SOUTH KOREA NEWS
Grocery Chain to Convert Contract Workers to Full-time Status
The labor union representing workers at Homeplus, one of the largest Korean grocery chains, won a decisive victory this month. A settlement was reached in which the company agreed to convert its 12,000 contract workers to permanent status.
The settlement followed a partial walkout by employees the week before, and picketing since last November.
Agreement on Probe into the Death of Kim Yong-gyun
On February 5, the government and ruling Democratic Party announced that there would be an investigation into the death of contract worker Kim Yong-gyun, who was killed late last year in a conveyor belt accident. A joint committee will be established and tasked with developing proposals by June 30 on improving safety for irregular and contract workers.
Meanwhile, the government set out various interim measures, including the establishment of a committee to assess tasks performed by maintenance power plant workers and to develop plans on reducing risk and improving working conditions.
The Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) issued a statement in response to the government’s measures. The KPTU pointed out that the government’s measures “fall far short of the demands that the civil society coalition, power plant workers and Kim’s family have been making, which include eradication of the outsourcing of danger, investigation into the causes of Kim’s death and punishment of those responsible, insourcing and permanent direct employment for all precarious workers in the power industry and other measures to ensure that a similar accident does not occur.”
However, the KPTU noted that the government’s and ruling party’s measures did represent “progress in relation to their original position, which was a complete denial of any responsibility.” The union promised that the struggle it and the civil society coalition are engaged in to “stop the misuse of precarious workers and the outsourcing of danger” will continue.
Inter-Korean New Year Celebration on Mt. Kumgang
A South Korean delegation representing a variety of civil organizations visited Mt. Kumgang to attend a two-day meeting with their North Korean counterparts, where they discussed ways to build stronger ties and improve cooperation.
The predominantly non-governmental South Korean delegation included religious leaders, labor union officials, and members of women, youth, and agricultural organizations. Each South Korean organization brought a list of proposed joint operations.
Shortly before the group departed for North Korea, co-leader Archbishop Kim Hee-joong said, “We are pleased to have this opportunity to re-forge our nation’s blood ties ahead of the centenary of the March 1st Movement on behalf of our people.”
Delegation chairman Lee Chang-bok declared, “Activation of civilian exchanges will provide momentum for successful negotiations between the two Koreas and peaceful reunification of our countries.”
South Korean reporters accompanying the delegation were blocked from bringing laptop computers and digital cameras into North Korea by U.S. officials. The journalists filed complaints with the Unification Ministry over this interference with their ability to work, but the South Korean government was unable to persuade American officials to relent.
The South Korean delegation was also prohibited from bringing equipment. Spokesman Lee Yeon-hee noted that this “difficult situation” confirms “that there are many walls that we have to overcome in realizing inter-Korean relations and inter-Korean exchanges.”
The Korean Central News Agency reported that the inter-Korean gathering called for “accelerating the nationwide advance for implementing the historic Panmunjom Declaration and the September Pyongyang Join Declaration.”
US-NORTH KOREA RELATIONS
U.S. Official Visits North Korea to Prepare for Summit
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, arrived in Pyongyang on February 6 for preparatory talks in advance of the Trump-Kim summit later this month. Biegun has been quoted as saying that the aim of his discussions was to focus on identifying concessions that would be acceptable to both sides, and to develop “a roadmap of negotiations going forward, and a shared understanding of the desired outcomes of our joint efforts.”
Agreement Signed on Cost-sharing for U.S. Military
After lengthy and strained negotiations, U.S. and South Korean officials signed an agreement that increases the amount of money that South Korea must pay for the presence of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) by 8.2 percent. The amount fell short of the original demand by the U.S. that South Korea more than double the amount of its payments.
Previous Special Measures Agreements covered five-year timespans but on this occasion, the pact expires after one year. Consequently, negotiations on cost-sharing will resume within a few months.
Cost-sharing is unidirectional concept, as USFK maintains that it bears no responsibility to contribute anything to ease the heavy financial burden shouldered by South Korea in cleaning up the enormous toxic contamination at vacated U.S. bases.
House Bill Aimed at Maintaining Military Status Quo on the Korean Peninsula
Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced a bill that has been referred to the House armed services and foreign affairs committees, to forbid the use of DOD funds to reduce the number of military personnel stationed in South Korea. The bill also stipulates that “Congress should be consulted in advance of any significant changes to the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.” The proposed law is part of a wider effort by the Washington political establishment to derail any reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Japan looking to Tensions with South Korea as a Pretext for Expanding the Role of its Military
In an interview with CBS Radio on January 24, Professor Hosaka Yuji of Sejong University said that the Japanese Government of Abe Shinzo is seeking to raise tensions with South Korea to win public support for revising its anti-war constitution so that it can launch a military buildup.
Although Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are currently restricted to a self-defense role, recently they have participated in joint military drills with the United States. Japan has also boosted its military budget this year to $47 billion, the seventh year in a row that there has been an increase.
Plans are also in place to buy six F-35A fighter planes from the U.S. and to purchase a $1.5 billion land-based Aegis missile system.
According to Yang Ki-ho of Sungkonghoe University, Japan’s rightwing politicians favor cold war tensions with China and North Korea. However, as the U.S. shifts to denuclearization talks with North Korea, Japan is escalating tensions with South Korea to compensate.
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