South Korea is a country of rugged and unsurpassed beauty, covered with mountains, surrounded by seas. Its people are some of the warmest and most generous on earth. Its culture is ancient, refined, and filled with vitality. There is little crime here—cars are left untended and running, house doors unlocked, and goods out in the open. For a westerner, the way Koreans trust one another seems at first naive, almost childlike. Soon one realizes this is the way things should be. Spending a year in a country with its social fabric still largely intact is endlessly refreshing
The attack began at dawn today and lasted until late afternoon. Under a hail of metal bolts and stones from Ssangyong company thugs, liquid tear gas dropped from police helicopters, incessant loud music and an all-out assault by police commandos armed with steel pipes and taser guns, the occupying workers at the Ssangyong auto factory in Pyongtaek, South Korea, have held out for one more day.
Obviously one is struck by the enormous difference between the two accounts of South Korea. One account appearing on a website specialising in recruiting TEFL teachers for jobs abroad and the other, an eyewitness account of strike-busting, reported in the British Trotskyite weekly, Socialist Worker. We raise the difference between these two accounts because we want to make sense of the complex events occurring inside South Korea in relation to the recruitment and treatment of native speaking English teachers (NESTs). Treatment which appears to be a campaign of well-orchestrated discrimination and harassment of NESTS, a campaign which is not reported on the sites of TEFL recruitment agencies like Transitions Abroad, Cactus TEFL or English First but a deadly serious issue nevertheless. A campaign which involves constant media accusations of criminal activity and which has culminated in visiting teachers being subjected to HIV testing. We also raise these two accounts because in trying to make sense of these experiences, we are faced with either viewing them through the prism of “cultural differences” (as in the world of Transitions Abroad) or understanding these so-called cultural differences in the light of class, race and gender politics.
A History of Imperialist Domination
The first point to be made is that South Korea is a relatively recent fragile bourgeois democracy, it enjoyed considerable “military and economic support” from the US during the cold war and, in particular, America’s proxy war with China and the Soviet Union during the 50’s (there are still currently some 37,000 American US service men and women in South Korea).However, it has grown more economically advanced and the relationship between the two is undergoing changes. On the one hand, America wants a harder line against the North Korean government and a greater financial subsidy from them for its own occupying army and, on the other, there has been an increase in nationalism in South Korea, which wants the government to exercise more sovereignty over its domestic and foreign policy decisions. The decision of 30th October 2009 to resend troops to Afghanistan was clearly an attempt to appease its American allies in light of continuing disagreements between the two.
Indeed, history shows that American Imperialism (in its role as “defender” of Korean interests) has exercised an enormous influence over the Korean Peninsula. It was America which effectively sold Korea to the Japanese in 1905 in return for the unchallenged exploitation of the Philippines ( see Taft-Katsura Agreement) Moreover, having successfully provoked Japanese imperialism’s entry into the second world war and emphatically crushed it thereafter, the US was able to grab the South of the country in 1944. Unfortunately for the US, the leader of an insurgency against Japanese forces, Kim II Sung, supported by the Russians, had managed to establish himself as leader of the North. In 1950 (after failed negotiations over reunification) Sung led a reckless incursion into the South and was repelled by the combined forces of the US and South Korea. Hopes of advancing northwards, however, were effectively stopped by the entry of Chinese troops into the conflict. After three years and up to two million deaths later the war ended in stalemate, Korea remaining divided North and South, with Soviet and Chinese imperialism on the one side and American imperialism on the other.
The Economic Miracle.
