Manifesto from the Suyu Research Institute on the S.Korea-USA FTA plans – The Twilight of Empire?

Dear colleagues,

Below I put the English text of the manifesto penned by two of the most promising post-nationalist scholars I know in South Korea, namely Dr. Ko Byeong-gweon (고병권) and Prof. Yi Jin-gyeong (이진경), both affiliated with Suyu Research Institute – an autonomous community of post-nationalist scholars, many of whom are working on the early modern period. The manifesto, dealing with the pressing issue of the planned conclusion of the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) between ROK and USA, raises questions, which are of great significance for the whole “progressive” (use this word for the lack of a better term) movement in South Korea (and elsewhere). What is the real strategy beyond promotion of the FTA by the empire in (arguably, terminal) decilne? Why does the ruling bureaucracy in South Korea prefer to ally itself economically, in the form of FTA, with the “old”, declining hegemon, instead of making the best out of its growing interdependence with the new, regional hegemonic force? Will the logic of almost unconditional support for Pres. Roh’s camp, simultaneously pursuing the strategy of co-optation of North Korean bureaucracy and following the imperial agenda on the FTA issue, divide and split the left-nationalist camp into “unification activists” (playing down their anti-US sentiments so far the USA does not harm Pres. Roh seriously) and an “anti-American group”? I personally do not agree with some of the theses proposed by Dr. Ko and Prof. Yi, but the manifesto is an interesting and thought-provoking reading, showing very well the directions of “progressive” thought in S.Korea today.

Vladimir (Pak Noja)

Concerning the Encroachment of the U.S.-South Korea FTA

Yi Jin-gyeong, Ko Byeong-gweon

The Twilight of Empire?

Has the age of empire begun? Or, is the twilight of empire approaching? What is clear is that the U.S. is no longer the sole center of the world economy. Europe has succeeded to a degree in creating an economic bloc independent from the U.S. with the launching of the Euro system. Through the construction of a regional system of confederated states, the E.U. now has the economic and political stature to confront the U.S. Central and South America used to be the U.S.’s backyard, but, despite its various strategies, they have now taken their first large steps, with Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina in the lead, towards establishing independent states, and are even drawing a battle line of socialist solidarity in opposition to the U.S. On the other hand, China , through its socialist market economy, is swiftly growing out of its status as the world’s factory and is quietly presenting the possibility of a regional economic bloc free from the U.S. The possibility of an East Asian economic bloc or the possibility of a new regional economic bloc that would include ASEAN, which caught some interest within the Korean government as well, should not be thought hollow. Is it possible that East Asia is, as some world-system theorists predict, becoming a new center that will eventually replace the U.S. ? Although the U.S. is making quick attempts to strengthen ties with India and to devise changes in its military and political strategies toward China , these efforts are too late to stop the rise of China .

These circumstances show clearly that the U.S. ‘s central position in the world economy is now confronted differently than before. Not only that, but the U.S. economy is gradually showing signs of a crisis that is difficult to control. The huge military apparatus that is supposed to maintain “imperial control” has extricated itself from the logic of state politics and economy and is moving according to the logic of military self-expansion, pushing the whole state toward this logic. The “War on Terror,” in place of the Cold War, brings the state itself under a military organizational mechanism, and calls for a transformation to a type of absolute war, to a system of endless total war. In order to maintain this system, the state is pouring a huge amount of funds into the military budget. In 2007 the amount apportioned to the budget of just the Pentagon is $439.3 billion. This figure does not include funds for the Iraq war and the funds used in other departments for purposes actually related to national defense. Taking these into account, the national defense budget exceeds $750 billion and according to some estimations reaches $2 trillion. Because of this, the budget deficit already exceeds 6% of GDP annually (approximately $400 billion) and the accumulated deficit has reached $8 trillion.

