Prayer

She loved another. Or rather she liked another, for she loved me but as a brother and comrade. She’d stated so. Plagued by thoughts of that other, I lay restless in bed. Hours passed with no sleep, desperate, I sat up and recited aloud, “God give me the power to change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I asked God she find someone good to love and that they love her. I asked that I find someone too, and I prayed for peace and calm. As I lay praying, I slipped into the darkness of sleep held in God’s outstretched hands.

Growing pains

Trying to become generous, patient, and courageous is not easy. I must stretch my heart/soul/character past its limit to fill this larger form. Yet, if change were easy, if it simply flowed from my current state, then how would it be change?

Hungry

What is it about a song that strikes the right chord and you find yourself obsessing over it. Listening to it again and again, countlessly. And after you’ve squeezed out its soul, you toss aside its empty rind. Move on to another song driven by hunger.

“A look in somebody’s eyes
To light up the skies
To open the world and send it reeling
A voice that says, I’ll be here
And you’ll be alright”

#latestobsession

Blowing off the dust and start writing again…

It’s been a long time since I posted anything in here. From now on, I will start to put my thoughts and musings here rather than on Facebook. I think that makes sense. I believe my vulnerable and at times semi-philosophical musings do not necessarily fit the ethos of Facebook. They must be jarring when set against people’s photos and postings about their kids and about what they ate and have done. So, I make a move here. While it’s unclear how many people will read this, writing in here, I imagine, may ultimately be like whispering into a stone. Yet, I hear people whispered their musings into stones. I imagine, much like me as I type this, that there was some sort of release of the soul.

My first musing…
I realize that often I am mean and petty to those closest or to those most important to me. My insecurities and deep felt fears make me small and they make me lash out at those around me especially at those that exercise great influence and power over me. I suppose this is a good realization. It means that now I can deal with it.

Today, this week, I will not be mean and petty. By myself I have not the power to overcome my limitations. So, I ask the supreme being (which I will call God for facility) to grant me the power to be a generous and kind man, to love and embrace those around me and beyond. Maybe I speak to a universe devoid of such being, and am simply calling forth the best versions and the power of my subconscious, maybe embracing God (where no such God exists) is like going for broke within myself. Saying I will leap against my barriers and limitations in full faith that I can smash through. I will do so blindly, with faith in something out there. Maybe it is such faith that despite an empty universe makes one succeed. Imbued with the strength of a mother wrecked by betrayal and divorce, I call forth the words she uttered as she fought back against her sorrow and depression, “My life starts today.”

Chingusai: The Seoul City Hall Lobby Occupation

image001

On December 26, Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song visited the offices of Chingusai (“Between Friends”) a Gay Human Rights organization for sexual minorities, to interview General Secretary Lee Jeong Geol about the Seoul City Hall Occupation that took place December 6-12. The occupation was protesting the City’s abandonment of the Seoul Charter of Human Rights and Mayor Park’s statement that he did not support homosexuality to a gathering of Presbyterian pastors.

Founded in 1994, Chingusai is the longest running organization for Gay men. It [along with the Lesbian organization KiriKiri (Lesbian Counseling Center in Korea)] was born out of Chodong (abbreviation of a four character Korean saying equivalent to “Birds of a feather flock together”) the first sexual minorities human rights organization created in December 1993. It organizes Gay men in order to eliminate discrimination against sexual minorities and guarantee their human rights. Lee Jeong Geol began going to Chingusai as part of its Gay Chorus in 2003. He started working there in 2009. In 2011, he became general secretary.

In the late 90s, the sexual minorities movement focused on coming out and letting Korean society know about their existence. In 1997, it focused on reforming school textbooks to remove homophobic materials or misconceptions about homosexuality. It also struggled together in the creation of the National Human Rights Commission Law. Since 2000, they started the Queer Parade while also debunking misconceptions around AIDS. While it failed to pass, in 2006, there was a struggle around the Transgender Gender Correction Law. In 2007, there was the Discrimination Prevention Law struggle. Through that struggle Rainbow Action was created.

What was most striking about the Seoul City Hall occupation was its defiance and openness. I’ve heard that in the past, people marched in the Queer Parade with face masks. In the Seoul City Hall occupation, no one was wearing masks. What was the significance of this?
We were forced to express our outrage through the occupation: City Hall had given up on the Seoul Charter of Human Rights; in addition, on December 1st, Mayor Park told a gathering of Presbyterian pastors that, as mayor, he did not support homosexuality. It all happened within the same week. To express our outrage, we occupied City Hall. In the process, we had to reveal our identities. This wasn’t something that just happened overnight: Korea’s Queer parade started in 2000. At the beginning, people came wearing masks; the changes happened in those 14-15 years: The number of people coming out to the streets increased; those that thought it part of their activism to reveal their identities also increased. That is why people started to take off their masks.