From 1960 to 1990 South Korea was one of the four Asian Tiger economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan being the others) and it had the second fastest growing economy in the world. It was what was termed a newly industrialized country, in that it had successfully industrialised and had shown itself capable of “competing” with more advanced nations, a fact which appeared to challenge Lenin’s theory of imperialism and Dependency Theories, which suggested all such countries were doomed to a life of poverty, providing only raw materials for the richer more advanced countries. Both views of course, were over-mechanistic and, Lenin’s view in particular, was that of a specific period in capitalist development. What cannot be denied, however, is that capitalism has established an international division of labour, whereby, countries “lower down the value chain” generate profits which are realised elsewhere. We again return to our favoured example of Michael Jordan being paid more money to sponsor a sports shoe than the total sum of annual wages received by all the workers in Indonesia actually manufacturing the shoes for the world market. It cannot, and should not, be ignored, however, that certain states have enjoyed considerably more success than others at marshalling resources towards independent economic development. Indeed, this is part of the contradiction of capitalist development, despite its tendency towards the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the need to generate new surplus involves capital opening up space for competitors (competitors who are not necessarily hampered by investment in out-dated technology or subject to organised class resistance). Of course, the unequal exercise of import and export quotas, the control of financial institutions like the IMF and the use of copyright etc are all used to maintain advantage for the advanced capitalist “core”. What has to be recognised in the case of the four Asian Tigers from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and China today, is that this domination is not total, rather it is partial and dependent on a number of complex geo-political factors.
If one ignores, for one moment, Immanuel Wallerstien’s obsession with Krondatieff cycles and merely considers them capital looking for investment opportunities in a time of low profits, we can agree with him when he says:
…………at first several zones compete vigorously to be the prime beneficiary of this relocation. But it is also normally the case that only one such zone is in fact able to do very well, since there is only so much production activity to relocate, and there are economic advantages for producers in concentrating the relocation in one area. The basic picture thus is one of opportunity for several zones, but great success for only one of them. I remind you that as recently as the 1970’s, when the term NIC’s was invented, most commentators listed four countries as the most significant examples: Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan. But by the 1980’s, Mexico and Brazil began to be dropped from the list of examples, and in the 1990’s we hear talk only of “the rise of East Asia.” It is thus clear that it is East Asia that has been the great beneficiary of the geographical restructuring of this Kondratieff B-phase.
Of course, we must also explain why it is that East Asia was the great beneficiary rather than, say, Brazil or South Asia. Some scholars attribute the present rise of East Asia to its history over the past 500 years: either the Meiji Revolution, accounted for in turn by the commercial development of the Edo period (Kawakatsu Heita) or the China-centered tributary system (Takeshi Hamashita). However, it can be plausibly argued that, as of 1945, the economic situation of Brazil or South Asia was not in fact all that different from that of East Asia, and that therefore one could plausibly have expected either of them to have made a surge forward in the post-1945 world. The great difference between East Asia on the one hand and both Brazil and South Asia on the other was the geography of the Cold War. East Asia was on the front line and the other two were not. Hence the view of the United States was quite different. Japan was a very great economic beneficiary of the Korean War as well as of direct U.S. assistance. Both South Korea and Taiwan were supported (and indulged) economically, politically, and militarily for Cold War reasons. This difference in the 1945-70 period translated itself into the crucial advantage for the 1970- 1995 period.
By 1990 the rapid economic growth of South Korea had come to an end and it became enmeshed in the stagnation faced by other Asian economies, most notably Japan. Dependent on finance from the IMF to fund a struggling export driven economy, it faces a tough economic squeeze which brings it into conflict with a student and trade union movement which developed during more profitable periods. It is worth addressing these contradictions of South Korea in the world economy because, despite its “successes”, it still trails considerably behind its more advanced competitors and this helps explain why South Korea is still keen on attracting NESTs and why they, despite their lower levels of training, are paid not only more than local non-NEST teachers but more than many South Korean doctors. It is understanding these contradictions which will help guide us to a proper understanding of the problems faced by both NEST and non-NEST teachers in South Korea.
A Thin Veneer of Democracy.
