Community Externships: 언니네 작은 도서관

Part of my internship with the ISC has involved participating in community externships with three community organizations affiliated with the ISC. From September – December, I volunteered with each organization one time every month. This experience has been helpful in helping me meet more members of the Korean social movement, to learn more about different sectors of Korean-centered progressive political work (since the ISC’s focus is international solidarity movements), and to above all get a sense of what being in and part of the activist community is like here in Korea. Having attended a women’s college, feminism is an important issue to me. Yet, as I learned by the end of four years’ time, ‘feminism’ as we tend to use it too often refers only to the experiences and difficulties of a certain group of women with certain economic, racial, and ability privileges, meaning that too often the experiences of women most at the margins get silenced or erased completely. Upon moving to Korea, I heard infinite variations of the statement “Korea is a patriarchal and sexist country.” Living in Jeollanamdo, where neo-Confucian-era gender traditions have prevailed more strongly than in other parts of the country, I experienced this for myself often enough, seeing how the female teachers were expected to serve the male teachers and clean up after them on the school picnic, and how my host-mom was expected to stay at home to raise the children even though she had a masters from Yonsei in teaching. Yet the ‘Korea is sexist’ mantra has always sat badly with me, not least because I seem to hear it most often from other foreigners, whose strangely smug way of saying it hints slightly of cultural superiority and condescension. Feminism is a problem in Korea from the foreign perspective, but the problem is tied to assumptions of Western cultural superiority – if Korea is a gender-unequal society, the reason is because they have not applied the proper (aka, the West’s) framework of feminism. However, such an approach ignores the particular history of Korea and the need for a movement rooted in that history. Thus, even when people attempt to address the issue in a well-meaning way, their efforts often fall into the trap of the white-savior complex, as they try to ‘teach’ Korea about the error of its sexist ways, all the while failing to interrogate their own privileges as expats, and – perhaps most egregiously – to recognize the Korean groups who are already doing feminist work in their own communities[1]. One such organization is 서울여성회, or the Seoul Women’s Organization. Founded in 2007, their role is forging a new direction for gender justice in Korea. The organization’s vision is based on the idea that, because of Korea’s traditional gender roles, women are socialized to take care of others. For example, after a woman gets married and has children, her title transforms to “So-and-so’s mother.” This is exemplary of the way in which Korean women’s societal roles have historically centered around the family, but also how, in doing so, it pressures her to prioritize her familial ties above all else, even herself. For these reasons, and in order to change society and gender discrimination, women’s organizations like 서울여성회의 began to emerge. Through being a part of such an organization, they feel, women can first begin to take care of themselves; then, by gathering and exchanging ideas, they can begin to change society as well. While they have a few major initiatives, such as holding events, including a “feminist academy” (or feminism reading group), one of their main initiatives has been the founding and running of 언니네작은도서관. 언니네작은도서관, or “Sister’s Library,” is a community library in Daerim-gu in Seoul. The area is known for its large migrant population (~84% of the area’s residents), as well as the multiple cases of sexual violence that have occurred in the area. In looking for ways to address the sexual violence problems, the 서울여성회의decided that establishing a community library was the best way to do so. In doing so, they could provide an essential community service (since before that time there was no library in the area) as well as reach members in the community (as they pointed out to me, a library is one of the rare community centers that has the potential to reach people across age and gender lines), in doing so building their organization and support for their vision. Much like the Urban Agriculture Network, My Sister’s Library believes in injecting a positive communal shift into the community that combats the dangers and distrusts of the area by creating a space for and encouraging the forging of new relationships between its members. The library’s programming reflects this, holding events such as story time for children, art projects and weekend excursions together, and a group for parents.

This isn't actually my photo (nor is this what the library is generally like when I'm there - but I didn't take many pictures there, so I took this from their facebook page to provide some idea of what the space looks like.

This isn’t actually my photo (nor is this what the library is generally like when I’m there – but I didn’t take many pictures there, so I took this from their facebook page to provide some idea of what the space looks like. Here, the group is holding a meeting to discuss their monitoring efforts of the “안전한마을,” or “Safe Village,” concept, put in place by the Seoul City Government, which utilizes CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) ideas.