This was the second time we did an occupation. The first was at the City Council Chambers at the end of 2011 during deliberations on the Student Human Rights Ordinance: we’d heard that the sexual orientation component would be dropped. We came ready with a few masks because some individuals needed it given the likelihood of media presence. This time we prepared masks again, but no one asked us for them. We felt we needed to show a dignified face.

What do you think is the significance of this second occupation within the sexual minorities movement?
Mayor Park is a human rights lawyer. That’s why people were outraged when he stated that he does not support homosexuality. We thought it was time to make a point clear: Homosexuality is not about being pro or con, it exists. We started the occupation because it was time to have the discussion around the human rights of sexual minorities.

How did the occupation of Seoul City Hall start? Who called for it? What triggered it?
Despite the fact that the Seoul Charter of Human Rights, which included a provision around sexual orientation, passed on November 28th, the City announced on the 30th that it could not accept it due to disagreement within the Citizen Committee. They were effectively nullifying the Charter of Human Rights. That’s why on December 1st, sexual minority organizations and civil society groups held a press conference demanding its passage.

The group that organized it and brought the occupation together was Rainbow Action, a coalition of sexual minority groups that holds ongoing discussions on dealing with homophobia, systemic issues, and legislation. We discussed with civil society and human rights groups whether or not to take action. We discussed this again after a December 4th article on Mayor Park’s statements. After discussions until 1-2 AM on the night of December 5th, we decided to occupy City Hall. 

Seoul City Hall Lobby Occupation by Rainbow Action and Allies

Seoul City Hall Lobby Occupation by Rainbow Action and Allies

Why do you think Mayor Park Won Soon refused to include LGBTQ rights into the Seoul Declaration of Human Rights?
Since August until the 28th of November, after 6 rounds of talks, empowered by the City, 150 citizen and 30 expert commission members ratified the Human Rights Charter. It was mandated by the Human Rights Ordinance passed in 2012. Provision 12 states that: “The City of Seoul needs to make efforts to ratify a Human Rights Charter making Seoul into a Human Rights City.” The Human Rights Ordinance doesn’t actually specify human rights values or content, it simply puts someone in charge with Human Rights and establishes a Seoul Human Rights Watcher. There was nothing specific about how Seoul would become a human rights city.

To accomplish that, they wanted to create the Human Rights Charter. Unlike the Ordinance, which had legal force, the Human Rights Charter is more like a mutual agreement between people without legal force. While the City only had ambitions for being a human rights city, they realized that the actual content needed to account for political considerations. It was from this point on that they were unwilling to take responsibility for the content

Upon discussion on how to best create this Human Rights Charter, the Seoul Human Rights Commission suggested that the City create it with citizens. The 150 citizen commission members were selected from applicants in each district based on gender and age. The expert commission was composed of activists in human rights organizations, or academics in human rights centers. These two commissions formed the Citizen Committee.

About 200 members of anti-Queer groups shut-down the  November 20 Public Hearing

About 200 members of anti-Queer groups shut-down the
November 20 Public Hearing

However, the problem was that Christian hate groups applied and were accepted into this space. They made discussion impossible. Within this Citizen Committee process, there were two rounds of public discussions. In both rounds, these groups blocked discussion. On November 20th, there was a public hearing. They came and disturbed the public hearing with violent comments and acts. That’s why the public hearings failed.

No city employees were present at the public hearing. Ultimately, they didn’t have the will to do something. When we went to the City and asked why they hadn’t done anything, they responded, “We did do something. We called the police, but they just didn’t show up.”The City did not address this violence. It had felt the pressure. It had been plastered with phone complaints and negative online comments from these hate groups

What were you trying to include into the Human Rights Charter that was being opposed?
If we examine the Discrimination Prevention component of the National Human Rights Commission Law, it prevents discrimination based on migration status, medical history, race, skin color, gender, family status, criminal conviction, etc. This also includes sexual orientation. Hate groups ask, “Why do we have to enumerate the types of discrimination [in the Seoul Charter for Human Rights]? Wouldn’t it be better to just state that that all people in Seoul should be discriminated against?” This was just the same as saying they wanted to exclude wording on sexual orientation and identity. Also, because the National human Rights Commission Law does not include discrimination based on sexual identity which would also include transgender people, we wanted to include that here [the Seoul Charter for Human Rights].

