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June 2011

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Interview with Shim Sang-Jeong

Preface and Interview by Jinwon Kim
Translated by Young Choe


Shim Sang-Jeong is a former labor movement activist and politician. She was the co-founder and leader of the Korean Democratic Labor Party in 2000 and won a seat in the National Assembly in 2004. She established the New Progressive Party (NPP) with Roh Hoe Chan, Cho Seungsoo and other members of the People’s Democratic faction on May 16, 2008. She was elected as co-representative of NPP in 2008.

Before joining politics, Shim graduated from Seoul National University and actively participated in the labor movement. She worked in Daewoo Apparel factory as a camouflaged worker in order to organize a labor union; and was one of the core organizers of the general strike in the Kuro industrial district in 1985, in which 44 workers were arrested and about 1000 were fired. She was on the wanted list for 10 years due to this general strike. In 1985, Shim was one of the crucial founding members of Seoul Confederation of Labor Movement, which extended the labor movement to anti-authoritarian and general people’s democratic movement. She worked to create several labor organizations: the National Council of Trade Unions (NCTU), Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and Korea Metal Workers' Union (KMWU).

1. What are your thoughts about the upcoming South Korean Presidential Elections in 2012?

I think Korea is going through a transitional phase. In the long struggle for democracy, the democratization movement’s initial goal was to change in administration. The current goal should be to improve the quality of democracy, I think. That means overcoming the division (of the Korean peninsula) and ending the cold war, resolving the polarization of society, and starting on a path to a peaceful welfare state. The 2012 elections are meaningful because it can be a historical turning point, a new start for the Republic of Korea as a welfare state- going beyond just overcoming the Grand National Party’s power, which is a very anti-peace politics centered around the wealthy.

For this to be realized, one political party cannot wield absolute power, so there needs to be a coalition of opposition parties. Important here is that this coalition is a coalition for the future. So a role of a progressive political party is more crucial than ever. The change that people want, and what is central to social welfare is establishing labor rights. Not change led by the biggest party, which is the Democratic Party, but we are seeking to form a coalition government through the elections and achieve a change in power.

2. What do you think of the role of overseas Koreans in the election? What are your thoughts or hopes?

This policy was proposed by GNP, and it was passed without being thoroughly reviewed by the opposition parties. But since it is passed, we need to focus on how to proceed. Besides the 18th election, the margin of victory was around 5%. So in the United States, where there are a lot of Korean nationals, this policy could be an important factor. The way we look at it, is that if we’re going to give overseas Korean nationals voting rights, it should be done right. Having the votes take place at Korean consulates are unfair to people that live in areas where there are no consulates. We need a more general means of voting, like electronic voting. Everyone should be able to vote. Otherwise we can actually be limiting people’s ability to vote, and can quite likely lead to a type of gerrymandering. This will emphasize the negative aspect of the law rather than the positive. We need to come up with policy that will lead to a just and fair implementation. And now that the overseas Korean nationals are part of the discussion, they need to actively participate in the process as well.

3. What can United States citizens do to oppose the Korea – U.S. FTA?

The role of Korean Americans are very important, but the methods don't seem so easy. There needs to be a common understanding of why we need to oppose this deal. The progressives are not opposed to this because we are opposed to trade nor are we opposed to opening up. Trade should be balanced among partners, but Korea US FTA has an implicit goal of transplanting US policies in Korea. Especially regarding investor's rights to sue nations, there is a potential for corporations to challenge Korean policies and sovereignty. We need to eliminate dangerous elements like this as it enables corporations to harm the nation's democracy.

Secondly, even if the benefits were balanced among the partner nations, we need to think about how the data that is being provided by the governments are gathered, and ask questions like, who benefits from this? This deal could lead to benefits for the big corporations/capital in the US and in Korea, but also intensify polarization of the society for workers and farmers in both countries.

Domestically speaking, a trade agreement requires two types of exchanges- an exchange with the partnering nation, (an external exchange) and an internal exchange. There are going to be people who benefit from the agreement, and people who will lose out. It's the work of our government to balance out the disparity. But the administration is acting unilaterally. We cannot pass an agreement that infringes on the existing laws and structures here. The local laws need to take precedent. In that sense, the National Assembly needs to have some authority. The administration is acting unilaterally here.

This FTA will lead to 80-90% of the South Korean economy being dependent on trade. If we are serious about continuous development of Korean economy, we need to expand the domestic market and eliminating/reducing irregular/temporary work. In this sense, an FTA with the US should just not be a priority.

To sum up, there have been many countries that entered into FTA's with the US that have fared worse for it. Maybe Australia is the only country that might not have, and they excluded the problematic clause (investor's right to sue nations). China or Japan will never go for a deal like this one… To oppose Korea-US FTA is not going against globalization, but it is quite rational to oppose unfair trade agreements such as this.

4. Why are you here in the United States?

Not for any specific political reason. It’s that for a politician in Korea, s/he needs to be familiar with the US. US plays a big part of Korean politics, and for us to engage in foreign policy, I feel like we need to know US better. Part of that is meeting with Korean American throughout the US, and that opportunity is an important goal. I used the lectures that I’m giving on college campuses as an excuse to meet and interact with Koreans in the US. Through this process I can understand more specifically where the US society is, why progressive politics is important in Korean society, etc.

5. Can you briefly describe the goals of the New Progressive Party?

A progressive party is one that is hopeful that RoK society can realize the values of equality, peace, ecology and solidarity. There are divisions in the past and in the present, but post-1945 liberation there was a political and ideological repression under a divided system and anti-communist ideology, and leftist political activity was criminalized.

A bird needs to fly with both wings to be balanced, but our society has two conservative parties. The result was extreme polarization and disrespect for rights of labor, bad labor conditions, unfair administration of laws. To put it bluntly, it has experienced a very unilateral development. So we want to accentuate the very positive aspects of liberalism- human rights, individuality and plurality, and to realize a nation of law that is equal in front of all people (regardless of social status) we want to realize this aspect of liberalism and direct us towards a development not of quantity, but of social welfare state where its people can be happy. We want to be a political party that realizes/practices peace and welfare. A progressive political party needs to be young, dynamic (attentive to the changes that are happening, actively leading the changes) sustainable (beyond ecology). That's our M. O.

6. I know you’ve spent some time in the US in LA- what did you learn from your time so far with Korean American organizations?

I was glad to see that Korean Americans are established even with the tough obstacles it had to face. Also that they are so passionate about the well being of Korea. I saw the support the LA has given to Korean workers’ movements, and the 100 day struggle to remove Lee Myong Bak and thought to myself that I need to push harder when I get back to Korea. What I also think about is how Korean Americans can more effectively exercise influence in the US. Beyond the struggles of the first generation that had to settle, we need support of the second generation that can take part/ownership in US society and exercise its influence.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Nodutdol eNews.
View the complete issue »

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Nodutdol eNews is the monthly e-mail newsletter of Nodutdol.Through grassroots organization and community development, Nodutdol seeks to bridge divisions created by war, nation, gender, sexual orientation, language, classes and generation among Koreans and to empower our community to address the injustice we and other people of color face here and abroad. Nodutdol works in collaboration with other progressive organizations locally, nationally and internationally as part of a larger movement for peace and social change.

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