Anti-FTA politician says he’s no extremistAmong about 40 Korean demonstrators protesting efforts to negotiate a free trade agreement between Korea and the United States in Washington D.C. in early June was the National Assembly member Kang Ki-gab, 53, of the Democratic Labor Party. He was in his trademark goatee and traditional Korean attire, but unlike some of the melees he has been photographed in at the Assembly, the Washington protests were peaceful and orderly. Mr. Kang said he had worked hard to ensure that the protesters did not incite police action against them.
The JoongAng Daily spoke with the fiery left-winger at his office last week. He said he found some cause for optimism in the demonstrations in the United States despite what he said was overwhelming American indifference to the pact. But he found some support, he said, from members of the National Family Farm Coalition. He said that like Korean farmers, many U.S. farmers oppose free trade agreements and shared the opinion that they benefit only behemoth corporations.
“Globalization, built on capitalist ideas, is turning everything into a commodity and driving every industry into businesses of scale,” Mr. Kang says. “Competition through globalization and free trade does not lead to mutual growth. The reality is that a small number of people and large capitalists monopolize the gains.”
Mr. Kang says he has devoted his life to saving rural communities from disintegration and keeping food imports out of Korea. The driving force, he said, is his love of the farm and the soil. Born in 1953 in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang province, Mr. Kang says he was a typical youth in a typical farm community. He walked 6 kilometers (3.6 miles) to school on a dirt road, he says, pitched in to help his family and neighbors with farm work and spent many nights watching the stars from rice paddies after the harvest with his friends.
In 1970, he joined a Catholic farmers’ group with an activist bent, and continued to join other such groups as he worked on his farm. In the late 1980s, he says, he became disturbed by reports that several Korean farmers had committed suicide because of their failure to find a wife. In 1989, Mr. Kang became the chairman of a group to remedy that.
“I made a vow that I wouldn't shave my beard or cut my hair until I helped arrange the first marriage,” he said, adding with a smile, “Now people do not recognize me if I shave my beard.”
Mr. Kang was single himself when he began looking for brides for other farmers. But he met Park Young-ok, who did administrative work for the organization, and they married in 1991, when Mr. Kang was 38. They have three sons and a daughter.
The traditional attire, Mr. Kang says, is just a continuation of what Koreans have worn for hundreds of years. It fits Koreans better, he shrugs.
In 1996, he became the head of a farmers’ association in Sacheon and climbed the ladder of rural issues politics to become the chairman of the Korean Peasants League in 2000. The group was the first nationwide farmers’ association, he says. Four years later, he won a seat in the National Assembly through Korea’s proportional representation system, which allocates some Assembly seats to political parties on the basis of their overall appeal to voters in legislative elections.
“Most assemblymen from farming districts pledge their loyalty to farmers and promise to protect the local agricultural industry before the election, but as soon as they get elected, they neglect us and only care about getting re-elected,” Mr. Kang said. “Then, farmers realized that they needed to take matters into their own hands. That's why I entered politics.”
As soon as he entered the Assembly, his traditional coat and beard became his trademark.
Mr. Kang calls himself an idealist rather than an extremist, and protests that he does, in fact support some Korean free trade agreements where the playing field is more level ― that with Singapore, for example, although Singapore’s agricultural sector is limited mainly to growing orchids. He said he also supported the recent free trade pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Thailand, an Asean member, has not joined that pact because of restrictions on its rice exports to Korea. But he opposed the nation’s first free trade agreement, with Chile, and refused to shake the hand of the outgoing National Assembly speaker after the speaker raised a toast here with Chilean wine.
“Trade has to be complementary so that even a heavyweight [like the United States] and a lightweight can compete,” Mr. Kang said. “If only strong countries like the United States survive, it is not a free trade but a free invasion.”
Mr. Kang argued that signing a free trade agreement with the United States would destroy local farming, and that Korea would not see benefits like an increase in the number of jobs. That a free trade agreement would boost Korea's exports and lead to economic growth is an illusion, he says.
“Korea depends more on exports now it did in 1995, but in 1995 the economic growth rate stood at 8.9 percent. The growth rate now is only about 5 percent. Exports grew by double digits between 2000 and 2004, but small and medium-sized companies had negative growth and low-income families are feeling the economic pinch more than ever,” Mr. Kang complains.
He cited what he said were figures from the U.S. International Trade Commission that a free trade agreement would reduce Korea’s agricultural output by a third and put half a million farmers out of jobs.
But he also saw a ray of sunshine in what appears to be the cold shoulder given to imported American rice by Korea’s finicky consumers.
“Even if the rice market is open but the Korean public ignores it,” he said “it’s not going to be a problem,” Mr. Kang said. “Japan opened its market, but American rice is not popular and even Japanese politicians encouraged the Japanese public to purchase American rice.”
Mr. Kang said did not believe that the negotiations with the United States would be successful because there was mounting opposition to such an agreement in Korea. Mr. Kang said Switzerland broke off free-trade talks with the United States because of concerns about its agricultural industry, and said Korea should do the same.
During the nationwide elections on May 31 to select local government leaders, the Democratic Labor Party failed to win any administrative seats. “Turning their backs on the Uri Party, voters gave all their votes to the Grand National Party,” Mr. Kang said, speaking of President Roh Moo-hyun’s party and the victorious conservative opposition. “Even votes that could have gone to the labor party went to the conservatives. The labor party was tangled in the fight.”
Mr. Kang said he planned to return to the farm when he retires, but still appears to have some political fires burning in him, especially when it comes to protecting the livelihood of Koreans down on the farm.
by Limb Jae-un