So far, I’ve volunteered with them three times. The first time I helped with the preparations for a community play event that was being held at the library. Since the play was being put on by the New Generation Arts Collective (an awesome political arts troupe that shares office space with the ISC!), though, I didn’t really interact with the library staff much that time. The two other times I have volunteered during regular days at the library, which entailed checking in/checking out books for library patrons, manning the café, and looking up book titles on the national library website’s database to get the official library classification numbers. Yet, of all of the organizations I’m working with, I feel as if I know and understand this one the least. I think this is partly because of the more solitary nature of their work; on a regular day, everyone works at their desk in the office (as opposed to the chaos of the daycare, or the extracurricular nature of the urban agriculture network).

Behind-the-scenes at the community performance

Behind the scenes of the community performance, which had to do with Sewolho and familial love… *tear*

However, it might also be that, because I had the most knowledge of this area (feminism) before coming in, I’m not coming into the experience with as fresh of a perspective because I can’t shake my preconceived notions of (US) feminism. For example, I’m not used to feminist organizations that center children or childcare – possibly it’s because of my age, but I also think that US feminism often distances itself from explicit ties to children, perhaps because it’s afraid of evoking the traditional image of women as the de facto childrearers of society, or perhaps due to the dichotomous, “having it all” nature that conversations around gender seem to have in America. I’m intrigued by why this might not be so much the case here in Korea; while the 서울여성회의 is geared towards women generally, the 언니네작은도서관 is very much geared towards women with children. This seems to be because a community library is firstly a good way to reach such a demographic, and secondly an ideal place to politicize the women who come there (as their kids can play or read while they attend study sessions or meetings). But, obviously, this is only certain female demographic. What about women who do not have children? Is reaching different kinds of women important to them? I also realized that I’m not sure exactly what feminism means to the organization exactly on an ideological level (besides the end of sexual violence and gender discrimination)… does Korea’s feminism have ‘waves’ like the US does? How does their feminism see itself in relation to class, sexual identity, even international oppression issues? Finally, I’m also interested in further investigating the relationship between the large migrant population in Daerim and the community library, and how they see this fact fitting into their larger vision of gender justice and equity (especially given the rise of ‘migrant wives’ in Korea… do migrant women or migrant populations fit into their fight for Korean gender equality?). What I’ve experienced so far has given me lots to think about. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a strongly community-based approach to gender justice before – nor have I ever been in a feminist space that so strongly embraces the presence of children. But despite the questions I still have, the benefits of both of these tendencies became most clear to me during the community play that I volunteered at. That evening, as people began showing up, I was pleasantly surprised to see almost everyone that I have been meeting and working with these past couple of months (even some of the kids from 다같이 놀자!). That was the first time that I felt like I truly understood some part of the feeling of community in Korea. So while I am still having some trouble understanding the link to the larger feminist aims of the organization, from that experience I feel the significance of the role that spaces like the 언니네작은도서관 play in helping build community, not just physically, but politically.

Creeping on random babies at the library

Creeping on cute random babies at the library while also convincing them not to put their hands in dirty cups/clean cups/coffee filters… probably the most real description of what I do there.

[1] Although I haven’t any direct interactions with the organization, Hollaback Korea seems to mirror many of these problems, as shown in this experience of a fellow former Fulbrighter:


Community Externships: 영등포 도시 농업 네트워크

Part of my internship with the ISC has involved participating in community externships with three community organizations affiliated with the ISC. From September – December, I volunteered with each organization one time every month. This experience has been helpful in helping me meet more members of the Korean social movement, to learn more about different sectors of Korean-centered progressive political work (since the ISC’s focus is international solidarity movements), and to above all get a sense of what being in and part of the activist community is like here in Korea.


