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Issue 349

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REFUGEES

Desperate escape
The backbreaking work of North Korean women

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported in July this year that 'tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands' of refugees are now attempting to flee from North Korea and are hiding along the Yalu river near the Chinese border. The risks for border crossers are high. The number of North Koreans forcibly repatriated by the Chinese authorities rose sharply last year. Once repatriated, these refugees face a minimum seven years' detention, forced labour and torture in a reform institution;  in 'extremely grave' cases, they face the death penalty.  Most of the refugees are taking such risks to escape starvation, which has killed an estimated one million North Koreans since 1995. Many are also trying to escape political repression. Information reaching Amnesty International suggests that almost three-quarters of North Korean refugees in China are women. Here is the testimony of one of those women refugees which may help explain why.

'North Korea has always celebrated 30 July each year as the day of gender equality: the news media unanimously declare that women have been liberated from home and receive equal treatment in all walks of life. In reality, however, women have remained bound by traditional yokes of inequality. I am now convinced that the hidden purpose of the slogans was merely to extract cheap labour from women for the development of communist industry.

'Women get only 80 per cent of what men get for the same hours and type of work. It is women who bear most of the farm work in the co-operatives. Women have to work hard at factories during the daytime like men and have to do additional hard work at the end of the day in ill-equipped kitchens to prepare meals for the family. On top of this, each rural household in North Korea is obliged to produce a pig a year for the army for nothing. It goes without saying that the work of raising a pig is for women. If you fail to produce a pig of standard weight, your food ration is accordingly reduced.

'The difficulties in obtaining food, clothing and houses have made the lives of women more painful and difficult. This is because it is generally considered that it is women's responsibility to feed the family.

Word corner

Divan
The original divan was not a bed but an Arabic word for an account book. The first known use of divan dates from the reign of 'Umar I (586-644) and lists the pensions due to Arab soldiers. Later divan came to mean an accounts office, court or custom-house.  The French douane (customs) comes from the same word. Eventually the benches around the walls of the divan were themselves called divans.  The benches were covered with mattresses and cushions, which led to the modern meaning - a bed without a headboard or footboard.

Susan Watkin

'North Korea is a communist country that is supposed to be responsible for the supply of daily necessities to its people. This does not mean that everyone gets equal distribution. The people are divided into four classes. The first class comprises senior party members and close associates of (the country's President) Kim Jung Il who are entitled to a daily ration of meat, cooking oil, fruit, vegetables and cigarettes. The second class of people (including central party members, government officials and high-ranking military officers) is entitled to a weekly ration. The third class of people (such as junior members of the party and families of anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters) is entitled to a ration every other week. Ordinary people (class four) receive only a rice ration fortnightly. The quantity of ration differs according to your social status, occupation and age. If you take three meals a day, the ration will be exhausted in about a week.

'You can get food in black markets. The price, however, is simply prohibitive. Then, how do people survive? Everyone, high class, middle class or low class, is engaged in some kind of commercial activity. Under the circumstances, the women in North Korea are compelled to do anything within their means for survival. Women pick up household items of any value for exchange for bean, barley and corn because the prices of grains often vary from area to area. They use the money earned to buy grain to feed their family. Officials abuse their power to extract income from ordinary people. The police, for example, may use the excuse that commercial transaction is the first step to capitalism to rob you of your food on the train or in the black market.

'Like their mother and mother's mother, women in North Korea today live a most miserable life of fatigue, endless backbreaking work and despair.'

Nicolette Jackson and Sean Healy

Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) is gathering accounts from refugees who have escaped North Korea. This is an edited extract of one such account. Other testimonies can be read at their website: http://nkhumanrights.or.kr

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Property and terror
The war on terror is just as much directed to protecting property as people. This is the salutary reminder in a May 2002 US State Department report from the Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism. In its review of terrorism for 2001, the Office reported that - despite the 11 September attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center - the number of international terrorist attacks in 2001 declined to 346, down from 426 the previous year. More than half of the attacks (178) identified in the report were bombings against 'a multinational oil pipeline in Colombia'.

Read the report at http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2001/html/

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Dragging the debt chain
The June announcement from Canada by G8 leaders of an additional billion dollars for the failing Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Trust Fund barely made a ripple in the sea of debt that impoverishes the South.

Certainly the HIPC Fund needs more funds. According to Christian Aid, poor countries in Africa are still repaying $15 billion every year for illegitimate debts.  But if the number of people living in poverty is to be halved by 2015 (to meet the UN Millennium Goals), the G8 needs to re-examine its solutions.

