The Straight Talk on the Trans-Pacific Partnerships Agreement

What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement?
The Trans-Pacific Partnerships Agreement (TPPA) is a free trade agreement being negotiated by 12 countries in Asia and the Pacific. The negotiations involve not only the reduction/elimination of tariffs but also regulatory and policy issues such as increased intellectual property rights, regulation of government procurement (i.e. government buying), investor privileges, and environmental deregulation. In these regards, the TPPA goes beyond a trade agreement and into domestic regulations and policies.

Who are the 12 countries involved?
The TPPA was originally an open trade agreement between Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, and Brunei that went into effect in 2008. This meant that while these four countries began the process, other countries would also be allowed to enter (i.e. ascend) into this agreement. The scope and participation of this agreement was expanded with the US playing a leading role. The countries in negotiation, in order of economic size, are: United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei. South Korea has expressed interest in joining. Notably absent is China.

Why is China absent?
As the leader of the TPPA negotiations, the United States is pushing for a trade agreement that will force participants to adopt economic and development standards favorable to it. Many of these standards go counter China’s development and economic model. Thus we come to one of the unofficial yet widely accepted truths about the TPPA: its role as an economic pillar of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy of isolating/containing China while re-strengthening US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

China and the United States are at different stages of development and have different development and economic models. First of all, the US is a major producer of cutting edge technology and pharmaceuticals and, thus, has interests in strengthening intellectual property rights. However, given China’s need to catch up technologically with the developed nations, stronger intellectual property rights would limit its access to technology. This is even truer for developing countries with lower levels of technology. By protecting their technological knowledge, the developed countries lock in the development gap between the poorer and richer states. Secondly, the state plays an important role in regulating and directing China’s economy. The opening up of government purchasing (i.e. “government procurement”) and limiting of governments’ favorable treatment towards state owned enterprises (i.e. completion clauses) run counter the planned elements of China’s economic and development model. The US is not explicitly banning China; given China’s growing role in the world and US economy, doing so would be a political and economic liability. However, the US is attempting to design a TPPA that would be unfavorable and difficult for China to participate in.

What’s so bad about the TPPA?
Simply put the TPPA grants agribusiness, corporations, and investors greater rights, privileges, and access to foreign markets. This is great news if you have industrial sized farms, cargo ships that can traverse oceans, insider information about currency exchange or stock markets, great amounts of money to invest, or factories abroad. If you don’t, this is horrible news. Granting the wealthy few even greater rights and immunities to exploit the rest of us can only impoverish and dis-empower us.

Regardless of the current practice of democracy or the actions and policies of our current governments, government is meant to be a vehicle for people to promote their interests and safeguard their needs. Yet, by granting investors and corporations supranational rights, immunities, and access to domestic markets, the TPPA weakens the government’s ability to regulate corporations and investors or to consciously develop and guide the economy on behalf of their people.

One of the most toxic of provisions under discussion is the Investor-State Dispute System (ISD) which limits the scope of policy making by allowing investors and corporations to sue (or threaten to sue) governments against legislation that hurts their profits. They do this not through the legal system, but through international arbitration that is inherently biased towards investors. Let that sink in: foreign corporations and investors can circumvent the legal system and file lawsuits for taxpayer money in extralegal courts that favor them.

For a list of the nitty gritty of the bad of the TPPA take a look at our World Current Report_Jan.2014 p. 26

Won’t the TPPA at least create more jobs?
It may create some jobs, but it will ultimately eliminate many more and drive down wages and working conditions. Twenty years after NAFTA came into force, a million jobs disappeared from the US. Many of these jobs went to Mexico in the form of sweatshop jobs. Furthermore, the flooding of cheap subsidized US corn drove 1.5 million peasants out of their land and forced them to join the unemployed in the urban centers. Who won? The corporations that got to exploit cheap Mexican labor and large subsidized US agribusinesses. Who lost? The millions of Mexican farmers that were forced off their land and the million workers in the US who lost their jobs.

Don’t be fooled, the ability of investments to freely travel between national borders benefits only those that can do it. In fact, the ability to freely move money across countries makes it harder for governments to create regulations and policies that protect their citizens. This is because free mobility allows corporations to pit one country against another and demand less regulation. It sparks a race to the bottom. Countries have to compete to provide the cheapest labor and the least regulations in order to attract or retain capital. That means more low-paying unstable jobs and less protection from corporate misbehaving.

I’m already struggling with low wages; won’t the TPPA help make things cheaper?
Sure, things might get cheaper, but how will that be any better if it also means you will get paid less, become more economically insecure, and your power to do something about it will decrease. Worse, the entry of cheap subsidized food into poor developing countries will collapse peasant food production. As with the case of corn in Mexico (its birthplace), the collapse of domestic agriculture will force countries to import their basic foods making them highly vulnerable to the fluctuations of global food prices. In 2008, when global food prices spiked, riots broke out as poor hungry people took to the streets. As climate change intensifies and sends ever more shocks to the world food supply, relying on import for foods can only lead to food insecurity. The answer for farmers AND consumers is food sovereignty which allows domestic farmers to survive and which safeguards domestic food supply. The TPPA with its elimination of tariffs would dismantle any such policies. When we look at free trade agreements like the TPPA, we need to examine them in their totality, not just in terms of cheaper kiwis and pineapples.