The U.S. ‘s huge trade deficit already exceeds $725 billion per year. Manufacturing, excluding the weapons industry, has already been in decline for a long time and capital has been monetized and roams the entire world searching for speculative profits. Furthermore, the savings rate is registering negatives. Investment and consumption are in a state of excess relative to savings. This gap is plugged by supplemental printings of the dollar and printing bonds. In short, the U.S. economy is functioning in a manner in which the capital in the civilian economy is being monetized and is active through speculative capital that crosses the borders of the U.S. and is separated from production, while the state prints dollars and bonds to pay the huge price for the military and maintains the consumption of the citizenry through the importation of foreign goods. As Rosa Luxembourg said long ago, it is a system that maintains, through force, dollars, and loans, an economy made insufficient by wasteful military spending. Therefore, the value of the dollar falls very low and if the dollar holdings of a few countries are decreased slightly, there is a danger that the value of the dollar will go into a slump. However, in this situation the value of the dollar cannot be raised, either, because of negative trade earnings and debts.

In the past, it was possible to decrease debt and trade deficits through artificial depreciations of the dollar (according to the Plaza Agreement of 1985), but in the current situation when currencies such as the Euro can be substituted for the dollar, such attempts can threaten the position of the axial currency (dollars) itself. The opening of oil markets in Iran that use the Euro rather than the dollar as the currency of settlement is one case that shows that the seriousness of this situation has reached a critical point. Still, the Iraq War and other unproductive expenditures for war and the military are being increased rather than decreased. Therefore, even in the U.S. many people, such as Chalmers Johnson, have already begun to predict collapse: “The day of judgment has already arrived.”

Empire and its Neighbors

Is the U.S. really heading toward collapse? Is the twilight of empire really approaching? The smallest certainty is that the is has become impossible for the U.S. to continue the same economic position as before. One thing that reflects these circumstances is that before the Iraq War the U.S. ‘s political and military demands met with refusal in Europe and the majority of countries. A defensive multi-polar system has become unavoidable. Following Europe’s establishment of a huge community, the EU, the U.S. also attempted to establish an American community that would be a huge regional union. However, after the bad precedent of NAFTA gave huge political and economic burdens to many countries in Central and South America, they refused FTAs with the U.S. and secured independent positions politically as well. It seems that the U.S. ‘s dream for an American community has become a failure. Furthermore, as the Iraq war drags on, it is gradually worsening the economic and political burdens of the U.S. , and gradually increasing Islamic nationalism augurs that the Middle East may become an enormous quagmire for the U.S.

Japan, while it gained economic profit from the U.S.-centered system, helped to maintain it (a huge portion of Japan’s economic profits are administered by U.S. national bonds), but as it underwent a long ten year depression of the yen following the Plaza Agreement, its economic power very suddenly weakened. It is still maintaining a strong position in cars, but it has already begun to yield its firm position at the forefront of the leaders in industries such as electronics. There is good reason to explain Japan ‘s nationalist antipathy against Korea and China as rooted in the “feeling of deprivation” that occurs with economic decline. This is further weakening the political position of Japan in East Asia . On this point, there is no need to discuss at length the fact that it has become impossible for Japan alone to provide any political or economic checks on China . On the other hand, in this situation Korea ‘s relationship with China was gradually strengthening both economically and politically (mediated by relations with North Korea ). If close ties were to take shape between Korea and China, then even if Japan holds up under its relationship with the U.S., in the event of a decrease in the economic and political strength of the U.S. in East Asia, won’t the possibility grow dramatically for connections, forged through a state solidarity, that are opposed to the U.S., or at least that have left behind its strength of influence for other partnerships? This is one possibility that the U.S. likely wants to avoid the most.

The U.S. is, on the one hand, obtaining agreements concerning “strategic flexibility” and completing the strategic transformation of its military, and is, on the other hand, attempting to construct new bases as the military strongholds of another strategic transformation aimed at China . We can understand the integration of the bases of the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea in P’yeongt’aek, which can connect with harbors and airports, in light of this emerging network. The U.S. is currently transforming its military strategy, expanding the scope of possibility for its military operations to the battle zone of East Asia. The intention to move forward in the direction of strengthening offensive flexibility and mobility is certainly part of the same network. The strengthening of economic relations with Korea can by no means be unrelated to this network as well, because, as the government itself says, it is advancing from the standpoint of an alliance between South Korea and the U.S. that includes the status of the military. The above are the international conditions that determine the U.S.-South Korea FTA.

