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South Korea: Anger Over Free Trade Agreement and Media Silence

Rallies have been held daily in the South Korean capital of Seoul for two weeks now, protesting against the country's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, which was ratified by the National Assembly of South Korea on November 22, 2011. Citizens have expressed deep discontent with the government and the ruling Grand National party, for ramming though the agreement despite strong public opposition, as well as a distrust of the mainstream media who rarely report on any anti-FTA protests.

Reports on the protests

The most recent protest on December 3, gathered several thousand protesters [ko] across the country. One of South Korea’s most influential citizen journalists, Media Mongu (@mediamongu), tweeted [ko] a photo of the protest:

Image of Anti-FTA protest by @mediamongu

Image of Anti-FTA protest by @mediamongu

#noFTA lockerz.com/s/161589038 광화문광장으로 향하던 한미 FTA 반대 시민들의 행렬이 청계천 동아일보 앞에서 경찰에 막혔습니다.

#noFTA lockerz.com/s/161589038 A rally of anti-FTA citizens heading to Gwanghwa Square blocked by police in front of the Dong-a building in Chenggye area.

The Media Workers Union (@mediaworkertweeted [ko] a video and photos of the protest:

Anti-FTA protest by @mediaworker

Anti-FTA protest by @mediaworker

종로1가 대로 경찰병력에 고립. 경찰 사방에서 해산경고 방송 중. 사거리 일대 시민들 가득 지켜보고 있음.pic.twitter.com/yyfK9pf8

The protest was blocked by police in the main street at Jongro 1-ga. Police are sending warning messages from every corner to diffuse the protest. Citizens standing near the crossroad are all closely watching this scene. pic.twitter.com/yyfK9pf8

Kwon Soo-hee (@tkawlsdlftls) tweeted [ko] that although the authorities blame the protest for causing traffic jams in the busy streets of Seoul, it is in fact the police and their over-reaction that is creating the problem:

교통체증도 경찰이 먼저 도로를 점거하고 버스를 줄줄이 대니까 그렇지요. 버스를 타고 지나가다 보면 버스에 타고 있는 사람들도 FTA반대집회에 참여는 못하고 있지만 경찰 욕을 엄청 합니다.

The traffic jam was caused by police. It is the police who first blocked the road and parked police buses in the road. When I passed by those places on a bus, the people riding with me – though they could not participate in the anti-FTA protest -blamed the police a lot.

As intense protests continue and are unlikely to die out soon, net users have been sharing tips [ko] on how to stay safe and how to respond to police investigation. Bak Chan-hong (@mindgood) tweeted [ko] the public defenders’ phone numbers in each province.

For and against

Although the government, the ruling Grand National Party and most mainstream media claim the FTA with the United States is crucial for the export-dominant South Korean economy, some liberal media, citizen journalists and activists stress that it profits only the few huge corporations directly related with the export, whilst negatively impacting small local businesses.

They have also expressed deep concerns over toxic clauses in the agreement, such as the investor-state dispute (ISD) system, which permits an overseas investor to sue the country via an international dispute settlement agency.

The majority of normal citizens are voicing strong opposition and silent elites have started speak out too. Judges who usually take conservative sides and rarely express their opinion in public have criticized the deal. Last week, one senior judge's long Facebook post [ko] criticizing the current president and the free trade agreement with the United States came under fire. The Supreme Court has decided to refer him to the ethics committee for violating political neutrality.

Warning the agreement could undermine the nation’s judicial sovereignty, about 170 judges have signed a petition [ko] requesting the Supreme Court form a task force to re-negotiate the deal, which they plan to file soon. Bak Chan-hong (@mindgood) sided [ko]with the judges’ decision:

판사들의 한미FTA재협상 요구가 거세지자 외통부는 충분한 이해가 없이 발언했다고 반박했군요. 그런데 외통부는 수백건이 넘는 협정문 번역오류로 국제망신을 당했지요. 이 정도면 이해부족보다 더한 자질부족이지요.

As the judges’ demand for a re-negotiation of the trade deal has got stronger, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has fired back at them that they have made comments based on their “poor understanding” on the issue. But what about the Ministry's record? They are the ones who have internationally embarrassed themselves by making several hundreds of translation errors. The Ministry's [gaffes] are so much serious than just a “poor understanding”, it is a matter of “lack of competence”.

Well-known movie directors have publicly denounced the deal and lampooned the authorities. After the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade commented “if stepping on me [an expression of strong determination that they would do anything to make it work] would help end controversies surrounding the trade deal, let them do that”, famous movie director Jang Jin said [ko] on the South Korean Saturday Night Live television show, “Many people wish to know the exact location and time [for the literal 'stepping on']. We encourage participation from our audience.”

Mistrust of mainstream media

The mainstream media’s silence has further fueled public anger, with many people looking to international media for reports on the deal. One group has translated a long New York Times analysis [ko] from English to Korean and one net user posted a Japanese scholar’s analysis on online citizen media via the WikiTree site with Korean subtitles.

South Korea’s most popular satirical podcast show, ‘I'm a Petty-Minded Creep’ (Naggomsu - read a Global Voices article about the show) has become more popular then ever, reflecting South Koreans’ deep mistrust of the mainstream media.

Image of the Naggomsu Concert in Seoul, Twitter picture by @ddanzi

Image of the Naggomsu Concert in Seoul, Twitter picture by @ddanzi

On November 30, Naggomsu held a open-door talk concert in Seoul, as a way of protesting the trade deal and lampooned the president and political heavy-weights with allegations. Over 50,000 people showed up. The police, however, estimated the number of crowds at around 16,000 people.

Net users, such as Kim Seung-gyu, negates [ko] the police's claim. (See this fantastic photo of the talk concert that shows how large the event was, from South Korean grassroots online media outlet, OhmyNews)

내 회사퇴근하고 칼퇴근하고 거기갔소 추운날씨에 정말많이 왔소[...]내 숫자를 잘몰라 세어보진 못햇지만 그게1만6천이면 내 확신컨데 한국인구는 2000천만정도일거요. 내 좌파는 아니오만 좌파라치고 이번엔. 거리로 나가야하오.

As soon as I finished my work, I went there [to the concert]. Despite the cold weather, so many people have showed up. [...] Though I could not actually count the numbers, if one counts that crowd as 16,0000, then the Korean population would only be around 20 million [the South Korean population is actually around 50 million]. I am not really one of those ‘lefties'. But under this situation, let's say that I am one, because it is time to go out to the streets.

Well-known professor and vocal critic of the president and the ruling party, Tak Hyun-min (@tak0518), was the concert director and he issued an embargo on journalists and reporters from mainstream conservative media, including Dong-a, Chosun, Joongang and Yonhap. These media companies have became extremely unpopular over the years for allegedly feeding people with biased, pro-government views on almost every issues.

Mr. Tak tweeted [ko]:

제가 기존언론사들과 몇개 찌라시들을 공개적으로 취재금지 선언하는 것은 당신들의 한계와, 의뭉스러움과, 거짓말을 알기 때문이고, 그걸 알고 있는 내일의 관객들이 맘상할까 싶어 미리 막는 것입니다. 그냥 공연을 보세요.. 그건 환영이니까.

The reason why I officially ban coverage of some of you mainstream media and propaganda machines is only because I know your limitations, your fishiness [dubiousness] and your lies. And it is also because I want to protect the audience from getting hurt by you. If you will just watch the show – then I would welcome your presence.

Naggomsu may hit a snag soon as the government tightens its control online. On December 1, the Korea Communications Commissions pressed through a bill that forms a new censorship task force team for filtering messages on social media and mobile applications.

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