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Peace, Politics and Green Possibilities in South Korea

By Juon Kim

A rising force that performed well in the Seoul elections, Korean Greens are changing the culture and common sense of Korean politics from below. On the sidelines of the BIEN Basic Income Congress in Tampere, Finland, we sat down with  co-chair of the Korean Green Party Juon Kim to ask about welfare provision in South Korea, peace and politics in Northeast Asia, and the trials and promises of Korea’s fledgling Green party.

Green European Journal: The Korean Green Party is relatively new on the scene in South Korea. How did the Greens get started and what are your main focuses?

Juon Kim: We were founded in 2012, a  year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster  in 2011, when a tsunami caused a nuclear plant to explode. This was a big mobilising moment for us. Korea today has 24 nuclear power plants, despite being a very small country and a dangerous earthquake-risk zone. It was a catalyst for us to try and change politics from the grassroots, not only regarding the energy system but raising questions such as minority rights seriously for the first time too.

Organising new political parties in Korea is very difficult because the laws haven’t been changed since the dictatorship era. Of course, we had known about Green parties around the world since the 1970s-80s, but actually establishing a party was tough. We don’t have any MPs or local councillors yet, but we are making a big impact on the political area. It’s urgent to get new agendas out there and we are the ones putting them on the table when it comes to energy, nuclear power, micro-dust pollution, climate change, feminism, LGBT issues, and electoral reform.

Changing the way people think about politics is crucial too. Many people in Korea hate politics, hate politicians, and don’t put any hope or trust in politicians. We are contesting the image and context of politics. Elections are our chance to make a new political culture from how we campaign and the ideas we put forward. Young people, women, and minorities, people with disabilities, we invite the marginalised into the centre of politics as new political subjects, even if it is a shock to Korean society. Everyone’s lives are affected by politics and their voices need to be heard. We couldn’t give up on politics in Korea.

How do you fit into the political landscape in Korea?

For a very long time, Korea has had a bipartisan system with two big parties. While they sometimes separate and change their names, they have remained the same two parties with the same people – a handful of famous politicians. Similar to the USA, the Democratic Party is very big, and then there is the Liberty Korea Party too, which is the former president’s party.

How receptive has Korea been to new green or environmentalist ideas?

It’s very difficult get public exposure, we don’t have any popular politicians or big media support. But whenever we start to talk about new ideas, such as basic income or animal rights, a few years later all the other parties start to talk about them. Some people, even if just a few, remember that it was the Green Party that first put forward a certain idea. We always try to stand with people fighting against state violence, militarisation, or the construction of nuclear plants, and we are spreading our impact bit by bit.

Koreans work too many hours and don’t have any time to think. Nor do we have time to participate in the political arena.

Last year in Seoul and across Korea, there were massive protests against government corruption. Were the Greens part of the movement?

Of course we were there in the Candlelight Struggle. The scandal and the protest movement were a combination of old problems and pointed to the need for fundamental political reforms. Polls show that almost 80 per cent of Koreans supported the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye and that many are now satisfied, but we Greens want more. Because we don’t have any MPs, we go to the Constitutional Court to overturn laws, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. For example, we managed to abolish the deposit for parliamentary candidates, which were set very high in Korea, second only to Japan. The impeachment of Park is not enough; further radical political reforms and democratisation are needed.

Korea has a not-too-distant past of dictatorship. What is the state of democracy in Korea today?

We are in the middle of a process of change, somewhere between the old regime and a new one. Our current president and his party remain centre right, even if he is shown as a progressive on TV in foreign countries. They pay little attention to diversity, gender equality, environmental sustainability, or workers’ rights. 30 years ago, there were big protests in Korea and people achieved the direct election of the presidency, but only that. 30 years later, we need to reform the Constitution to guarantee political reforms and expand protections of human rights, animal rights, and sustainability. The Liberty Korea Party continues to reject these reforms. Moving from first-past-the-post voting to a proportional system is another essential step.

We expected the Democratic Party to be different from the impeached president’s government, but they are not that different. It retains the same focus on destructive development. From the rivers to the roads, they want constant and relentless development in pursuit of economic growth. It’s too strong to call it a development dictatorship, but it’s certainly an obsession.