In 1948, the American government recognised the new government of Synghman Rhee. The government was virulently anti-communist and trade unions were illegal. Indeed, South Korea was run by such an autocracy until 1960 when a burgeoning civil rights movement, composed of workers and students, toppled the government and brought about democratic reforms. Unfortunately, these reforms were short-lived as the government was overthrown by a military coup in 1963. In 1979 some semblance of democratic rights was restored but to a position prior to 1960 and not the legalisation of a left-wing opposition or independent trade unions. It was not until 1995 that anything resembling a modern bourgeois democracy was established. The new government took a less hostile attitude to North Korea, instigating a sunshine policy, but was also more avowedly nationalistic and not afraid of challenging certain aspects of American foreign policy (most notably the Iraq war). This new state nationalism, however, in its various manifestations is profoundly conservative with respect to the role of women. It also argues that trade unions should accept labour-market restructuring in order to build a strong independent Korea. When the behaviour of NESTs is spoken about in the Korean parliament it is precisely because politicians are attempting to construct a notion of Korean identity which suits the need of capital accumulation in a time of crisis. This nationalism, however, is not an imposition from the top but a cynical manipulation of years of resentment experienced by a people in an occupied country.
Early anti-foreigner resentment was, not surprisingly, aimed at American Servicemen and women. In 2002 when two soldiers ran down two Korean schoolgirls on their way to school, despite apologies from the US government and compensation paid to the families, Koreans took to the streets to protest. Photographs of the girls’ battered bodies were posted on subway walls and one American soldier was stabbed to death by one particularly “aggrieved” citizen. It did not help that the two servicemen escaped punishment but clearly this is not the common response to a “traffic accident” but an outpouring of years of hostility to occupation and humiliation. For those accusing us of Anti-Americanism, we would remind people that we refer to the policies of consecutive American governments which supported right-wing governments on the basis that these tyrants served “American interests”. We are not referring to Americans in general whose own interests were not served by those same consecutive governments either.
Much of this anti-foreigner hostility now seems aimed at NESTs. First was the discovery that many teachers employed in local academies were “unqualified”. By this we mean that they did not have a university degree. Now there is an argument within TEFL as to whether teaching English as Foreign Language requires a university degree (especially as any degree, chemistry for example, seems adequate for those requesting such a qualification). One can see, however, that in a country where people study hard for many years to obtain qualifications, that they might resent people who complete a short four-week “training course” and have no other qualification to teach other than they were born in an English speaking country, actually being `paid to teach. This resentment is further compounded by the fact that such teachers can command a higher salary than those Koreans who have dedicated considerable years to their professional development. Again, this is not to dismiss the considerable qualifications and experience, not to mention knowledge of Korean language that many NESTs bring to their teaching, but to identify the roots of ill-feeling that certain Koreans (especially non-Nests) may harbour towards “foreign teachers”
The second “scandal” which has generated problems for NESTs is the appearance of “saucy photos” and “dating tips” on social networking forums and English Teacher websites. Despite the obvious puerility of such behaviour, as said before, state nationalism promotes a conservative view of Korean women, these pictures and discussions have been used to expose the “predatory nature of Westerners”. They have also been pretty disastrous for many Korean women involved but then again there is a long history of TEFL adventurous putting the reputations and lives of “friends” in foreign countries at risk.
It is against this background that the newspapers have run campaigns against NESTs arguing they are responsible for criminal activity and that their sexual predatory natures are putting the nation in danger. It is also little surprise therefore that the nationalist government feels able to insist that visitors undergo an HIV test before being granted contracts in schools, even though native Korean teachers are not subjected to the same rules.
NESTs have established a “union” ATEK (Association of Teachers of English in Korea) to campaign for NEST interests which has also been attacked vociferously in the media. Founding member, Tony Hellman, found himself subject to a particular campaign from nationalist “netizens” (people using the net to expose wrongdoings) and more conservative minded teachers who felt his campaign was making things worse for more established teachers. The intense public attacks (whether true or false) effectively silenced Hellman but ATEK, taking a markedly more moderate stance, continue to operate. What is clear is that ATEK made mistakes in its initial months, especially in its failure to canvass the opinion of more established (F1Visa) NESTs, but this does not mean political quietism is the solution.
