[VIEWPOINT]Anti-FTA rallies have a positive sideOn May 19, the government issued a statement signed by the ministers of five related ministries.
“The government is seriously concerned about the plan by some organizations opposing the free trade agreement between Korea and the United States to send protesters abroad and stage demonstrations. These groups should immediately suspend the plan, which undermines the image of the nation and worries its citizens, and make their arguments openly about the FTA negotiations following a peaceful and lawful process.”
Despite the appeal, the Korean Alliance Against R.O.K.-U.S. FTA announced that some 100 activists from member organizations of the alliance will demonstrate in Washington, D.C. in time for the first round of FTA negotiations between the two nations, scheduled for early June.
A free trade agreement with the United States would have a tremendous influence on Korean society. Therefore, it is natural that the interested parties want to express their opinions.
However, it is absurd to fly to the United States and stage a rally opposing the negotiation.
Nevertheless, what can the government do about it when the former fighters for democracy, such as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Korean Peasants League, are resolved to fight?
Maybe it would be better for the government to observe the Washington rally in a matter-of-fact way.
There could be some positive aspects about the protest.
First, Korea and the United States are democratic nations with guaranteed rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association.
We are living in an age of globalization. Therefore, we do not need to look with a jaundiced eye on fellow Koreans when they freely protest the pending issue between the two countries in the United States, as well as at home.
Secondly, being able to coordinate a protest abroad reveals Korea’s economic competency.
The alliance represents the interest of the farmers and workers, the weak in society. In many third-world countries, the socially weak cannot easily afford to fly to Hong Kong or the United States to hold protest rallies. The plan itself reflects Korea’s strength as one of the top 10 largest economies in the world.
Thirdly, it might provide a chance to upgrade the protest culture.
Just as the alliance has vowed, there will be no problems if the protesters hold a peaceful rally. However, if they stage a violent rally as they usually do in Korea, they will be strictly punished according to U.S. laws.
It is useless to worry that such a situation would greatly damage the national image. Korea’s violent protests are already widely known around the world.
Along with various government restrictions, foreign and domestic companies have repeatedly pointed out the rigidity of the labor market and the violence of the labor movement as obstacles in the country’s efforts to provide a business-friendly environment.
Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, spoke without reserve about Korea’s labor movement when he visited.
As far as the violent nature of the labor movement is concerned, Korea’s image cannot fall any lower. Therefore, one way or another, the protesters will have the chance to learn the need for lawful and peaceful protests from a developed nation.
Fourth, the government can decide whether it should get involved, and in what ways.
The government is concerned about unlawful overseas rallies because violent protesters, emboldened because their own government has failed to punish them according to law, no longer abide by the law. On this occasion, Korea’s government should strictly respond to violent rallies as other developed nations do.
Many citizens are flabbergasted that the government subsidizes the civic organizations that have led the violent protests in Pyeongtaek and other places.
In the long run, financial assistance is poisonous to the civic groups that should stand on their own.
The government needs to stop the financial support to the groups that have led violent demonstrations so far, especially the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Korean Peasants League, whose plan to stage an overseas protest is not something you’d expect from the weak in social status.
The motive of the activists going abroad to hold a protest rally is similar to that of expecting mothers going abroad to give birth.
They think they can benefit from going abroad.
While both might be displeasing, as long as they are spending their own money, it is not something the government should get involved with.
* The writer is a professor of economics at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ahn Kook-Shin