The Green Party of Korea stands out for its feminism and this year the Green mayoral candidate for Seoul did well on an explicitly feminist platform. What is the situation today regarding gender equality in Korea?

It’s terrible. When I arrived in Finland [where the interview was conducted] and used a public bathroom, I did not need to be afraid of spy cams. Spy cams are tiny video cameras hidden in public bathrooms and university toilets that are used to take pictures of women. They are all over and the spy cam footage is then spread online. It’s a big industry, platforms such as  streaming sites are commonly used to share porn and illegally captured pictures, and the government’s response was insufficient.

The denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula needs to be accomplished not only by reducing nuclear weapons but also by abolishing nuclear power completely, in both North and South.

But that’s just one problem among many. Abortion is illegal and women who have abortions are punished. Korea has the biggest gender pay gap in the OECD by a long way. Misogyny is rampant. No one steps in to deal with misogynistic content on platforms like Youtube. Recently, a former mayor was accused of sexually harassing his assistant and, while the case did go to trial, he was released with no consequences. Korea has a #MeToo movement and many people took part in protests during the course of the trial, but in general feminist issues are not taken seriously by politicians. That’s why we made feminism a centrepiece of our local election campaign in Seoul: to show that it is important and that it is political.

People don’t want to acknowledge that feminism is a matter of democracy. Many people think that it is a side issue, but many young women in Korea are starting to push back. When our candidates put feminism on the table, they started to really support us.

And what about political representation – are there many female politicians in Korea?

No. We have 300 MPs and only 17 per cent of them are female. Politics is regarded as a male domain so the Green Party is unusual in that we have more women members than men. Many women, myself included, joined our party to seek an alternative. Many people don’t understand why Greens support feminism, and even some party members are against the feminist Seoul city mayoral candidate. But feminism and diversity are key points of green politics. Last year in Liverpool at the Global Greens congress, I saw that representation and diversity are core green values and made me sure that we are going in the right direction, and so we’ll keep on going.

The current president is seen as being quite progressive in the West but is also on the record as condemning homosexuality. What is the situation with the rights of LGBT people in Korea?

Moon Jae-in was the first presidential candidate to officially declare “I don’t like homosexuality”. That night, many people were upset and next day LGBT activists, including our party members, launched rainbow protests in front of him and his supporters. When powerful politicians are openly and officially homophobic, it’s a very bad sign for all people in Korea. The Protestant church is big in Korea and organises people against gay rights. Each year, the Pride parade in Korea is growing and spreading all over the country. But at the same time, Protestants attend to protest. The church has money, power, and the full support of the Korean elite. The politicians like to make excuses and say that we need a social consensus or that it’s too early for gay marriage or anti-discrimination laws. They need to make the social consensus they need to lead the public. The younger generation is more open to LGBT and diversity issues, so we can’t avoid it anymore. In Taiwan, there was a landmark decision on gay marriage in the Constitutional Court in 2017. I think we are going to make that kind of a breakthrough in Korea as well.

To move on to the economy, Korea has been described as “hyper-capitalist”. It is home to some massive global firms such as Samsung and is very unequal. What are the prospects for Korea to move to a more sustainable, and not only in an environmental sense, economic model?

The big fight recently has been around the minimum wage. Korea has a very low minimum wage. The government is trying to raise it but there is harsh social conflict with chaebol multinational companies. The chaebol are large industrial conglomerates such as Samsung and LG and are known for their octopus-like organisation and governance models. On minimum wages, the chaebol are avoiding being at the centre of the discussion and have turned it into a struggle between small-sized entrepreneurs and part-time workers. So, while the fight is about whether increasing the minimum wage will harm small businesses, we are ignoring the central problem, these multinationals.

The idea of a peace region is a reaction to the crisis and a symbol of our interdependence, not only just economic but ecological, social, and political.

So, the conflict between the small businesses and the workers is a strategic wedge blocking discussion of much bigger problems…

The link between government and the chaebol is never broken. When Samsung’s CEO pays bribes to the former president, he and his company claim to be the victim and he keeps the courts on his side. They’re all on the same team.