The 영등포구 Garden Plot

The 영등포구도시농업네트워크, or the Yongdeungpo-gu Urban Agriculture Network, is a community organization located in Yondeungpo-gu, Seoul dedicated to urban farming and agricultural initiatives. If you’re a newcomer to the concept of urban agriculture, like me, then that might not mean much. Generally, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing produce within a city (as opposed to importing it from the countryside, which is where produce is typically grown before being sent to city centers for distribution and selling). The idea is a popular one that’s spread to many metropolitan cities, but in Seoul, which has the highest population density among the world’s large developed cities, this idea seems especially intriguing.

The Urban Agriculture Network was originally founded through the union of two groups of people. The first group simply had an interest in farming and cultivation, and so wanted to experiment with it as a hobby. The second group saw urban agriculture as a way to reinvigorate the idea of community and to combat the negative effects of urbanization, such as urban isolation and urban violence. Their hope was that, through farming and the collective responsibility of farming, they could in effect re-communalize the city and decrease these problems. The latter group approached the former, and five years ago, they came together to form a network in order to share ideas, both about transforming society and practical knowledge related to cultivating and growing, all of which they continue to do today.

Because Seoul is such a large city, the network is divided into sub-networks by “-gu”s (districts), – so because I live in Yongdeungpo, I meet with the Yongdeungpo Network. The group consists of 30-some odd members, although I’ve only met the core group, which consists of about 7 members. Their activities mainly include:

  • Education through a reading group focused on learning about alternative agriculture, farming, and sustainability, as well as holding education programs on such topics for the general public
  • Community events such as marketplaces and movie screenings at their garden, and participating in community events with other similar organizations
  • Farming: although I wasn’t able to participate in any farming last year (and it’s now wintertime which unfortunately means a hiatus until the spring), when the season’s right the group typically gets together to farm their community garden on the weekend, growing everything from lettuce and peppers to peanuts and strawberries. The garden, which they share with others, is the only one of its kind in Yongdeungpo, so they are also looking for additional plottable land.
영등포마을축제/Volunteering at the Yongdeungpo Village Festival. We made organic eggshell fertilizer and handmade soaps.

영등포마을축제/Volunteering at the Yongdeungpo Village Festival. We made organic eggshell fertilizer and handmade soaps.

So far, I have only met with them twice. The first time, I attended the Yongdeungpo Community Festival to help staff the Urban Agriculture Network’s booth with other members. Throughout the day, we taught festivalgoers how to create organic eggshell fertilizer and held three sessions for children on how to make handmade soaps (during which I learned that “teaching” kids hands-on activities frequently means “doing it for them and then getting them to approve the final product”). It was an exhausting day (set-up was at 9am and takedown at 4pm, and no one spoke English so it was a language-intensive day indeed), but it was fun, and I really enjoyed getting to know the other members, who were incredibly friendly and welcoming to me despite the language barrier and my frequent confusion about what was going on. The second time I met with them I attended their end-of-the-year party (which I felt somewhat bad about since I had only really met with them the one time and it seemed as if I was taking credit for their hard work during the year, although I enjoyed seeing them once again). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the year’s events and also to provide feedback on how the year had gone for them as an organization, which I couldn’t contribute much to (or, again, understand -_-;;;). However, it turned out that one of the members runs a culinary experience business, and she invited me to make 메주/maeju, which is the giant blocks of crushed soybeans that are left to ferment for a year and which eventually make 된장/doenjang, the Korean soybean paste. So I spent the following day at her kitchen with her and some of her friends helping her boil soybeans, crush the boiled beans, shape them into bricks, and tying them with twine to be hung up to dry.

메지 만들기/Making Meju!

메지 만들기/Making Meju!

