[OUTLOOK]National interest, not ideologyKorea resumed importing U.S. beef recently but all packages were returned because bone chips were found. Washington became upset and the fifth round of talks for a free trade agreement between the two countries became very tense over this issue.
This is not a subject on the negotiating table, but it concerns health officials and quarantine authorities because it is a technical matter. The two countries reached an agreement earlier that when Korea resumed importing U.S. beef, it would import only boneless beef. Thus, it does not matter what type of bones they are or how large they are. Whether it is a major or a minor violation, Washington failed to follow the agreement. Our health and quarantine officials should be credited for finding the bone chips, even though it is a very sensitive issue. If needed, concerned authorities in the two countries can resume negotiations over beef imports, on the condition that they would thoroughly examine the harmfulness of beef with bone chips.
But there is another problem: this incident becoming exaggerated or distorted inside our country, if a civic organization, for instance, calls on Koreans not to buy, not to sell and not to eat U.S. beef. The issue is not about blocking imports of U.S. beef entirely. Imports of U.S. beef have many advantages. Consumers will have more choice, the competition in the beef market will become fierce and prices will go down.
Some argue that Koreans can eat more Korean beef. But the prices for Korean beef are too high for ordinary people to enjoy it for everyday meals, so they are naturally left with imported beef.
A more serious problem is that some are using the presence of those few bone pieces in their efforts to make the bilateral trade agreement with Washington not happen at all. Although the fifth round of the talks ended without a breakthrough because both sides failed to reach an agreement over trade remedies, the talks as a whole have not ended. Some are acting, however, as if the talks had fallen apart entirely. These people attempt to create conflicts in our society by dividing people into pro-American and anti-American according to whether they support a free trade accord with Washington or not. In doing so, they underscore the incidents of bone chips in U.S. beef, even though it is irrelevant.
The other day, Korea’s prosecution released an interim report on its investigation into the sale of Korea Exchange Bank to Lone Star Funds. The prosecution concluded that Lee Kang-won, the former president of the bank, and Byeon Yang-ho, a director general of the Finance Ministry at that time, plotted to sell the bank to the American firm at a lower price than fair value. It was not an impressive report, considering that the prosecution had investigated many people over a long period. But I do not intend to underrate the prosecutors’ efforts, particularly when the court has not given its ruling yet.
The problem here is that this case is also being used by some to emphasize anti-Americanism or anti-foreign business or foreign capital ideologies. The case is highly likely to be used to intensify some people’s anti-Americanism or baseless hatred and hostility toward foreign businesses, regardless of the court’s ruling. If these things persist, the goal to become a financial hub in the region is only a fantasy.
If I may change the subject, the issue over the transfer of U.S. military bases in Korea has the same problem. The timeline for the transfer has been delayed four or five years later than the earlier agreement on 2008. The government says it took much longer than planned to obtain the site due to civic groups’ protests. But the government should take responsibility for not having done much about such acts.
Everybody knows that we should not follow all U.S. strategies or tactics just because it is the world superpower. The only standard we should use when making judgments is whether a position serves our national interest. While bearing in that in mind, both countries should establish a system of collaboration on each subject.
A free trade agreement can be signed only when both countries involved have their interests fulfilled. If the accord is partial to one party, an agreement cannot be reached. This is the same with Seoul and Washington. Both parties have things to gain. We want to attract foreign capital and to extend the service markets, including the financial market, in order to increase the number of jobs, not to become a victim of the agreement.
As for the transfer of U.S. military bases, if we need U.S. war deterrence, we should pay a fair price for that.
That cannot be and should not be viewed as manipulation by pro-Americanists or damage to our self-reliance. The most important thing is where our national interests lie.
*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Tae-wook