When discussing how to best overcome this difference, we decided to put it to a vote. So, we voted whether or not to enumerate the different types of discrimination. Out of the 77 people present, 60 people supported and 17 rejected it. Despite the overwhelming majority vote, the City stated the need for consensus. It was a manifestation of their lack of will in pushing for the inclusion of sexual orientation and identity.

Who are the people opposing this?
At the core of these groups that have been around since the 2007 struggle for the Discrimination Prevention Act are conservative Christian groups, mostly Christian fundamentalists. These groups have been formed by US fundamentalist groups. They have been actively opposing the inclusion of sexual orientation or identity in ordinances and legislation.

In 2010, the weekend drama “Life is Beautiful” had a gay couple. In response, these groups posted, “Will SBS take responsibility if my son becomes gay after watching ‘Life is Beautiful’?” They think that if television programs talk about gay people or support them that homosexuality will spread.

Besides those groups that you mentioned, are there other groups that oppose sexual minorities?
Homophobia became severe more recently. However, because we are a Confucian society, there are clear principles about men and women and about the Ying and the Yang. However, people don’t directly express their homophobia, but they are still thinking it. But when they are forced to take a stance or express their opinion, they come out against homosexuality. Also, conservative Christians realized that homosexuality could be a good rallying issue for Christians. In 2007, those that opposed homosexuality were doing it out of their convictions. Now, there are others that have joined. Not just Christian groups, but also conservative groups such as Alliance of Mothers or Alliance of Fathers. These conservative groups are joining the movement. There is a concept of Pro-North Koreans – Gay.

Pro-North Koreans – Gay?
Yes, that we need to focus on getting rid of those that are pro-North Korea and those that are queer.

Some people say that the struggle to include LGBTQ rights on the Seoul Charter of Human Rights was a fight you couldn’t win because the Mayor has presidential aspirations or because conservative religious groups are staunchly against it. What is your reaction?
Through this process, we realized that we too could gather our forces: not just the human rights organizations but also civil society organizations. We started the occupation out of outrage. While it was important to show that we would fight back when stepped on, it was also important that we were able to affirm our own strength. Of course, it’d be hard to say that civil society actively supported us since they work with Mayor Park and many support him. However, we were able to make a stand based on human rights. The fight is just getting started.

Do you think it was a victory?
There were four things that we were demanding: get a face-to-face meeting with him; get an apology for the statements he made to the pastors; pass the Seoul Charter of Human Rights; come up with a way to address the hateful and violent actions as in the November 20th public hearing. While we were able to get the meeting with him and get an apology, the Seoul Charter of Human Rights didn’t happen, and while he wasn’t clear about what he would do around the hate speeches and actions, he did say he would try to figure out a way. He spoke with the person in charge of human rights. We will meet with that person in January.

You were not able to achieve all your demands, yet you still ended the occupation. What was your reason?
That night we discussed whether or not to end the occupation. We realized the occupation depended on the leadership body. In our discussion, we concluded that while we did not receive a definitive apology, it was an apology. We asked ourselves if we would make any more progress with Mayor Park by continuing the occupation. We concluded that we needed to respond quickly in other ways. So, we are seeking out ways of cooperating together.

What was the impact of the occupation on the movement as a whole? Did it make it stronger?
First of all we were able to check our own strength. It wasn’t the first time that we occupied City Hall, but it was the first time that we did it for 6 days. It was also the first time that those with influence came. Because this was able to show our power, we consider it very meaningful; people will remember it. What the people in the community desire is a space where they can demand their rights. We need more spaces like the Queer Parade. So, we are thinking of ways of creating such space again.

Any last words for people abroad?
While the Republic of Korea was able to achieve direct elections in 1987, create a constitution, and have a democracy in form, we still have not had much discussion on what kind of values we want, on the things we share, what our universal values are. While this can be considered a fight between progressive and conservatives, I also think it is a fight about the type of values we want in Korea.

When we talk about the human rights of minorities or about universal rights, people respond, “What am I supposed to do about my rights?” When the rights of minorities are guaranteed, so are everyone else’s rights. People think talking about human rights for minorities as something special. When we mention minorities that are being discriminated, people respond, “Was I the one that discriminated against them? Then, why do you make me out like the person discriminating them?” If people thought more about those discriminated, they would understand those situations better and realize that it is something that can also happen to them later. But now, people are too focused on themselves.

