TCS Daily

From Seattle to Busan The Flashpoints of Modern Protest

By Andy Jackson - November 21, 2005 12:00 AM

When leaders from the 21 member nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation met in Busan over the weekend, they were warmly receive by their host, Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. The leaders and people of Korea's second city, always eager to get out of Seoul's shadow, also gave them a warm welcome. This southeastern port did all it could to provide an ideal environment for the public diplomacy and backroom deals that are the heart of such international conferences.  

The Korean government was active in trying to minimize potential disruptions. Almost 1,000 people had been banned from entering the country. They were from a list of people convicted of crimes stemming from anti-globalization protests at APEC, the WTO and other international conferences.  

Korea has a long history of civil unrest and one of the most active protest cultures in the world, giving local police and security officials with ample experience in dealing with both peaceful and violent protests. Unlike most countries, Korea has a large force of conscripted riot police (who serve in lieu of military service). That force deals with everything from anti-American riots to violent strikes to fighting monks.  

So they were ready when the inevitable riots began. Busan provided a venue for two related flashpoints of Korea's modern professional protestors; anti-Americanism and anti-globalization. One of the most popular chants of the rioters was "No Bush! No APEC!"  

Koreans are largely ambivalent about globalization and its effects. The country's export-oriented economy requires access to foreign markets and investment. Korean conglomerates (the Chaebol) are investing heavily in China, Mongolia, Russia and Southeast Asia as the Korean economy shifts from a heavy industrial to a technology and service driven economy. These factors have caused successive governments to seek free trade agreements with a variety of partners.  

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 (known to Korean's as "IMF") forced the government to open its financial market to foreign investors, who quickly won enemies by replacing managers and laying-off workers. That influx of foreign money and management skill helped stabilize the economy and allowed Korea to quickly recover most of its loses.  

But foreign investors and international trade partners are facing some difficulties in Korea. Many in business and government here have become increasingly worried as the foreign percentage of ownership in many Korean companies has increased. A new law went into effect last December that restricted foreign investment in banks. The national tax agency has recently gone after several international investors, including the Carlyle Group and Goldman Sachs, for alleged tax evasion on their investment returns. Those investigations are at least partially the result of resentment against foreign funds making large profits from the buying and selling of Korean companies. Many in Korea still subscribe to the mercantilist belief that corporate profits remitted overseas represent an attack on the Korean economy.  

Korea's agricultural industry is similarly the source of much protectionist rancor. Under WTO regulations, Korea has signed an agreement with rice exporting nations to raise the quota on rice imports from the current 4 percent to 7.96 percent by 2014. Farmers and their supporters have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest that agreement, often violently.  

While passionate and sometimes spectacular in their actions, the people fighting police in Busan no more represent Korean public and governmental opinion than the anarchists in the 1999 Seattle riots represented American views. In fits and starts, Korea is liberalizing its economy. The National Assembly will soon pass legislation raising the rise quota.  

And the Korean people will benefit from both.  

Andy Jackson is an instructor at Ansan College in Ansan, Korea. He is a contributor to The Marmot's Hole blog. 

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