Riding the Last Train of an Empire in Wane

The fact that the U.S. is still not quieting its aggressive tone toward North Korea , even as it maintains the framework of six-party talks, is not simply a threat aimed at North Korea . It is also aimed at the South Korea government, which is resting its fate on improvements in the North-South relationship (included in connection with the North-South relationship is also the importance of checks against China, which would like to strengthen its political ties with both countries, and South Korea in particular). For its part, the Roh Mu-hyeon administration, which had declared its autonomy from the United States in matters of diplomacy, urgently reneged this declaration and chose the strategy of moving North-South relations forward through strengthening its union with the United States. It is not very difficult to read into this a “sense of duty” to block any attack against North Korea by strengthening its relationship with the U.S. . The paradox is that it must block the danger posed by the U.S. by agreeing to a security union with the U.S. !

Such a situation, in which the participating governments use extreme expressions like “all-in” and the name “participatory government” becomes shamefully exclusionary, is not unrelated to the propulsion of the U.S.-South Korea FTA. As government bureaucrats so lovingly boast, the U.S.-South Korea FTA is both an economic alliance and a security alliance. However, it is really unknown whether or not the agreement can really make the Korean peninsula safe and peaceful, because the immediate safety provided by the U.S. is preparation for a long-term uneasiness with China . From this point of view, the fact that China is now quickly strengthening its relationship with Russia , and at the same time increasing its distance from the U.S.-South Korean relationship, is not a common everyday occurrence.

At a certain point within the Korean economy, “the Chinese opportunity” (the attempt to use the frightening growth of China as a motivational force for the development of our economy) became “the Chinese threat” ( China is already pursuing us and threatening our survival). Let us set aside the crude power games going on amongst the bureaucrats concerned with this change. Let us concede one hundred or a thousand times and say, following Roh Mu-hyeon’s words, that we should

increase the economic strength of our service industries in order to cut off the “threat” of Chinese manufacturing. However, if this is truly the only problem, better than the FTA, which is a comprehensive economic integration agreement that puts our whole society in danger, is the DDA, which can guide the move to advanced service technologies under profitable conditions (of course, the U.S. is strongly opposed to this agreement). Here lies the reason that it is impossible to understand the U.S.-South Korea FTA in strictly economic terms. We must pay particular attention to the fact that whether or not those in charge of the South Korean government know it, the road map associated with the FTA is now proceeding alongside strategic transformations in the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

What we would like to say to those in the government who dismiss the opposition to the U.S.-South Korea FTA as “defeatism” is that what we are more worried about is not a “failure” in the negotiations, but “success.” Even if the U.S.-South Korea FTA “turns out well,” because of the acceleration of economic integration between the U.S. and South Korea , there will be greater links between the two economies, and thus the fate of the two economies will be tied together. However, if we look at it from the point of view of the world economy, it is a matter of “riding the last train” in order to take advantage of the emerging imperial economy. It is a matter of paying a huge boarding fee for an aircraft carrier that is already starting to sink (is it that difficult to distinguish between a setting and a rising sun?). Even if one does not accept these predictions, it is clear that the agreement still means being incorporated into the direct sphere of influence of the U.S. economy, which always has the potential to experience crises, symbolized best by the tandem of deficits and fluctuations in the price of the dollar. As can be surmised from the case of Mexico , which went down this road with NAFTA, this means being deeply in a relationship in which the crisis of the U.S. economy will be quickly be transformed into a huge crisis that will shake the whole Korean economy. For example, during the intermittent economic stagnation in the U.S. economy in 2001-2002, which was not at all serious, the Mexican economy showed reductions in both employment and production ( Mexico ‘s GDP decreased by 1% and its per capita GDP by 2%; at those maquiladoras with direct connections to the U.S. , production and employment decreased by 9.2% and 20% respectively). Furthermore, if we are cognizant of the fact that the U.S. can only maintain the power of its economy through war, colonization, and militarization, then just as the U.S. public is supporting military expansion for economic reasons, this indicates again the distinct possibility that South Korea could at any time, even if for economic reasons, get sucked into the anachronistic militarism that insists on supporting its wars and its military development.

US-South Korea FTA, a strategic choice!