I would like our society to have a discussion with an open heart about those types of human rights. While there is a lot of education around human rights in schools, I don’t think people feel it in their skin yet. I think they think it is just an issue of vulnerable communities or of minorities. We need to realize that as we discuss the human rights of minorities all of our rights will grow. I hope there will be many more people that will grapple with and discuss human rights in Korea.

Will Fight a Thousand Times Over: The Power of a Mother

(from left to right) Kim, Hyun Joo; Kim, Jeong Sook; Jo, Soon Deok;  Dae-Han Song; Stephanie Park; (camera-woman: Jeong Eun Hwang)

(from left to right) Kim, Hyun Joo; Kim, Jeong Sook; Jo, Soon Deok; Dae-Han Song; Stephanie Park; (camera-woman: Jeong Eun Hwang)

The interview was carried out by Dae-Han Song and Stephanie Park with interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang.

On October 16th, Minkahyup had their thousandth Thursday protest against the National Security Law and for the release of all political prisoners. On October 22nd, Jeong-Eun Hwang[1], Stephanie Park[2], and Dae-Han Song[3] visited Minkahyup[4] to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok[5]; former president Kim, Jeong Seok[6]; and administrative coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo[7].

“What was your reaction when you found out your sons were wanted by the police?” I start the interview. Jo, Soon Deok begins, “Mothers usually think, ‘The work [fighting for democracy] needs to be done, but why does it have to be my child?’ I felt the same.” A few months after becoming Student Council President, her son gave a five minute speech at a farmer’s rally in Yeoido Square and on the spot became a fugitive. “When a son or daughter becomes a fugitive the whole family becomes one too. The Gwanak police, the school police – they harass you at home, at work,” continues Jo, Soon Deok.

Both these women are of my mother’s generation. I wonder what my mother’s reaction would be given a similar situation. “You are both a little older than my mother. She is fairly conservative. Were the progressive politics always there or did they emerge from your work?”

Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “Your mother can’t but be conservative. She came from that time. Live as the government tells you to live; don’t do what they tell you not to do. Study hard; go work in a good company; make good money. Marry a good person; have children; live a good life. Those are the desires of a parent.” Her voice becomes tinged with emotion as she recalls the anxiety and distress of those times, “You don’t start coming out to the protests because you understand your child. You come because you are the parent, the mother. But as you come, as you listen to the stories and thoughts of others, you realize, ‘My son did right. How can we just live for ourselves? He is better than his parents: He wants to create a better world for everyone.’ When mothers realize this, they start to get even more active. It begins to matter less whether they ate or got roughed up by police that day.”

Their sons had both been incarcerated and/or been fugitives for a few years; yet Jo, Soon Deok’s Minkahyup activism spans nearly two decades and that of Kim, Jeong Sook’s over two decades. I ask what kept them committed. Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “At first people came out because their child was incarcerated. We came knowing nothing simply because the only people that could understand us and could comfort and console us were the veteran mothers who had experienced this. There was no other place. As we became the veteran mothers, we felt that same obligation towards mothers that were just starting.”

As Kim, Jeong Sook continues, it becomes clear that their work to free their sons became a gateway to a new understanding and engagement with the world. “At first, it was just about getting your child out of prison as soon as possible. And that was important, but we started to realize it was also about building a better world, about abolishing the National Security Law, and releasing the prisoners.”

Kim, Jeong Sook kept stealing glances at the clock. I find out she has to leave soon to pick up her grandson from school. Our interview focuses on her. As an activist, I ask the question I’ve posed to all the activists I’ve interviewed, “What was the hardest thing about the work? How did you overcome it?”

“Back then it was so repressive,” starts Kim, Jeong Sook. Her son became a fugitive in 1989. While the military dictatorship had technically ended with direct elections in 1987, the split in the opposition party allowed Roh Tae Woo, a military leader during the dictatorship, to win the election. My son was a fugitive for just a year. During that time, he would show up at a press conference, make a statement, and then flee. So many cops were looking for him, that they used to say that if you didn’t have a picture of my son in your pocket, then you weren’t a cop.” Jo, Soon Deok chimes in, “Her son’s was a high profile case. He is the current deputy mayor of Seoul.” For Kim, Jeong Sook, not knowing when or how her son would be caught was her greatest anxiety. She recounts an instance when he fled by getting on a bus. When the bus stopped and the police rushed in, he jumped out the bus window and broke his leg. He was arrested on December 19, 1989 after someone tipped the police of his whereabouts.