As someone who’s never been that into ‘green’ causes, I had very little idea going in what urban agriculture was, or what its purpose was. But through the organization, I’ve come to appreciate it both physically and ideologically. On the physical side, there’s something fun and immediate about learning how to make things and inheriting practical knowledge. It kind of reminds me of being a kid and how everyone wanted to try the hands-on activities, before we were taught to prioritize efficiency, that automation, mechanization, and mass-production can solve everything, and that more always means better. On the ideological side, I’m impressed by the way that urban agriculture links interests in the welfare of both people and the planet in an organic and fun way that transforms our relationship to both. One of the organization’s inspirations that one of the members cited to me was the success of organoponicós, or urban organic agriculture in Cuba. Urban agriculture and alternative agricultural methods gained popularity in Cuba in 1989 due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and thus, Cuba’s source of petroleum, which is required for large-scale agriculture). Without fuel imports, domestic agriculture fell by half, and problems with food scarcity developed. In response, the Cuban people began growing their own food through small farms, developing farmer cooperatives and markets, as well as organizations to train others in urban agriculture, which became a crucial aspect of realigning Cuba’s system of food production. Although the success and efficiency of Cuba’s system remains somewhat contested, the country’s rapid turnaround in production is undeniably impressive, not just with regards to creativity and innovation, but in terms of the nation’s food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. Given Korea’s own issues with food sovereignty, the urban agriculture network holds clear ties to larger questions about production, consumption, and a way of life that balances both and prioritizes an equitable relationship between the two.

회원 송년회의//End-of-the-year party!

회원 송년회의/End-of-the-year party!

Community Externships: 문턱낮은공동육아 “다같이놀자”

Part of my internship with the ISC has involved participating in community externships with three community organizations affiliated with the ISC. From September – December, I volunteered with each organization one time every month. This experience has been helpful in helping me meet more members of the Korean social movement, to learn more about different sectors of Korean-centered progressive political work (since the ISC’s focus is international solidarity movements), and to above all get a sense of what being in and part of the activist community is like here in Korea.


Mural outside the daycare center

다같이 놀자 is a daycare center founded by Korean activists with children who wanted to establish an alternative to the mainstream daycare/educational system. The story behind its inception is actually one of the best examples I know of the difference between community organizing in Korea and that in the US. Apparently, there came a time when some Korean activists all started getting married and having kids (which, after having volunteered with them, I now know means a TON more energy). In the US, this kind of thing would usually lead to people ‘taking a step back’ or dropping out of their political involvements entirely. Instead, however, these activists’ response was to ‘take a step forward,’ by which I mean they tried to see how this new development could be negotiated to come together even more closely as a community. So they decided to form a collective, pooled resources, and together started this preschool. The educational mission of the preschool is also very different from that of a typical Korean preschool. The center’s name translates to “Let’s Play!,” which is basically its premise: that young kids need freedom, and creativity, and to play. If, like me, that was what you did in preschool, this might not sound all that impressive, until you realize that some Korean preschools have kids reading, writing, and studying at the age of three… THREE! The daycare center is also intentionally small, with only 6 kids. (ranging from ages 2-6). This, they argue, is in response to the industrialization of childcare (and, later on down the road, education), where the child/student-to-teacher ratio is very high and the profit-to-labor ratio is therefore maximized. The head parent of the cooperative that oversees the daycare made the point that it’s the educational equivalent of what happened with Sewolho, linking the greed of capitalism with the exploitation of Korea’s children… and after hearing about conventional preschool and combining it with my memories of teaching in a conventional Korean high school, I have to agree.

On an operational level, the daycare does function pretty much like a regular daycare: the kids arrive by 10am, play in the morning, have lunch together, have naptime, eat a snack, play some more, and then go home around 6pm when their parents come to pick them up.


The kids’ schedule: 9-10am arrival, 10-10:30 morning greeting, 10:30am-noon playtime, 12-2pm lunchtime and cleanup, 2-4pm naptime, 4-4:30pm snacktime, 4:30-6pm playtime, and then going home to get ready to do it all again the next day!

Rather, it’s little things that stick out to me as unique about the experience. First is that instead of using names, the children call everyone by nicknames. The reasoning for this was explained to me as being in order to help the children feel comfortable expressing themselves (since generally Korean speech involves calling someone by a specific title and using honorific or casual speech when addressing them depending on their relative position to yours within the social hierarchy) – although I wasn’t sure if it was in opposition to that, or merely delaying their need to use it. In any case, the two teachers’ names are 토끼 (Rabbit) and 딸기(Strawberry). Can you guess mine?! It’s 파프리가 (Paprika! Although I recently learned that in Korean, “paprika” really refers to “bell pepper” – aka my least favorite vegetable >.<. Although being referred to as “bell pepper” by adorable little kids makes it all slightly better I guess).

