The state-funded Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or Kotra, runs 120 overseas offices in 82 countries. They assist Korean companies trying to make inroads into overseas markets and promote foreign investment in Korea. However, they do not merely serve businesses. One of their unofficial yet important tasks is entertaining lawmakers and senior bureaucrats in the cities around the world where they are stationed.
These so-called VIPs receive red-carpet treatment from the overseas Kotra staff. Packages typically include chauffeur service from the airport, a tour guide with an interpreter, making all the necessary arrangements for the visit, booking rooms, and dining and entertainment.
According to the agency’s report for the National Assembly audit, Kotra provided such top-class services to 668 lawmakers and 1,161 senior bureaucrats and executives from public institutions over the last three years. During the first eight months of this year, about 43 legislators a month relied on the Kotra overseas services.
The visitors who took advantage of these services mostly did so at Kotra branches in famous tourist cities, which implies what their primary purpose really was. Kotra had not hosted a single trade- or investment-related event in Saint Petersburg, Russia, or Madrid, Spain, last year, and yet visits by legislators and government officials were frequent. Those offices were primarily entertaining and guiding public-sector visitors.
Kotra is a quasi-governmental agency. It recruits trade experts to help boost Korean companies’ efficiency and productivity. Its employees are not stationed overseas to entertain and play tour guide for lawmakers and bureaucrats.
Kotra last year received 265 billion won ($249.4 million) in government funding, making up 77 percent of its revenue. The government earmarks the agency’s budget and the legislative must approve it, which means the agency is inevitably weak against legislators and government officials, especially from the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. It must play chauffeur, guide and entertainer in order to please those who have control over its purse strings. It cannot help but provide them anything they demand.
We cannot blame the agency and its employees for kowtowing to bureaucrats and lawmakers, and wasting their resources, to do what they are supposed to do.
What should be fixed are the legislators and government officials who believe they can abuse Kotra’s services, which are paid for from the pockets of taxpayers and are not their own for personal enjoyment.