One of the major claims that supports the U.S.-South Korea FTA is that China has grown into a threat. But why is China ‘s growth a threat to South Korea ? This claim is a clear indication that South Korea identifies its situation with that of the U.S. The growth of Chinese economy is threatening to the U.S. , which sees it as a threat to the status quo in the global economy; but it is not a threat to Korea , which can “successfully” enter the Chinese market and turn this opportunity into a driving force for enhancing its economic power. It is threatening to the U.S. government, which interprets it in political and militaristic terms and sees it as a factor that weakens the U.S. influence in the global community; but it is not a threat to the South Korean government, which has used China as a middle ground for mediating North-South Korean relations.

One can criticize the South Korean government’s defeatist strategy of giving up on manufacturing industries and present Japan’s case as a case of penetrating the Korean economy and connecting Korea’s growth to its own opportunity to grow. However, the fundamental question here is not “how do we respond to China ‘s growing threat?” The assumption that renders such a negative interpretation of China ‘s growth as an inherent threat is precisely what is more problematic. Should it be pointed out that the attempt to find a new driving force for Korea’s economic growth from the U.S. will inevitably fail, if it is only equipped with the desire to identify with the U.S. and lacks the insight to see the U.S. as one of the variables? Are we not too caught up in the rosy vision of strengthening the service sector and forgetting what it really means to give up manufacturing industries? Is there a place for manufacturing workers and farmers in an advanced economy propped by the service industry? Can a sixty-year-old farmer suddenly dream of having a career as an investment banker or a consultant? Will there be enough room in those fancy banks, law firms, and consulting companies for those who get laid off? Should we put up with sky-rocketing unemployment rates as an inevitable sacrifice for economic advancement? Then, who benefits from this “advancement”? For whom is this U.S.-South Korea FTA being established?

The U.S.-South Korea FTA seems like an ideological choice rather than a strategic one, a decision to choose “Americanism.” Is the FTA not in fact a sum of collective interests attempting to clinch the terms of trade? However, President Roh Moo-hyun proclaimed that “the U.S.-South Korea FTA must not be hindered by collective interest.” This proclamation is a obvious indication that his choice is an ideological one and not (at least in his wishful thinking) overshadowed by the interests of the people. He probably feels indebted, as a former activist, to make some large contribution to North-South Korea relations, and toward the devotion towards Americanism that drives the current administration to turn deaf ears to the demands of diverse interest groups and the outcries of the masses (including the farmers).

The fact that ideological choice replaces strategic and practical choice becomes a more grave and fatal problem when we consider who those bureaucrats are that are pushing the U.S.-South Korea FTA forward. Korean democracy today is rapidly becoming a technocracy. Technocrats are taking over the control from people and pushing their decisions by creating a “state of exception” that justified by whatever excuses they can come up with. They are increasing their control by stating that the current situation is a state of exception in which ” Korea will fall behind” if “it does not conclude the deal urgently.” They make their decisions behind closed doors because the strategy must not be exposed before the negotiations begin. The national assembly is utterly helpless and has provided moral and theoretical backing, not just leverage, to the technocrats. They are in fact more ignorant about the FTA than the masses. A system of technocracy is slowly settling in which even the president gets reports after the fact and is persuaded by the arguments that the technocrats present. Yet, these technocrats, who claim that they are not tied to any ideology and work solely for the benefit of the public, have fabricated data and sold a financially sound bank for a cheap price in order to obtain their immediate interest. In a technocratic society, facts are revealed too late, when everything is already irreparably damaged. Can we speak with any confidence that US-South Korea FTA will be any different?

Are we not falling into an uncontrollable situation? Can we really trust the patriotism and morals of the technocrats any longer? Can we be certain that they are not biased by Americanism, even when they try not to be biased by their interest or certain ideology? Their knowledge, scholarship and judgment are molded in the United States . They either studied in the U.S. or have lived under the strong influence of American scholarship. Thus, even when they firmly believe that they are making an objective judgment unaffected by ideology, the basis of their judgment is thoroughly American. This is what enables them to push the U.S.-South Korea FTA forward with less than a year’s preparation.

In the name of “nation”… again?