To be eligible for relief under the HIPC process, debtor countries must first prepare a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and undergo economic restructuring. With International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank guidance, governments typically cut budgets (including large-scale public sector lay-offs), make quick sales of state assets and undergo comprehensive trade deregulation.

Six years after the initial HIPC initiative was established, only six countries - Uganda, Mozambique, Bolivia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Mauritania - have completed the debt-relief process. Uganda has been able

to double its primary-school enrolment - but at the cost of increased interference in its economy. The country cannot accept more than 12 per cent of its gross domestic product in foreign aid.

Other countries have failed to maintain their eligibility for debt relief. When Jubilee USA met with IMF staff in May this year, they found that six countries - Gambia, Guyana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi and Nicaragua - had been suspended from the HIPC process, primarily for non-compliance with agreements they'd previously reached with the IMF. Examples of non-compliance include failing either to privatize or cut expenditure.

In Canada, the G8 leaders announced that they expect 37 countries that follow 'sound economic policies and good governance' to benefit from debt reduction. Their focus on economies once again forgets the people.

Gillian Southey, co-ordinator of campaigns for Christian World Service, Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Keep abreast of debt relief developments at  www.jubileeusa.org

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EDUCATION

GATS goes to school
Leaked documents provide insight into world trade in services

Government negotiations to open up trade in educational services are scheduled to begin next month, during a two-year renegotiation of the 1995 World Trade Organization's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). GATS binds all WTO member countries to allow access to foreign-service providers wanting to operate within their borders. Education is one of 12 service sectors it covers.

So far the trade-liberalization push in education has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from exporting countries - the US, Australia and New Zealand - who have called on other countries to open up their borders to private providers from abroad. The most vocal criticism of freer educational trade has also been coming from the North, but from educational institutions, academic associations and trade unions who see GATS as a way for governments to promote the growth of private education at a time when funds for public providers are becoming more scarce. There is also widespread concern that trade agreements treat education as a commodity rather than a vehicle to transmit culture, language and knowledge for the public good. GATS supporters respond that - like it or not - the market for education exists and that they are simply trying to establish transparent rules for how the market should operate.

International education delivers mixed results for developing countries. On the one hand, it means that many of their overseas-qualified students return home each year with international connections and big ideas. However, these students take large sums of currency out of the country with them to pay fees and living expenses while they study. Consequently, most developing countries have a large trade deficit in education, as growing numbers of students go overseas each year to study, mainly in the US, Britain, France, Germany and Australia.

At the same time, developing countries in which there is an undersupply of places in educational institutions are increasingly being targeted by British and Australian transnational education providers - institutions which run courses in multiple countries using branch campuses, distance education or partnering with local institutions. This is the fastest-growing form of trade in education. By making it easier to offer courses transnationally, exporters can use the excess educational capacity of the North to increase capacity in the South.

The problem for importing countries is how to ensure that foreign institutions act equitably, offering programmes that are in the broader national interest rather than only benefiting an international corporate élite, and developing a curriculum that responds to the needs of local students rather than producing a homogenized curriculum for global consumption.

Documents being exchanged between governments under GATS negotiations are already being (and will continue to be) leaked. This will at least provide some transparency and an opportunity to help ensure that international trade serves public as well as private interests.

Christopher Ziguras

The GATSwatch website has leaked documents prepared by the European Union requesting access to other countries' markets. They are available from www.gatswatch.org

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BRAZIL

Lula versus Wall Street
Workers' candidate leads presidential elections

The presidential election campaign in Brazil is heating up, perhaps almost as much on Wall Street as in Brazil itself. With the first round of elections set for 6 October, polls show Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva of the Workers Party (PT) holds a significant lead over his opponents. As Lula's fortunes rise, international banking and financial institutions have been downgrading the country's financial rating causing the Brazilian currency, the Real, to plummet in value. When US Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill traveled to Brazil in early August he promised new loans and more IMF assistance to bail out the country in an attempt to bolster the electoral fortunes of the ruling coalition opposing Lula.

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Seriously... You couldn't make this stuff up

McJihad

It's not easy being the primary symbol of rampant US capitalism abroad. McDonalds is the first point of attack for angry locals.

When French farmer Jose Bové dismantled a McDonalds to protest against industrial food culture and US agricultural policies, he was hailed as a local hero synonymous with Asterix the Gaul, the indomitable French cartoon character with a gigantic moustache who defies imperial Rome.

Faced with a little local image problem, McDonalds, in an attempt to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of the French, has retired Ronald McDonald as the company's public face and replaced him with Asterix the Gaul.

This is known as 'glocalization' - adapting global products for a local market. McDonalds quoting the dictum, 'Think global, act local,' now sells rice meals in Hong Kong, veggie burgers in India, and bacon butties in Britain.