Another is the level of involvement that the parents have with the preschool. Because it was formed out of their mutual collaboration and continues to be run under their shared vision, they really take ownership of it and are much more involved – for example, one of the parents is always responsible for cleaning up the space at the end of the day. They also seem to have a pretty strong community sense outside of the daily daycare duties – one of my volunteer days was spent with the parents boothing at a local community fair, and I’ve seen them meet with their kids for activities on the weekends as well.


Center’s Rules: 1: Talk nicely with others 2. Be patient 3. Help others

The center also stresses collaboration, sharing, and talking through conflict with the kids, which is something I’m not used to seeing. This part I’m not sure I always get because of the language barrier, but it does seem unique in this aspect. I was struck by the behavior of the teachers and older children and how well they were able to navigate extremely dangerous waters: preschooler conflicts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids be so intent on inclusivity, and trying to convince others to share, and saying “let’s do it together!” so often (which is not to say that they don’t have their normal selfish-kid moments and breakdowns – but still, I think it’s impressive).  The kids also only eat organic food, which is kinda cool, and is also very much in keeping with the idea that kids should be treasured and we should be actively trying to provide the best for them, not just what is convenient or conventional.

I know you’re really wondering just who these kids are exactly, so… without further ado…


신아 (left) is the oldest girl at the preschool and probably the most mature 6 year old I have ever encountered. I’ve never seen her be selfish or throw a temper tantrum or not treat her 동생s with the utmost patience. She’s also really cute and really smart.


두성 (left) is the oldest boy at the preschool and is the son of the daycare cooperative’s president. He was a little slow to warm up to me but is really spunky and loves to play. He sometimes gets so excited or wrapped up in things that he forgets to be as considerate but he is generally a good 형 to all the kids. He really likes trains ^^


건희 is adorable and I shouldn’t play favorites, but I definitely have a special fondness for her. I can’t help it… SHE’S SO CUTE! And I think I’m her favorite, too! She gets really happy when she finds out I’m there/cried once when she thought I was there and then I wasn’t. How can I not be obsessed… her favorite thing to say is “건희도!”, which is basically saying “Me too!” in the third person to everything all of the time… it kills me.


예준 is hilarious because he’s a little bit pompous despite being 2 years old. He is incredibly hard to understand and whenever I can’t understand what he’s saying to me he gives me this look like… ‘I can’t believe you can’t understand what I’m saying, what is this…’. He has a little bit of a disobedient side (naptime has been a war between him and 토끼 선생님 both times I’ve been there), but usually he runs around quite cheerfully.


아민 is incredibly sensitive: he cries every morning when his mom or grandma drops him off at preschool (which is funny because that’s what I used to do, I think… I feel you, kid), but after he calms down he is super-smiley and laughs a lot. I think he’s the youngest, and so he still has a little bit of trouble talking/doing motor function things like hand-eye coordination/eating.

During my time with them, I have volunteered two days at the preschool with the teachers, and attended one community fair, where I helped set up and staffed the booth with their parents, and played traditional Korean games with the kids when they came for their daily outing (usually they plan outings in the morning and/or afternoon during their normal days, but both days I’ve volunteered at the center we’ve been inside all day).

During that time, I would have to say that I’ve come to appreciate children for the wonderful, terrifying, hilarious, anxiety-provoking, invaluable wonder that they are. Having never spent time with young kids, I had no idea what to expect, and at times, I still don’t (really though, with kids, can you ever really completely?), but in the past few months, I have learned a couple things. I’ve realized that education begins not within the classroom but waaaay before that, when kids learn how to relate to others and what modes of interaction are or are not appropriate (playing together: yes – stealing toys/being mean: no). I’ve realized how being a teacher to such young kids requires mindfulness at all times if you want to teach kids to relate to others or behave in a non-hegemonic way. And I’ve (re)realized how crazy the world can when you’re seeing it through new eyes – although it takes a lot to remember this when cheering the kids on when they’ve stacked their 80th consecutive block and look to me expectantly for approval. But, mostly, I’ve realized how lucky I am that they were gracious enough to let me into their community and trust me with their kids, whom they value above all else!