She then pans out to the story of countless other mothers. “At that time, they would torture the prisoners. We worried our children were being tortured. When we went to see them, they would always say they weren’t being tortured.” She recounts the story of an overjoyed mother whose son told her he had not been tortured. Later during the trial, the mother fainted at hearing his testimony of torture. He had been tortured by electrocution, water drowning, and whisky bottle. Kim, Jeong Sook recounts the whisky bottle torture, “They would place the prisoner’s penis on the table and hit it with the whisky bottle yelling that he didn’t deserve to have children because he was a criminal. Then they would take turns drinking from the bottle. ” “Now, he’s an Assemblymember for the Democratic Party,” she adds. “I could spend days telling you all these stories.”

Our time is up; I ask her for any last words for readers abroad. “I would like to tell them to not forget what has happened in Korea. All the prisoners of conscience and their families that lived such difficult lives, I hope that they will not forget them and help support us and remember us,” she responds.

Minkahyup mothers and long term political prisoners stand on stage closing out the 1000th protest.

Minkahyup mothers and long term political prisoners stand on stage closing out the 1000th protest.

I pose the same question of difficult moments and overcoming them to Jo, Soon Deok. She mentions that the hardest time was not her personal experience but that of witnessing the distress of countless others as they ran around protesting in front of police stations and the Agency for National Security Planning (now the National Intelligence Service).

In the beginning, we never thought we would have 1000 protests. But because political prisoners and social problems persist, we keep going. It would not have been possible to do the Thursday protests for 21 years without those around us – organizations and individuals – supporting us,” Jo Soon Deok responds.In reference to the previous week’s 1000th protest at Topgol Park, I asked how she felt about it. Many of the speakers that day had mentioned that while sad that the NSL and political prisoners had continued for so long, the protests were nonetheless a testament to the mothers who had persisted for so long.

"I hope that like the balloons rising in the air, so will the burden on these mothers."

“I hope that like the balloons rising in the air, so will the burden on these mothers.”

We move on to Minkahyup’s current demands. Kim, Hyun Joo the Administrative Coordinator answers, “Our demands are the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of the National Security Law.” Minkahyup also engages in various struggles around democracy, prison conditions, and peace in the Korean Peninsula. All the issues are part of a struggle to build a better world. As one of the key organizations against the National Security Law, Kim, Hyun Joo gives us a brief overview of the National Security Law and the struggle against it. She recounts its origins from a Japanese Colonial law used to capture and oppress independence fighters. On December 1st, 1948, it became a Korean law under its current name. While we were talking, Jo, Soon Deok slipped out and came back with an old photo. Kim, Hyun Joo notices and mentions, “That’s a picture of our annual funeral for the National Security Law in December 1st, 1998.” Every December 1st, social movements gather to call for the abolition of the National Security Law, thus celebrating not its birth but future demise.

Jo, Soon Deok (third from the left) holding a banner calling for the abolishment of the NSL in its 50th year on December 1st, 1998.

Jo, Soon Deok (third from the left) holding a banner calling for the abolishment of the NSL in its 50th year on December 1st, 1998.

The use of the National Security Law had peaked in 1996 with the Yonsei University Uprising. The Korean Confederation of Student Councils was labeled an enemy of the state, and many of its student activists became fugitives and were arrested under the NSL. When Kim Dae Jung came into office in 1998, the NSL persisted, but many of the accused were pardoned and the number of incarcerations under the NSL drastically dropped. Then in 2004, President Roh Moo Hyun stated he would put the NSL in a museum as it was outdated. This inspired massive mobilizations in civil society to get the NSL abolished. A thousand people fasted for its abolishment in Yeoido Park (near the National Assembly). Yet, the growing protests and mobilizations sparked a backlash from conservative groups. Kim, Hyun Joo recalls, “The conservative groups argued, ‘If the NSL is abolished, how are you going to lock up a person that goes out to Yeoido waving the North Korean flag and yelling long live Kim Il Sung?’ My response is: ‘So what?’ When Obama comes to Korea, aren’t there people outside waving US flags and saying long live Obama? How is that any different?” Ultimately, the NSL failed to be abolished or even reformed. Nonetheless, it was rarely used under Roh Moo Hyun. It was only after the conservatives came back into power with Lee Myung Bak’s election that the NSL began to be used to investigate, prosecute, and convict people. It continues to be so used under the conservative Park Geun Hye administration.

