South Korea on strike, North Korea on ‘ice’

From the January-February 2014 issue of News & Letters:

World in View

South Korea on strike, North Korea on ‘ice’

• Over 100,000 South Koreans, mainly workers, demonstrated in Seoul on Dec. 28. They expressed their anger over a number of issues at the government of President Park Geun-hye.

One source of anger is the move to privatize some service by KORAIL (Korean Railroad Corp.). This had already led to the largest-ever walkout by members of the railroad workers’ union. Union officials say moves to privatize will mean fare hikes, service reductions, and safety problems.

On Dec. 22 riot police were sent to attack the Seoul headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Without search warrants, they broke down doors and caused serious property damage, including to the adjoining offices of the Kyunghang newspaper, which has been critical of Park’s policies.

Other citizens, outraged by revelations of manipulation by the National Intelligence Service of the 2012 elections when Park was elected, joined protesting workers. Police had confirmed illegal attempts to manipulate the election beforehand, but were ordered to remain silent.

With all these problems and more, South Korean youth have been inspired by the “Why We Aren’t Fine!” campaign. This was launched when a student at Korea University, Ju Hyun-woo, made a poster for his school bulletin board that was picked up and broadcast over social media. He wrote: “I just want to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ Are you fine with ignoring all these issues because they aren’t your problems?…And if you are not ‘fine’ after seeing all these problems, then voice your opinions—whatever they may be.”

Many of these young people joined in the Dec. 28 demonstrations, and also held flash mobs in cities across the country.

 

• North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his uncle, Jang Sung-thaek, executed by firing squad in late December. He then appeared on television to curse Jang as a traitor, drug addict, and coup plotter. Jang had served his purpose in ushering young Kim into the darker corners of his inheritance and was now disposable.

This is a kind of ancient dynastic politics that hardly differs from the days of Egyptian or Roman ruling houses. Despite what some observers said, it is unlikely that it signals any significant disunity among North Korea’s ruling elite. The small group at the top— those who are allowed to read Marx—know how fragile their rule would be without lockstep unity.

What was at stake in the murder of Jang was probably just what Kim said it was when he accused him of selling off part of North Korea to foreigners and of drug trafficking. Jang was considered the architect of the Rason Special Economic Zone, on the border of both Russia and China, which permits investment by companies from those countries.

The area is also central to the huge methamphetamine (“ice”) trade that has grown in North Korea. Much of what is produced is shipped across the border to China, which has a growing crystal meth epidemic. But it is also sold internally, both as a substitute for unavailable medical treatment and as a way to curb hunger. It was the dire famine of the 1990s in which over a million perished, that spurred the creation of the Rason Special Economic Zone.

Despite his denunciation of Jang, the “thrice cursed,” it remains to be seen whether Kim Jong-un will either end foreign investments in Rason, or crack down on the meth trade. More likely he has just assured his own control of scarce financial resources.

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