The future of NESTs in South Korea ultimately rests in its ability to garner support from the wider community. Like immigrants suffer in the countries from which NESTs originate, they too face marginal status. On the one hand offering economic benefits to parts of those societies but also providing an easy scapegoat for unprincipled politicians wanting to shift blame and focus which should rightly be placed on them onto others. Despite the essential role immigrants play in the American and British economies they are blamed for a lack of social cohesion; similarly we constantly here the words American jobs and British jobs for American and British workers. This marginalisation and fear makes it easier to exploit such workers.
Unfortunately, the trade union movement itself is facing its own problems in dealing with the Asain economic crisis and it resorts to conservative and nationalistic solutions. One of the problems of the trade union movement is that it is base on enterprise unionism rather than industrial unionism. Instead of confronting Capital it seeks to insinuate itself in its management problems (i.e. participating in human resources and investment committees) This how the Marxist economist Martin Hart-Landsberg puts it:
Union members are becoming increasingly isolated from the broader concerns of working people. The main reason is that unions in South Korea are enterprise unions. And, the degree of unionization is highly correlated with the size of the enterprise. While the largest workplaces, those employing over 1000 workers, make up only 2.7 percent of all unionized enterprises, workers employed at these enterprises make up 61.2 percent of all union members. Thus, most KCTU (Korean Confederation of TradeUnions) members are regular employees in the country’s largest manufacturing corporations. They therefore enjoy higher wages and better working conditions than most workers.
The enterprise system also works against the efforts of the KCTU to promote unionization at small and medium-sized workplaces. Workers at these enterprises do not have the resources, human or financial, to sustain active organizing campaigns or unions. The KCTU itself is unable to help. The federation has limited resources and the large member unions have been reluctant to share funds for activities that do not directly benefit their members.
This has had a particularly adverse affect on women, who have been particularly effected by the irregularisation of the labour market (non-permanent contracts rose from 42% in 1997 to 54% in 2005), and they have sought to build their own trade unions capable of representing women. Clearly what is needed, however, is a linking together of struggles across industries and gender to resist the neo-liberal onslaught. Of course, business owners are arguing that unless there is significant labour-market restructuring, they will relocate their factories to China. Only an approach rooted in the interests of the international working class can deliver any hope of self-determination as the bourgeois nationalist project is, and always will be, about curbing rights and aspirations and following models of other capitalist countries.
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union is a part of KCTU and it too has suffered reverses. Again while it cannot be criticised for developing political positions, in particular its policies towards North Korea, such politics will be undermined if it fails to organise rank and file resistance to the attacks its members are suffering. Indeed, its nationalistic turn has meant that members are easily and mechanically drawn towards witch-hunts against foreign teachers rather than seeking to work alongside them. The quality of a teacher should not be defined in terms of their nationality but the skills, experience and attributes they bring to the job. The linking of NESTs and Non-NESTs can only strengthen resistance.
Whilst NESTs harbour feelings of cultural superiority or subscribe to views that America Foreign policy is benevolent to the Koreans they only alienate themselves further. Many NESTs already dissociate themselves from such propaganda and seek to help ordinary Koreans define themselves in a new ever-changing world. These NESTs have taken the time to learn the language and integrate themselves, where possible, with the local communities. For such teachers, Korea is not an adventure, or a blank page on which to write the next glorious history of International English, but an engagement with complex social forces which are transforming them as teachers and as human beings.
Such teachers need to work with the global resistance against TEFL adventurers (the new colonialists) who design and administer these rotten four week TEFL courses and dispatch the naive around the globe. They need to help counter the racist propaganda of Cactus TEFL and their ilk, who proudly display their Aryan soldiers clutching the globe and consuming countries. They need to say that TEFL is a career, that NESTs have got a role in foreign language teaching but only as qualified teachers with a grasp of local languages and working alongside local non-NEST teachers and the local education systems. In short, we need to stand side by side with those who are fighting for basic rights, those who are having tear gas poured on them by police helicopters and enduring attacks by paid company thugs rather than wrap ourselves in convenient myths of an exotic inexplicable other.