promotion by the actress Kim Yeo-jin.

Finally, an agreement was reached between the company and its workers that called for the dismissed workers to be rehired within a year. In a hardly surprising move, police have issued a warrant for her arrest. One of the ironies about this country is that although it is not exactly famous as a place where laws are obeyed to the letter, there are too many of them to obey.

The victory at Hanjin's plant in Gimhae is the culmination of an occupation that began this January and ended successfully. Its demands might have been overreaching and flat out unreasonable, I don't know whether they were or not, but it was a case of citizens triumphing over corporations. Rather than merely raising awareness, the post hoc justification for just about anything that people want to do in North America, I feel as though even the most baseless protests in Korea tend to have a demand.

The Occupy Wall Street protests might have achieved something somewhere, I'm sure, and the Hanjin sit-in was hardly the result of Occupy Wall Street, as Korean labour protests are ongoing and just as dramatic as this one. It's unclear, though, that Occupy Wall Street will do much more than bring the issues of economic inequality to the table, to be debated with varying degrees of honesty. I don't also know that Korean-style demands are necessary or beneficial for either the movement or society as a whole, but Kim's protest would have gone nowhere without a clear and firm demand.

That, along with the support of frustrated 20-somethings on Twitter who can't find a job and feel entitled to one, provided support for this occupation in a way that wouldn't be possible in other societies. Their sentiments, much like the Wall Street-inspired protests, are not without their merits, though both can give the impression of having a kernel of truth surrounded by the tasty white fluff we call popcorn.

South Korea would never be confused as a workers' paradise, but its highly-unionized, protectionist economy is not as backwards as it might seem at first. The looming FTA with America would open up some sectors of the economy to American products, which will undoubtedly mean lost jobs in some sectors although jobs will be gained in others.

I don't claim to know much about the FTA, which has naturally been protested as though it would bring about the apocalypse. While it's plain as day that doing business in Korea for foreign companies can be absurd, no matter what the latest "ease of doing business" rankings might spit out, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

A part of me thinks that the tariffs Korea puts on imports helps Koreans live better by protecting domestic companies. It is, essentially, a form of welfare that helps prop up inefficient companies and industries, but I don't see why it's a crime for a government to, in a limited capacity, support these businesses through arriers. I'm more than welcome to being proven wrong, but I don't think Korean protectionism is without its merits.


Anonymous said...

I have to give you props for not doing the obvious "South Korea would never be confused as a workers' paradise [that is North Korea]". Then as a reference you'd use one of their propaganda or something. Congrats. I would have gone for that cheap joke.

Anonymous said...

The 10%+ unemployment rate, with almost 12% for men shows that the worker's paradise is under siege. There's also the suicide rate that The Korean has written about. And, don't forget the creeping rate of household debt, which might just be the most disgusting development. I have lived or have served in the Army both before and after '97, and I have never experienced any uglier spectacle than what Koreans did to each other in late 1997. Unless, that is, one counts for a modern economy now.