Homogenous global culture may be increasingly unpopular, but such cynical glocalization has its own dangers. In 2000, facing a mass Saudi boycott of US food products over American support for Israel, McDonalds, which has 45 restaurants in Saudi Arabia, launched what one might term an 'intifada-burger' initiative. During Ramadan, it announced, it would donate 26 cents from each meal to Palestinian children's hospitals. This appeal to local sentiment backfired spectacularly when US supporters of Israel learned McDonalds was supporting 'the Palestinians' and began a boycott of their own.

In the current climate US brands are counting the costs in millions of a Middle Eastern boycott of their products. Across the Middle East, branches of McDonalds are empty.

Meanwhile in Egypt products such as Yasser Arafat Potato Chips, featuring a cartoon of the Palestinian leader with his chequered head-dress, are flying off the shelves. In Bahrain Zamzam Cola, named after a holy spring in Mecca, is replacing Coke as the drink of choice.

What will McDonalds do next to market to the Muslim world? Happy McSaddam theme meals? Afghan Mcfood drops? McDonalds ads in the breaks between Osama bin Laden slots on Al-Jazeera? And what if their more patriotic US customers find out?

Seriously is, for once, rather enjoying the contradictions of global capitalism.

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This has momentarily stabilized the Real. But the Wall Street Journal, believing a Lula victory is likely, proclaimed the loan money down the drain because the front-runner 'spent much of his career as a crackpot Marxist, before recently moderating his rhetoric'. Lula first rose to national prominence in the 1980s when he built the Workers Party from his base among the trade unions in Brazil's large metallurgic and automotive industries. Wall Street and financial speculators seem intent on sabotaging  political candidates rather than waiting to find out if their economic policies will be effective in raising living standards.

While Lula has promised a series of major reforms - in education, agriculture and healthcare - he also intends to revitalize productive and manufacturing sectors. Critical of the economic policies of incumbent President Henriquez Cardoso - which have produced anemic or negative growth in the last half decade - the PT candidate says the best policy is 'to combat speculation with production. Every investor will look to Brazil when there is an infrastructure that supports the flow of production, a highly trained workforce and a market that really consumes because there are strong wages'.

Lula's choice of running candidate, a progressive entrepreneur from the centrist Liberal Party, Senator Jose Alencar, is an attempt to align with the domestic manufacturing bourgeoisie. He needs to make a cross-class appeal to buttress his potential government and Brazil against the speculative and international financial interests that will almost inevitably try to sabotage his government if he takes office.

Support for Lula is indeed breaching class lines. Even sectors of the economic élite are beginning to believe that his policies may offer the best hope for the country. The neoliberal policies of Cardoso, such as the free flow of speculative 'hot money' in and out of the country at the whim of investors, have favored financial interests over Brazil's substantial industrial base, much of which is geared to production for the big internal market. Even some foreign investors are said to favour this approach.

The Workers Party platform involves a fundamental transformation of the government and its relationship to society. Based on its experience in running state and municipal governments - most famously pioneering the participatory budget in Porto Alegre - the Workers Party proposes two innovative breakthroughs for Brazil at the national level. The first of these is participatory management of the state. Marcos Arruda, economic adviser to the Workers Party, says this will be achieved by 'setting up local and regional councils that would involve representatives of civil society and non-governmental organizations.' They would discuss and make proposals for economic, social, political, cultural and environmental policies while overseeing the implementation of public policy with the appropriate agencies in the central government in the capital, Brasilia.

The PT's second innovation, 'strategic management of the state', signals an abandoning of the neoliberal approach of the 'minimalist state', instead using it to advance social and economic policies that serve Brazilian society as a whole.

Cardoso recently rejected crisis-ridden Argentina's appeal to present a common front against the IMF. In contrast the PT believes strengthening the regional trade bloc Mercosur is the only way to confront aggressive international interests and serve as a pole for the economic development of the southern cone countries.

Clearly a Lula presidential victory would present tremendous challenges, given the internal economic slump, the volatility of other parts of South America and the likely opposition of the Bush administration. However, Arruda believes the financial crisis will lead to the defeat of the ruling coalition and that a Lula victory will be a 'turning point', not only for Brazil but for other countries in Latin America. 'The government finds itself hoisted on a neoliberal petard of its own making,' says Arruda. 'President Lula could lead the country out of its economic quagmire, mobilize a broad popular base allied with sectors of the progressive middle class and galvanize international allies. Brazil would serve as a productive and exemplary political and economic pole for other Third World countries caught in the trap of neoliberalism and globalization.'

Roger Burbach has written extensively on Latin America,
US foreign policy and globalization. www.globalalternatives.org

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