PS – they recently started a facebook page, on which they post tons of cute pictures of the kids!

“Heralding the Death of Korean Farmers” – Korean Women Peasants Association Vice President Kyeongrye Han on the Korea-China FTA

On November 10, 2014 at the APEC Summit in Beijing, President Park Geun Hye and General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that the Korea-China free trade agreement negotiations were “practically concluded.” Kyeongrye Han is a farmer on Jeju Island and the Vice-President of the Korean Women Peasants Association. On Friday, November 21st, I and ISC Communications Coordinator Jeong Eun Hwang met with her to discuss the recent passing of the Korea-China FTA and its impact on Korea’s farmers. (Interview by Stephanie Park, Interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang). *This interview is part 2 of a 4-part expose by the International Strategy Center on the impact of the Korea-China FTA on Korean civil society.*


Firstly, why are Korean farmers opposing the Korea-China FTA?
It’s not that we only oppose the Korea-China FTA; rather, we are against FTAs of all forms. Throughout its history the government has lacked a basic vision for agriculture, and since the 1960s when industrialization started, Korean agriculture has been sacrificed more and more for the sake of developing industrial power. Even Korea’s own agricultural and trade policies happen at the expense of Korea’s own agricultural industry. All FTAs destroy Korean agriculture. Korean farmers know that the FTA and government policies will kill them; they know it, instantly.

As for the Korea-China FTA specifically, China has a lot of arable land, and production costs there are much lower than in Korea (anywhere from a fifth to half of the cost). China is also geographically very close, much closer than any other country Korea has signed an FTA with; they also produce almost exactly the same types of produce as us. Because of these factors, even the smallest openings of Korea’s market to China will have a huge impact on Korean farmers that may be impossible to recover from.

For example, currently there are Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) in place for Chinese products; produce and meat should be frozen or processed – nothing live. This is so that if there is contaminated produce or livestock, Korea can halt trade. While the measure is currently still in place, China is pressuring Korea to remove it, and both have committed to renegotiate its terms in the future. Removing this provision will remove the primary barrier to Korea’s livestock and fresh produce. Typically, products should be quarantined and checked, a process which takes two-three days, but if the measure is removed, the process would be shortened to just a few hours, making it easier for Chinese producers to penetrate the Korean market with more perishable items. If it is renegotiated, fresh fruit, vegetables, and livestock will be able to enter the country from China, and one of the last measures to protect Korean farmers will be gone. China already produces 70% of Korea’s agricultural imports without the FTA; if the FTA takes effect, it will destroy Korean farmers and Korea agriculture completely.

As a farmer, how do you feel the impact personally of the FTAs?
I farm 120 cows at a time; before the KORUS FTA was signed, I received a reasonable price for them at the market. But since then, the price continues to steadily decrease. The government subsidizes those who can’t continue farming because the money they earn does not recoup production costs – but that will stop this year. I and other farmers can no longer be guaranteed our livelihoods through farming. If the market continues to open, this uncertainty and decrease in our welfare will just continue until we have nothing left.

The Korean government is arguing that this is the smallest opening of the agricultural and marine products market amongst all of the FTAs it has signed, and thus sees its negotiations as a victory. What do you have to say to that?
First, it’s necessary to point out that the content of the agreements have not been fully released, so the accuracy of the statement can’t be verified. It’s true that from what we have seen so far, the government did try to protect agriculture, and it’s true that the concessions they made are less than we had expected. However, such facts are nevertheless meaningless: even without the FTA, China already has such a large presence in our agricultural markets that even the smallest opening will cause irreparable damage. Furthermore, they may have protected agriculture now – but after ten years, they are supposed to agree to lowered tariffs, and after twenty years, there are supposed to be almost no tariffs. So in the long run, it’s impossible for the government to say they care about Korean farmers and agree to sign the Korea-China FTA. It’s merely the difference between killing Korean farmers swiftly now or dragging it out over the next two decades.