1000 protestors went on hunger strike in front of the National Assembly  calling for the Abolition of the National Security Law (December 20, 2004)

1000 protestors went on hunger strike in front of the National Assembly
calling for the Abolition of the National Security Law (December 20, 2004)

Currently, the NSL discussion has taken a backburner since 2004 because there were so many other struggles like the Ssanyong Auto Workers Struggle, or the Yongsan Eviction Tragedy. The NSL struggle never reached the peak it did in 2004. Minkahyup, Alliance to Abolish the National Security Law, Human Rights Groups, or the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements – we keep holding protests every December 1st calling for the abolishment of the NSL.

Currently, conservative groups are trying to introduce legislation that would confiscate property and mete out harsher punishment against those that join organizations deemed enemies of the state. While individuals can be arrested, the NSL cannot disband these groups. So, other people can still join the organizations. So, the Saenuri Party introduced these types of legislation where property would be confiscated or there would be harsher punishment if you joined such illegal organizations. We have managed to keep this legislation from being introduced in the National Assembly.

I wonder at the survival of such vestige from Japanese colonialism and the Cold War, “What would it take for the NSL to be abolished?” Kim, Hyun Joo explains that the NSL is linked to inter-Korean relations. She elaborates, “When inter-Korean relations are better, when we view each other as partners in reunification and cooperation, then the National Security Law loses significance. Back when hundreds a day would visit Mount Geumgang – when exchange was very active – all of those were infractions of the NSL; yet, so many people were doing it, that the NSL dissipated from the hearts of people. But now when inter-Korean relations are bad, and the government has a policy of pressuring North Korea. We start to think, ‘If I say anything nice about the North Korean government, will I be violating the National Security Law? And so they self-censor.’ Roh Moo Hyun’s statement about abolishing the NSL in 2004 had only been possible because there had been a policy of engagement and reunification since Kim Dae Jung’s presidency because the Mount Geumgang tours were happening, because the exchange was very active. So the struggles for improving inter-Korean relations and for abolishment of the NSL are interconnected.

As we wind down our interview, Jo, Seong Deok has the last word, “I hope that the NSL is abolished, that there will no longer be any political prisoners, and that we no longer have to have the Thursday protests.”

‘Till that day.

[1] Jeong Eun Hwang is the ISC Communications Coordinator.

[2] Stephanie Park is an ISC intern.

[3] Dae-Han Song is the ISC Policy and Research Coordinator.

[4] Minkahyup was established in 1985 by families of political prisoners. In protest of President Kim Yong Sam’s statement that “there are no political prisoners in Korea,” they held their first Thursday protest in September 23, 1994 at Topgol Park. Since then, regardless of the bitter cold, scorching heat, and pounding rains, they have held their weekly Thursday meetings. On October 16th, they held their thousandth Thursday protest.

[5] Jo, Soon Deok has been Minkahyup[5] president since 2011. Previously, she served as president 2002-2005. She has been a member since 1996 when her son, a college student at the time, became a fugitive under the National Security Law. After two years as a fugitive, her son was pardoned when Kim, Dae Jung took office in 1998.

[6] Kim, Jeong Sook was Minkahyup president in 1992 and 1998. She has been a member since 1989 when her son, a college student at the time and now the deputy-Mayor of Seoul, became a fugitive under the National Security Law.

[7] Kim, Hyun Joo has been the Minkahyup administrative coordinator for 4 years. She joined the social movement as a university student upon witnessing students incarcerated for violating the National Security Law.

Humanity or Capitalism?

cartoon from the New Yorker

cartoon from the New Yorker

Green Growth is touted as a solution for economic growth and climate change. Its strategy is economic growth through the creation and implementation of energy efficient and renewable energy technology for domestic use and export. Underlying this belief in technological innovation as a panacea for climate change and growth is a reckless faith in its ability to overcome physical and environmental limits. Lost in the conversation is a sober assessment of whether renewable energy and greater energy efficiency can meet the needs of a growth obsessed market system. In his book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David JC MacKay explores the viability of renewable energy in meeting the United Kingdom’s energy needs. While the study is specific to the UK which is rich in wind and wave energy sources, it still provides an idea of the scale of renewable energy required to sustain most capitalist systems, excepting lowly populated desert areas rich in solar energy.

