[NOTEBOOK]Golf Clubs, Toyotas and Open Markets

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[NOTEBOOK]Golf Clubs, Toyotas and Open Markets

Dear Mr. Kim, my friend:

How have you been? I have just returned to Korea from the United States, having completed the job at that research institution.

America was a fantastic country. I expected goods to cost less because the country has an open market, but I never expected prices to be so low. Honma golf clubs cost only a third as much as they do in Korea. I bought a full set. My friends warned me not to take them back to Korea because an influential political figure recently caused a big fuss by accepting expensive Honma golf clubs as a gift, but I carried the set back with me when I returned anyway. As I feared, all of us carrying golf clubs were given a special customs inspection. An official, with a sneer, handled my golf clubs, mock-putting and saying repeatedly, "These are worth something, eh?" He seemed to feel aggrieved that he could not levy customs duty on the clubs because they were counted in my personal moving allowance. I forced myself not to rise to the bait, telling myself that this was what I must pay for getting such high-quality clubs at so cheap a price.

The minister of trade met with members of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Korea on Tuesday, reiterating, "The Korean government does not subject those with imported cars to tax investigations." His remark reminded me of a question a lawyer asked at a briefing session about Korean economic reform in Canada in late November. The lawyer, who seemed to understand the situation in Korea well, did not believe my insistence that "the old practice of suspecting owners of imported cars of tax evasion disappeared in Korea a long time ago." To persuade him, I said, "I will take my Toyota car back to Korea when I go back. Will you apologize for your misconception if I show you that I am not subjected to a tax investigation?" I wanted to believe in our professed determination to open up and reform.

But I was the one who ended up having to apologize. I did not take my Japanese car back home - but not because I suddenly became patriotic and decided to buy domestic goods. In Korea, press companies and journalists were suddenly having their morality put under the microscope, and I was afraid that my friends might be right about me taking my car home. They had warned me that I was already a potential target of a tax probe because I work in the press. Taking an imported car home would just increase the risk.

The commerce and industry minister said Tuesday that the government and private companies would form a team later this year to work to establish a free trade agreement with Chile. I was puzzled. I thought the government had already started such a project in late 1998, and negotiations with Chile had been ongoing for years.

Then I remembered that when I was studying the mechanics of free trade agreements at the Brookings Institute in the United States I asked some Korean officials how the free trade agreement negotiations with foreign governments including Chile were progressing. They said it was not a good time to talk about free trade and an open economy. Times were hard, they said, and the talks with Chile, a country with relatively small market, had ground to a halt. Evidently, they were right. It really is a matter for great regret.

The United States, the largest market in the world, is fine-tuning its North American Free Trade Agreement's expansion into the Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005. Even Japan, often looked upon like Korea as a closed market, has already agreed or is set to agree to free trade agreements, as is China. If Korea is not careful, it will become an economic pariah - and sooner than it thinks.

In just three years our thinking has regressed enormously. In the past, we entreated foreigners to invest in Korea as much as possible and promised to improve business efficiency. We understood that reform and an open economy were the only way to survive. Today, such an attitude is rare.

Mr. Kim, is it true that this country has an open economy?


The writer is a senior staff writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Joung-soo

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