If the TPPA is so important why haven’t I heard about it?
That’s because the TPPA negotiations have been kept from the public. Even legislatures voted by the people to make laws and policies have been shut out of the process. Furthermore, those that do participate in the negotiations must sign an agreement to keep the content of the negotiation secret for four years after the agreement comes into force or collapses. This allows a 4 year buffer from political repercussions: elected officials would be able to re-run for office; the issue would slip from the public consciousness. On the other hand, 600 corporations have been part of these negotiations as “advisors.” Let that sink in: Corporations can participate and “advice” government negotiators, but legislators, that represent the will of the people, are shut-out.

What little is known comes from leaked negotiation documents and educated guesses based on countries’ motivations, levels of influence, and past trade agreements. In particular, as the giant in the room, US interests and past trade agreements (especially the Korea-US FTA) have a strong influence on what a final document may look like.

If it’s so bad, why is my government doing it?
First, there is a lot of corporate and investor lobbying for passing these agreements. For example, developed countries such as the United States want to strengthen intellectual property rights. In particular,US pharmaceutical companies want to extend their patent imposed monopolies on life saving drugs so that they can charge higher prices. As any introductory economics class teaches, monopolies always produce less than the amount society requires. That’s because contracting supply, allows you to increase prices by intensifying demand. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a big problem if we were talking about luxury Gucci bags, or sports cars, but when we are talking about expanding monopolies (through extension of patents) on drugs that treat AIDS, we are talking about people’s lives.

Developed countries also want to secure rights for their investors to minimize risk and maximize and extract short-term profits from developing countries. Some may think any investment is good, but short-term speculative ones are not. They not only fail to contribute to long-term development, but their rapid entry and exit into and out of countries can be disruptive and even fatal to economies as the 1997 Asian IMF crisis shows.

Developing countries are also heavily lobbied by their corporations who are hoping that access to foreign markets would yield greater profits than selling to their too-poor-to-buy population. Thus, export based production allows the ruling class a way around dealing with growing wealth inequality and poverty in their countries.

Beyond corporate interests, there is also a market logic that reinforces the need for free trade agreements: production, and the jobs and wages connected to them, depend upon the ability of a small percentage of the population that holds the means of production to make a profit (i.e. capitalism). In these instances, GDP grows, but so does inequality and suffering. That’s because free trade agreements give greater freedoms and power to get wealthy to the wealthy. In other words, wealth is generated, but it fattens the pockets of a few.

This market logic is not a given. In fact, one of the areas in the world paving a path to a new politico-economic and trading system is Latin America which was first ravaged by unbridled market logic. Countries in Latin America, led by Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia are creating new models of trade and exchange such as the Bolivarian Alliance of Our America (ALBA in Spanish) that are centered on people’s needs and built upon cooperation and solidarity between nations.

Alright, you got me all worked up. What can I do?
We need to build a movement against the TPPA. This involves breaking through the media blackout and demanding that our governments be transparent about the full implications and realities of the TPPA. One of the ways that we plan to do that in South Korea is through a TPPA international forum of activists and intellectuals from April 16 to the 18. We expect that President Barak Obama’s visit to Korea in April will be when President Park Geun Hye declares Korea’s joining of the TPPA. We intend to stop her.

Democracy Amidst Division

In the run-up to the 2012 December presidential election, the Psychological Operations Division of the National Intelligence Service (formerly the KCIA) ran a two year smear campaign against the opposition presidential candidates involving 22 million Twitter posts (30% of posts in Korea) generated from 2,653 fake accounts. Further investigation revealed that the Ministry of National Defense’s Cyber Command and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs also intervened in the elections via the internet by promoting Park Geun Hye and smearing her opposition. In Korea, the internet is a powerful tool in shaping public consciousness. In 2008, mass protests spontaneously erupted against US “mad cow” beef imports sparked and then mobilized by netizens through internet bulletin boards.

Yet, even after such clear meddling in elections by government agencies, investigation and prosecution has been obstructed and derailed by the Park Administration: one prosecutor (under surveillance by administration officials) was pressured to resign after a personal scandal was leaked to the media; another was removed; and only a portion of the evidence (the known Twitter posts) is under investigation. When public pressure against the slow progress of the investigation intensified, the NIS countered through various media stunts; chief among them were its investigation for armed insurrection against National Assembly Member Lee Seokki and the disbandment of the Unified Progressive Party.