What about the argument that the future of Korea’s agriculture actually lies in exporting agricultural products to China, or in processing internationally imported agriculture into Korean processed products to then be exported internationally? Do you think that idea holds any merit?
That idea is so ridiculous it seems almost childish. China’s processed product market is already incredibly competitive – their range of products is so wide, and they already have lower prices than Korean products. Korea wouldn’t be able to compete in the Chinese market. Furthermore, the people making that argument have their own biased motivation for doing so. One of the major proponents of this idea is Kim Jae-soo, the CEO of the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation (aT), which is an organization that imports Chinese products and distributes it into the Korean market. The Korean government is supposed to be responsible for dealing with food supply and demand in Korea; for example, if they predict a shortage, they are supposed to import food to make up the difference. However, even if they make an error and miscalculate, they still release the Chinese products into the Korean market and drive Korean farmers’ prices down. So the passage of the FTA benefits groups like aT. Honestly, it’s because of people who think like this that we’re in the predicament we’re in now!

What actions are Korean farmers taking to protest the Korea-China FTA?
The Korean and Chinese governments will finish negotiating the agreement by the end of this year; after that, it will be passed to the National Assembly to be ratified in 2015. Our plan is to stop the ratification. The full contents of the agreement have yet to be released, but as it will include negotiations with industrial production, it will also have a powerful effect on small and midsized business enterprises, as well as workers. Despite the emphasis here in Korea on chaebol[1] companies, they only employ 20% of Korea’s workforce; the other 80% comes from small and midsized businesses. So clearly the FTA is not only an issue for farmers, but for laborers and entrepreneurs as well. Consumers are also wary of Chinese products because of health and safety issues in the past. We plan to come together to form a coalition and struggle together to pressure the National Assembly not to ratify the agreement. The important thing that we’re considering now is how best to mobilize all groups, from farmers to workers to consumers. So far, the FTA problem is largely considered a farmer’s problem, a specialized problem, but in reality it’s not – it affects all sectors.

What would be a better alternative to the FTA? What is Korean farmers’ vision for the future?
The biggest problem is that the Korean government doesn’t have a vision for the future of agriculture. They ignore Korean agriculture, because in their mind, it doesn’t have competitive potential in the international market, so it’s not worth their energy or attention. But food shouldn’t be in the hands of the global economy. It’s Korea’s responsibility to provide its people with safe and healthy food, and its laws and regulations should reflect that. There was an assemblyman who proposed a law that would guarantee food security – it’s currently stalled in the National Assembly. But basically, the government would purchase basic produce from farmers and sell it to consumers for a reasonable price. This is my vision; that farmers’ livelihoods, farming production costs, and the future of Korean agriculture are valued and protected by the law.

Why should people internationally care about this development? And how can those that stand in solidarity with Korean farmers best support them in this struggle?
We need to focus not only on the Korea-China FTA, but the bigger picture. In Korea, the government is pursuing all of these FTAs because they’re attempting to join the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership[2]. Under the TPP, there would be no tariffs allowed on any agricultural products, which would be disastrous for Korean farmers and Korean food sovereignty. Internationally, these agreements only benefit the more powerful countries – the lesser countries shoulders the impact, which they do in the name of overall ‘economic gain’ – but it’s not a fair exchange. In Korea, Korean farmers and workers are the ones to absorb all of the negative impact. Agreements like FTAs and the TPP are all about neoliberal economic policy; they benefit the 1%-ers of the world, but bring a lot of suffering to the 99%-ers of the world. Therefore, as human beings, it’s obvious that we have to oppose them, and international activists need to spread awareness that FTAs and the TPP is only in the interests of transnational capital, not people.

[1] Term for large Korea’s business conglomerates

[2] The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed regional free-trade agreement. As of 2014, twelve countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region have participated in negotiations: Australia, Brunei, Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam. Korea expressed interest in joining in November 2010, and was invited to negotiating rounds by the US after the conclusion of the KOR-US FTA in December 2010.