Issue 270 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
At last South Korea has joined those countries in which great anti-US demos happened last year. By 'anti-US', of course, socialists mean opposition to the US state and its foreign policy, not ordinary US citizens.
On 7 December, 50,000 took to the streets of South Korea, protesting against the 'not guilty' verdict given to the US soldiers who had run over two Korean junior high school girls with an armoured car, and demanding a revision of the law (SOFA) concerning the US army stationed in South Korea.
The demo was the biggest ever in the history of the South Korean anti-US movement. During the Cold War, anti-US protests were denounced by the government as 'Communist-oriented' and 'pro North Korea'(NK). Even now, the three biggest national papers report that the Grand National Party is suspicious of the pro North Korea 'invisible hand' behind the popular anti-US sentiments. So the demo was comparable in significance to those which have recently been held in some parts of western Europe, considering the level of repression and the ideological terrain in this country.
The anti-US movement in South Korea often takes the form of opposition to the US army stationed in this country because of the country's historically specific conditions. But the movement is also an expression of the current global anti-war movement. After George W Bush's declaration of war on Afghanistan, most South Koreans criticised the US state's 'unilateralism'. Since then Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have been bestsellers here. Over 1,000 students and youths took to the streets of downtown Seoul in protest against the planned US war on Iraq (page 2, November SR). The demo was inspired by the 400,000-strong anti-war march in London.
There is, however, a problem. The anti US army movement is led by the populist left whose organised cores are various pro-NK nationalist organisations. As the US has tended to placate the NK regime while it needs to concentrate on pounding away a much smaller regional bully, the reformist Stalinists try to abstain from the US war elsewhere, outside the Korean peninsula.
But, as was shown in the above-mentioned 7 December protest, a new generation are being drawn into a fresh wave of the anti-US movement. They may have populist, mildly nationalist sentiments. But they are internationally oriented enough to oppose the planned US war on Iraq. When a youth who dubbed himself 'a devil' spoke on the platform, saying,'We, as global citizens, will have to mourn the deaths of one million Hyo-soons and Mi-seons of Iraq when the US wages war,' he was much applauded. Hyo-soon and Mi-seon are the two schoolgirls killed by the US armoured car.
Bush is trying to remind South Koreans of the existence of the Northern 'threat' by taking a Northern ship carrying missiles. He is thereby trying, on the eve of the planned large 14 December demonstration and the 19 December presidential election, to justify the presence of the US army, to support the right in South Korea, and to isolate the left which argues for withdrawal of the US army stationed here. This is likely to deepen political polarisation which will pave the way to harsher clashes in future.
Having read Lindsey German's article 'Moving On Up' (November SR) I feel I must defend direct action and those who choose to engage in it. Granted, collective action is vital if we are to build a truly mass movement, and the Stop the War Coalition is a shining example of what can be achieved by this means. However, direct action can be equally effective in raising the consciousness of those to whom we need to appeal. Also, on a practical level, direct action by small groups can be quicker to enact and far easier to arrange.
Direct action has many purposes. It forces issues onto the public agenda when conventional lobbying has been ignored, it provokes thought and stimulates debate, thereby raising consciousness in the local area, and is far more than mere 'elitism' or just an ego boost for those involved.
Mass movements and direct action groups can work and have worked together sucessfully at a local level. The anti-Trident actions at Devonport Dockyard are proof of this. In order to advance our movement we must learn to work with our comrades in non-socialist circles, celebrating our differences instead of becoming divided by them.
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There is room for some innovative thinking on the link between pay discontent and the march towards war ('Fight Fire with Fire', November SR). Buried away in Gordon Brown's Finance Bill is a freeze in personal allowances for working-age adults. This is the threshold at which workers start to pay income tax. It is obviously of greatest importance to the low paid, but it affects everybody.
Everyone is paying for the £1 billion that Gordon Brown has set aside for the Iraq war, and for the £24 billion per annum that this country spends on arms. Meanwhile, Mr Prudence has abolished many of the royalties due on North Sea oil and slashed corporation taxes. As your editorial points out, large groups of workers are not seeing the benefits of economic growth because of inflation in the privatised housing and transport sectors (the same is true of childcare, higher education and elderly care). Disposable income is the key--New Labour is taking your allowances away.
As the firefighters' dispute develops, socialists inside the trade union movement need to answer--and win--the crucial political questions which have underpinned the strike. Central to the future of our movement is the relationship between the trade union leadership and the Labour Party and our ability, at a rank and file level, to condition it.
As our union leaders fight to ensure the political fund is exclusive to Labour, we need to battle to democratise it. To do so effectively means rebuilding a political rank and file movement as the only method workers have of controlling their union leaders-right wing or left wing.