Even more importantly, people believe that the economy is everything. For us to discuss a sustainable economic development model, first we need to change how we think about the economy itself and question the goal of growth as defined through GDP. The idea that the abstract economy is an all-encompassing goal translates into a lack of redistribution and poor workers’ rights. We have a very low trade union representation and very serious labour conflicts. The labour movement remains oppressed and many people have died protesting in the past. Some labour protests have been ongoing for over 10 years and have never been resolved. The media frames labour protests as violent but state violence is more severe.

We are here at the basic income conference in Tampere, Finland. What welfare provision exists today for the Korean people and why does Korea need a basic income?

Korean welfare policies are based on the family unit – the heterosexual, middle-class family, that is – and people tend to think that cash transfers are somehow evil and make people idle. The prejudice against social grants means that we don’t have a social safety net beyond family. This distorts our family relationships. As we can’t live as individuals in Korea, we need to be with each other even when we don’t want to be.

I am a basic income activist – that’s why I ran for national election two years ago. Basic income is not simply a welfare policy; it’s more than that. Basic income makes people think of new possibilities, paths to an alternative society or different ways of living. Koreans work too many hours and don’t have any time to think. Nor do we have time to participate in the political arena. So, basic income is not only about money, it’s about giving people freedom. With a social safety net like basic income, we would be able to try new things and even be able to fail. It would help us move beyond a society based on the traditional family and would promote interdependence, trust, and reciprocity across society. Cultural, economic, and social welfare should be provided unconditionally as human rights, not just for Korean citizens but for all residents of Korea. With the arrival of refugees from countries such as Yemen, refugee-phobia and racism has surfaced in Korea too. When we talk about basic income, we don’t just mean for Korean citizens or registered citizens, it should be for everyone.

Most of what we hear internationally about Korea is always looking at South and North Korea and, increasingly, the prospect for nuclear disarmament, reconciliation, and maybe even reunification. What is the Greens’ approach towards the peace process and potential reunification?

The Korean Green Party supports the peace mode of the two Koreas but recognises that this is only the beginning and that many common issues need to be tackled, such as railway, energy, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and shared rivers. The denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula needs to be accomplished not only by reducing nuclear weapons but also by abolishing nuclear power completely, in both North and South. This is essential for long-term security and peace. South Korea has many nuclear power plants and some politicians even want to develop nuclear weapons using them. South Korea exports nuclear power plants around the world. It’s a contradiction – what we really should be doing is supporting renewable energy in the North and South.

As part of the Global Greens, we can build solidarity and expand our imagination to think about politics around the world.

In the long term, we would like to establish a peace regime across Northeast Asia. The relationship between the two Koreas is under the influence of the United States and dominated by a small number of policy-makers. Relying on a few unstable actors from across the global arena is too risky for a negotiation of this kind. Northeast Asian citizens should be at the centre of the process.

So a Northeast Asian peace system would extend beyond the Koreas and include neighbours such as Japan?

Rather than giving birth to a powerful new state, we hope to see a federal model, so European experience may be helpful. For this to happen, agreements with neighbouring countries are necessary to lower military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. China is a major economic partner for Korea. It is our number one destination for imports and exports – South Korea’s dependency on China for exports was 25 per cent and 21 on imports in 2016. That is double the volume of trade with the United States. But despite increasing economic ties with China, politically South Korea maintains its triangular US-Japan-Korea alliance. And as China’s political and military power grows, the triangle will be strengthened. We see this in the American THAAD missile defence system that has been deployed in Korea and last year’s Korea-Japan military secret protection agreement. In October, even the government and the navy will show off their armed forces by organising an International Fleet Review in the Jeju Gangjeong village, where the controversial naval base is constructed. There is a major US military presence in South Korea and our government also subsidises a large arms industry and purchases of weapons from the US. With the amount we spend on the military, we could probably fund a small basic income…

The idea of a peace region is a reaction to the crisis and a symbol of our interdependence, not only just economic but ecological, social, and political. East Asia and the world share a common fate. We are part of the same global community, for climate change as for many other issues. Our government does not take that seriously and that’s why Greens are needed everywhere. As part of the Global Greens, we can build solidarity and expand our imagination to think about politics around the world. Not just on climate change – why can’t we imagine a global basic income? There would be a lot of practical problems of course, but it could be a radical question to help us think about inequality, global norms, and the historical development of the global North and South.

 

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Peace, Politics and Green Possibilities in South Korea

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