Of course, this is not the only reason the U.S.-South Korea FTA is pushed forward with such a strong drive. The Roh administration tried to do something that could go down in history as a great accomplishment, only to fail. It needed to present some tangible results during the little time left for Roh’s presidency. One of Roh’s favorite expression “all-in” is probably the immediate reflection of this mentality. Progress in North-South Korean relationship may have provided a quick answer to this problem. Holding a second summit meeting and expanding the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, particularly the latter, must have seemed like excellent win-win strategies. That is, not only can South Korea use North Korea’s labor at low cost and still sell the products manufactured in Gaeseong to the U.S. as “Made in Korea,” but it has the justifiable cause that it is providing an economic outlet for the North Korean economy, which has suffered a long depression and is still working under conditions much easier to regulate than places like Shanghai. This could be the “economic” reason that the government is pushing the FTA so vigorously behind the closed doors, despite the great cost.

This may also provide a reason that some activist groups in South Korea , whose identity is characterized by “national liberation,” are not leading the anti-U.S. movement, but standing by the government’s decision with “conditional support” at a time that calls for the strongest anti-US movement. They are willing to support a decision that allows the North Korean economy to find a way out, even if it means signing the U.S.-South Korea FTA. They also hope that this could be an opportunity to reduce the tension between the two Koreas and induce arms reduction, thereby cutting down the budget of national security and turning it into a resource that could resolve social polarization. Those who took an anti-U.S. in the name of the nation and unification are now standing by the U.S. for the same cause. How can we understand this strange irony?

If this is taken further, US-South Korea FTA may cause a rupture within the nationalist camps. How can we be certain that there will not be two nationalist dispositions: one, that of anti-U.S. and the other, that of a re-unification movement. In this case, U.S.-Korea will also be remembered as the starting point that caused the nationalist camp to stir and split. If I take my concern one step further, this may be the threshold where the turn takes place from the typical modern assemblage of Korean nationalism into a right-wing ideology. Right-wingers in Korea were previously pro-U.S. anti-Communists with nothing to protect but their immediate interest; however, they may be replaced by typical right-wingers who are hailed by the nation. Is it so strange to imagine that these nationalists will take the place of conservatives in South Korea ’s political geography? Is not the emergence of national liberation groups without an anti-U.S. sentiment a symptom that “nationalists not against the U.S. ,” if not “pro-U.S. nationalists” are beginning to gain importance in South Korean politics?

Now is the time to think who the subject of struggle should be and what rights we should demand during this struggle. Concerning the subject of struggle, the U.S.-South Korea FTA is raises an important question for us. Our struggle should not be limited by the faded national liberation struggle, because it is not desirable to interpellate the nation as a subject of struggle. As it has been pointed out before, the ambiguous position that some nationalist groups are taking can be a potential threat to the struggling front. If the reasons we are protesting the FTA with the U.S. focuses on national pride or national independence, our protest will undoubtedly lose its course when issues such as the North-South Korea summit meetings, North-South Korean economic negotiations, or the six-party talks come up.

Another problem with interpellating nation as the subject of struggle is that it may conceal the disastrous effects of the FTA that is “yet to come,” effects which diverse minority groups in our society are “already” experiencing. The U.S.-South Korea FTA, which seems to have taken us by surprise, has been tailing the young, the disabled, women, migrant workers, non-regular workers, and all the creatures of the tidal flats for a much longer time, under the guise of GDP, market competition, neo-liberalism, and the calculation of economic profits. We must realize that our society has encouraged or neglected the exploitation of these minorities. The unimaginable scale and intensity of disaster that the U.S.-South Korea FTA entails will be the messenger that will inform us that the pain of those minorities that we have overlooked can become our own. Hence, the struggle against the FTA should start not from the nation, but from the minorities, the masses, and the multitude.

More than anything, we must face head on and engages in struggle with the problems in our life, the people’s lives, and the lives of all the living creatures that would be devastated by the U.S.-South Korea FTA. We must look at the major collapse of the farming population, the threats presented by genetically engineered food and environmental problems, and the questions of medical, health, labor, and cultural independence entailed by the FTA. Rounding up these collective interests as one, we must protest against the fallacy that everyone’s interest will be protected by the FTA and the idea of a universal interest promoted by a gross economic standard such as GDP, or ideological concepts such as the North-South Korean relation. And we must think and act through more concrete problems that involve every facet of our own lives. We must take this struggle as a struggle to protect and achieve the rights of life and the rights to life, and take it as an opportunity to reconsider the struggles of farmers at Daechu’ri, P’yeongt’aek, who want to continue living on the land they have lived on, and the survival of tidal creatures, which were pushed to near extinction under a cloak that insisted that development would provide for their right to life.