South Korea energy consumption per area is  slightly higher than the United Kingdom's

South Korea energy consumption per area is
slightly higher than the United Kingdom’s

Renewable Energy Sources Lack Power
Petroleum was formed when thousands of years of geologic pressure concentrated the energy of dead organic matter into oil, coal, or gas. Because energy is concentrated and stored in petroleum, it makes it a useful fuel for electric power plants. Renewable energy sources, on the other hand, are fleeting and dispersed. Thus, they lack power.[2] This means that to achieve the same amount of energy great amounts must be harnessed. Thus, a large number of renewable energy devices (e.g. wind turbines, solar panels) are required to collect it. What kind of scales are we talking about? To cover the United Kingdom’s energy needs with solar photovoltaic energy, you would need to cover 25% of it. With wind energy, you would need to cover 50%. Even if you planted all of the UK with biofuel plantations, it would just cover half its energy needs. If 500 kilometers of the UK coastline were used to harness wave energy, it would only meet 25% of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

Even with 500 km of coastline covered by wave energy collectors, only 25% of the UK’s energy needs would be met.

Even with 500 km of coastline covered by wave energy collectors, only 25% of the UK’s energy needs would be met.

Solving One Problem by Creating Another
Given the limitations of renewable energy in meeting capitalism’s needs, some would argue that the difference should be made up with nuclear energy and “clean” coal. Yet, building more nuclear and clean coal[3] power plants solves one problem – climate change – by creating another one – radioactive and CO2 waste. Furthermore, within a market system, there is the constant pressure to adopt cost cutting measures that potentially compromise the integrity of toxic waste capture and storage and, worse, result in disasters such as the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear meltdown. Solving the climate change problem shouldn’t create a toxic waste one for us and for posterity.

Renewable Energy is neither Carbon nor Environmentally Neutral
While far better than fossil fuels, it is a mistake to think of renewable energy as not producing greenhouse gases or not having an impact on the environment. The production of its devices (and replacement parts) requires minerals and energy (often fossil fuels) to produce. Furthermore, its large scale has a negative impact on surrounding ecosystems. For example, in addition to being loud, windmills around the world have killed hundreds of thousands of birds; agrofuel plantations take land away from food production and increase global food prices[4]; solar thermal[5] kills birds with its concentrated sun rays; wave energy collectors impact ecosystems in shorelines by draining energy from waves. 

Energy Efficiency and the Jevons Paradox
The second element of Green Growth is energy efficient technology. Yet, energy efficiency within a market system does not necessarily result in decreased energy consumption. It may even result in an increase. This is the Jevons Paradox. While greater energy efficiency means that less energy is consumed per unit, in a system driven by price, the cheaper price per unit incentivizes its greater consumption and lesser consumption of a substitute. For example, if a person drove short distances but took the train for long distances, then driving and taking the train are substitutes to each other. With greater car fuel efficiency, driving becomes cheaper thus creating an incentive to drive rather than take the train. Ultimately, while the car may consume less fuel per miles, the diversion from taking a train, which is more energy efficient, to driving adds up to more fuel consumption. Furthermore, the cheaper price per mile of driving means that one can drive more. When prices dictate behavior, as markets attempt to do, lower prices mean greater consumption. 

Renewable Must Still Replace Fossil energy
All this is not to say that we should ditch renewable energy or energy efficiency. To avert climate disaster, we have no choice but to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy efficiency despite their limitations. Yet, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that renewable energy and energy efficiency – i.e. green growth – can be a panacea to climate change and capitalism. We are then faced with a contradiction: to avert climate disaster, renewable energy and energy efficiency must replace fossil fuels; renewable energy and energy efficiency cannot sustain capitalism. Which do we save: humanity or capitalism?

Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones
History has shown us that social transformation is not born fully formed. Rather, it is fought for and built amidst the death throes of the old social order and the birth pangs of the new. To construct a society that is ecologically sustainable, we must resist and reclaim it from the market while imagining and building a new social order and production that respects nature’s limits. As capitalism suffers ever greater crises, it will persist by exploiting new sectors such as carbon markets and public services. We must dismantle it before it pushes the environment past a point of no return even as we cross to a new system by “feeling the stones.”