Why Lee Seokki?
Lee Seokki is a member of the National Assembly for the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) – the party which was most critical of Park GeunHye in the 2012 presidential elections. Lee Seokki came into national attention after allegations of voter irregularities during the UPP internal elections for proportional representatives. Korea’s national legislature has a proportional representative system in which a portion of the 300 seats are allotted to political parties based on the number of votes they receive as a party. The candidates for these positions are ranked by the party. If a party wins 1 proportional representative seat then the first ranked candidate becomes proportional representatives; if it wins 2, then the first 2 candidates; if 3, then the first 3; and so on. The political parties have the freedom to decide how to fill these seats. Unlike the Saenuri and United Democratic Party who appoint their candidates, the Unified Progressive Party ran an internal election by which party members nominated and voted for the candidates to determine their ranking. Allegations arose of irregularities in these elections. When they became public on May 3 2012, the scandal dealt a heavy blow to the UPP, and as the leading progressive party, it also dealt a blow to the progressive movement.

Red Herring
Within the backdrop of intensifying public pressure against the NIS and a weakened progressive movement, Lee Seokki and the Unified Progressive Party became easy targets for political repression. On August 28 2013, NIS agents raided the home of Lee Seokki. Their investigation for armed insurrection made national headlines. A month prior to the raid, the NIS had been investigating Lee Seokki for the lesser violation of the National Security Law, yet at the time of the raid, the charges had been changed to armed insurrection. The contents of Lee Seokki’s discussion with others shocked the public. On September 4 2013, without a hearing, baited by the conservative Saenuri Party against the backdrop of a charged public, the National Assembly passed a bill stripping Lee Seokki of the immunity granted to National Assembly members. On February 17 2014, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for conspiring to carry out an insurrection even as the court acknowledged that the discussion between Lee Seokki and others had not progressed to a detailed plan.

With the internal election scandal and the armed insurrection among its members, the Unified Progressive Party has become an easy target for the Park Administration’s political witch-hunt. The Park Administration is attempting to legally dissolve the UPP because its principles and objectives “are in line with North Korean-style socialism, which goes against the basic rules of free democracy.” In short, the Park Administration is fanning the public’s fears and anxiety to dissolve the UPP for its political beliefs. The last time a political party was disbanded was in 1958. If repeated, it would topple the freedom of expression and the right to collective action essential for democracy. It would deal an existential blow to opposition parties by eliminating one of the Park Administration’s most vociferous critics.

The Conservative Trump Card
Red-baiting and the threat from the north have been used ever since the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South. During the dictatorships, civilian and military, from the 1950s to 90s, the division and state of war justified repression of all dissent. Workers, students, peasants, and countless others were jailed, tortured, killed, or terrorized under the banner of national security. In many instances those executed were later found innocent. The most flagrant example is the 1975 execution by Park Chung Hee (Korea’s longest running dictator) of eight people accused of organizing a People’s Revolutionary Party and convicted of insurrection less than 24 hours after their appeal was rejected. In 2007, they were posthumously exonerated, and it was revealed that the “People’s Revolutionary Party” was a fabrication of the KCIA. In 1980, national security was used to invoke martial law by Chun Doo Hwan. It squashed the nascent democratic spring following the assassination of Park Chung Hee. Chun Doo Hwan then killed thousands of protestors demanding democracy in Gwangju and sentenced Kim Dae Jung (the opposition party leader from the Jeolla region and later the first opposition party member elected president) to death for sedition. It would be 18 years before an opposition party candidate would topple the ruling one.

Even after dictatorship ended with direct presidential elections in 1988, the National Security Law (NSL) remained which criminalized “any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization.” It has been used to disband organizations, incarcerate activists and intellectuals, shut down websites, censor, and instill fear. Like McCarthyism in the United States, it limits political discourse by narrowing the political spectrum in favor of conservatives. Even during the period of greatest engagement with North Korea, Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun could not abolish the National Security Law: it was too deeply rooted in the trauma of a generation that survived the Korean and Cold War, and a population still living in an unresolved war. The National Security Law is a symbol not only of the unresolved Korean War, but also of the unrealized Korean democratization.

Peace is the Way
If the division is so detrimental to Korean society, why does it remain? Why has peace been elusive for so long? It is because war justifies US presence in Korea and consolidates and mobilizes the conservative political base. Even during moments of improved inter-Korean relations with the continuance of reunions for separated families in North and South Korea, policies and actions remain that aggravate the division and impede the path to peace. Key is the annual US-South Korea military war exercises which practice the infiltration and occupation of North Korea. No meaningful dialogue for peace between North Korea, South Korea, and the US can occur when these existential threats to North Korea continue.

Next year will be seventy years since the Korean people were divided by the United States. This earns it the World Guinness Record for longest running division in the world. Next year, women from around the world will march for peace in the Korean Peninsula. The rest of the world needs to join them for the unresolved trauma, the unrealized democracy, and peace and stability in East Asia and the world.