If we do not lose our focus and momentum in this struggle, the expected damage of the U.S.-South Korea FTA will provide scattered Korean activists with an opportunity to collect their power and work together for the same cause. The movement will start from their own interest, but it will be an opportunity to unite and reconsider others’ interests as one’s own, the survival and life of other living creatures as our own, and an opportunity to channel these unions into a passion towards revolution. The line of struggle that has gathered up in three month’s time would be living proof for this prediction.

On the contrary, bureaucrats make decisions behind closed doors, because the incompetence of bureaucrats can be clearly displayed to the conservative side and the ruling party, as well as to the masses, by virtue of its lack of convincing content or resources, which cause a stir in the middle classes. We can deploy a struggle that may accomplish a tangible result in the long term, while the bureaucrats have not been prepared and have no negotiation tactics other than just opening up, and the conservatives insist that FTA must be done when they do not even have any genuine interest in or concrete knowledge about the specifics of the agreement. The only complication involved in struggles against them would be that they have so little content that there is not much to attack.


  1. There’s an assumption in this manifesto that doesn’t seem entirely justified: that a free trade agreement with the US indicates an alliance or alignment of interest that precludes close ties with and growth in other directions. Given the US’s status as the largest consumer base in the world, there’s a strong economic argument in favor of access, and that access could well be a lever for South Korea to expand its connections with other Asian economies which want greater access to the US economy….

    That said, I’m not a huge fan of FTAs as their generally implemented, which cut deeply into domestic policy and become, as noted, anti-democratic instruments.

  2. This assumption may have something to do with the policies of S.Korea’s Blue House – simultaneously awarding the S.Korea-based US forces the “strategic flexibility”, which in plane English means a permit to launch actions against Chinese/Russian block from the Korean soil, and pursuing the FTA, which amounts to a sort of economic alliance. Although the economic alliance as such does not necessarily imply any sort of arrangement against a third part, the actual policies of Roh’s administration include both economic alliance AND continuation of the military protectorate status in the “post-post-cold war” conditions – and the latter thing may be dangerous in the long run. You see, the first time the idea of the neutralization of Korea was voiced, by Yu Kiljun and others (German diplomats, for example), was in mid-1880s, but then, Korea was just too weak for going its own course in the shark-infested waters. But now, I think, it is in full position to survive on its own, and that may be the safest thing to do.

  3. I thought this site was supposed to be scholarly, instead we get manifestos by socialists? Not that the professors don’t have an interesting point of view, to some degree, but isolation for Korea is not the way to go economically. And this idea of going it alone is noble, but delusional. Korea is surrounded by major powers and when push comes to shove, nobody in the region (besides the US) will listen or care what Korea thinks in the event of political, military or economic disaster in the region. Its fine to go it alone, if you can remain isolated from the fray, but Korea is at the center, it has no choice but to be involved.

  4. I like the McCarthyite tone of your first sentence Snow. Professors who are also socialists! Shock horror. String ’em up!

  5. Didn’t think the article was advocating nationalism or isolationism Snow… Anyway, that aside, there was this article in the Korea Times last week that shows a bit of Roh’s ambivalent approach to neoliberalism, or maybe an attempt by him to salvage a progessive image by pursuing neo-keynsian policies.

  6. Snow’s point is well taken. There are a variety of blogs offering Korean political opinion pieces. Why add another?

  7. I am reading this post 2 years later — 2008. I am wondering how the new approach toward the 6 party talks by the Bush administration is changing the responses by anti-US South Korean activists. It seems this return to Clintonian “friendly” approach both toward China and NK is symbolic of some of the US’s own declining ability to threaten war in Asia. How has the SK progressive scene responded to this? Is there a sense that the liberal tendencies of NK issue is raising up the contradictions of different views toward capitalist among the Korean left?
    Curious, thanks for the info regardless

  8. also, pak noja, i am curious to know where you disagree with this thesis.
    seems like the game to play big powers off of one another has been a failed project for korea, and many smaller asian nations for that matter. would this be any different?

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