Resistance
In its search for markets and profits, capitalism is conquering the public sphere and markets abroad. Free trade agreements not only give corporations access to markets abroad but also greater leverage to shake off regulations and weaken organized labor through the threat of lawsuits[6] and capital flight. From an energy perspective, energy efficiency is lost through the long distance transport and storage of imported goods while corporation’s greater mobility allows it to resist energy efficiency measures that impact its profits. To find new sources of profits, corporations also cannibalize public enterprises through privatization. Privatization links goods and service provision (and its connected energy and resource consumption) to profits rather than to the most effective fulfillment of people’s needs. Creating a just and ecologically sustainable society requires that we resist and push back against the market’s penetration into society.

Elements of the New
While an alternative ecologically sustainable system to capitalism is yet to be constructed, we can discern some of its elements.

Reusing
To reduce greenhouse gas production, Germany has embarked on an ambitious 20:20:20 program: 20% of its energy will be derived from renewable energy and 20% of its energy demand will be decreased through greater efficiency by 2020.[7] One of its main strategies is retrofitting human habitations (e.g. home, office, library). About 40% of Germany’s energy is consumed in human habitations, 80% of which goes to heating rooms and water. This energy usage can be reduced by half with the use of insulation, draft proofing, energy-efficient systems and appliances, and better controls. Germany’s goal is to save 20% of total energy used in buildings by 2020. In contrast, Korea’s strategy to creating greater energy efficiency under the Lee Myung Bak Administration focused on construction of energy efficient buildings and homes rather than the retrofitting of existing ones. Instead of focusing on green growth for construction companies often with little benefit and great detriment to poor residents, Germany’s approach reuses resident’s homes by retrofitting and in the process meets residents’ need for insulation and the state’s goal of greater energy efficiency.

People’s Needs not Profits
In 2012, in Barlovento, Venezuela, communal council members of a small village discussed their project to fix and build homes with delegates from a Korean exposure and education group.[8] The project was funded with grants and resourced with materials and experts from the government. The community council identified which families needed new homes and which needed repairs and improvements. The government minimized costs by employing villagers along with experts to build and fix their homes. The government, thus, directly met people’s needs while eliminating the profit margin from costs. This is one example of Venezuela’s communal council system which employs revenue from the state oil and telecommunications companies to fund projects that create jobs and directly meet people’s needs. If we are to best utilize our natural resources, we must replace the profit motive with people’s needs.

History has shown us that only the exploited whose lives are immiserated by an obsolete politico-economic system have the will and strength to rend apart the old social relations and bring about a new order. Peasants whose livelihoods are destroyed by free trade agreements; workers whose livelihoods are immiserated by globalization and deregulation; women who pull double duty in and out the home due to patriarchy and a social welfare system cannibalized for profit; students who will be tomorrow’s workers and are today’s debtors; and all of us and our children who will weather the storms and droughts of climate change – we have nothing to lose but our chains and the world to gain.

 [1] David MacKay’s first explores the limits of renewable energy based on the power that it can provide per area that it takes up. For example, wind power produces 2.5 Watts per square meter. This can be contrasted to how much energy is consumed per square meter (calculated by dividing total energy consumption by total area).

[2] In the discussion of energy, power – the flow (production or consumption) of energy in a given time – is important. An example helps illustrate the point: If a boy spends 2.5 kW a day watching television for 10 days, he will use 25 kWh of energy. If 10 boys each spend 2.5 kW a day watching television for 1 day, they will spend 25 kWh of energy. While both require the same amount of energy, the 10 boys require 25 kWh/day while the one boy requires 2.5 kWh/day. In other words the 10 women require much more power than the 1 woman. How much energy is available at a given moment is important in the provision of energy.

Energy Power
1 boy watching television for 10 days 25 kWh 2.5 kWh/day
10 boys watching television for 1 day 25 kWh 25 kWh/day

[3] Clean coal refers to coal power plants which capture and store underground CO2 released from the power plant. The CO2 would then be injected into depleted oil and gas reservoir, non-minerable coal seams, the ocean or deep saline aquifers. Yet, it is unclear whether the CO2 would bubble up to the surface or not.
http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TECH/04/07/coal.capture.storage/index.html

[4] http://www.foei.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Food-not-Fuel.pdf

[5] Solar thermal energy uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy into a central point in order to boil a liquid into vapor which runs a generator to create electricity.

[6] Free trade agreements with the United States, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), include investor state dispute settlement mechanisms that allow investors to sue governments for regulations or policies that hurt their profits.

[7] http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/cp/CCCfull.pdf

[8] In 2012, members of the International Strategy Center went on an exposure trip to Venezuela. One of its components involved visiting a communal council in the rural chocolate producing Barlovento.