[Editor's view]Trade and salvationIt’s not often that one sees a Korean man cry in public. Yet, on the Sunday before Easter, there were tears on display at the Somang Presbyterian Church in southern Seoul.
Midway through the service, the pastor asked his deacon to lead the congregation in prayer and meditation.
After a few minutes the deacon had to stop so he could stifle a sob. He had been talking about the challenges facing Korea. He spoke of dark days that lay ahead unless politicians dealt with the country’s problems.
Among the congregation, voices were raised in spontaneous agreement. In the choir, as the deacon continued, handkerchiefs were produced.
As worshipers dried their tears, it was apparent that, in this congregation, and maybe, across the nation, there is a deep well of fear that the gains of the last decade might soon disappear, ground to dust between the churning wheels of the Chinese and Japanese economies, or leeched away by a free trade deal with the United States that some believe favors American exporters.
Change always inspires anxiety. It’s necessary to turn it to a good purpose. As Sigmund Freud observed, “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”
In other words, a new and difficult direction can sometimes represent salvation.
For Korea, one of the best paths it could take is to develop a leading role in building a free trade area that extends throughout Asia, one that resembles the European Union, an organization that has been extraordinarily successful in building peace and prosperity among the nations of Europe.
On my last visit to Europe, in 2006, I drove from Amsterdam to Berlin to Madrid, via Paris and Rome. It was an indirect route and it took me across many borders, none of which had border guards.
The Schengen agreement, signed by 28 EU countries, abolished border controls among the signatories. Nations that had been separated by barbed wire, ideology and worse now permit citizens and commerce to flow back and forth, without hindrance.
By contrast, in its 2006 report on this region, the International Crisis Group, an independent research body based in Brussels, said “shifting power relations in Northeast Asia are spurring increased nationalism in China, Japan and South Korea.”
The report identified China’s economic boom, Korea’s generational shift and Japan’s waning economic vigor as sources of “xenophobia that occasionally spills over into violence.”
Xenophobia and nationalism, its ugly cousin, were once the scourges of Europe, helping to cause two world wars and dozens of smaller conflicts.
Europe has found a path away from these evils. The European Union, although it has its faults, has maintained low inflation and a single currency, and it absorbed the impact of German unification.
Indeed, Germany, with its special needs, played a leading role in creating and expanding the EU. Korea could benefit enormously by taking the same role in Asia.
It’s vital that Korea counters China’s growing economic clout by establishing trade agreements with other countries throughout the region.
Japan is the logical place to start. Because President Bush no longer has the authority to fast-track trade deals, Japan has missed the boat when it comes to an FTA with the United States and thus has stronger reasons to sign an accord with Korea.
The next president should make this a priority and, in so doing, set the foundation stone for an Asian union that could one day rival the EU in peace, growth and prosperity.
President Kennedy changed the destiny of the United States by launching a lunar program in the 1960s that revolutionized its economy. Korea needs a vision just as bold as the one that took America to the moon.
As the EU has shown, free trade conveys social, economic and political advantages. Korea will need all three to secure its future. The next president of Korea will have an opportunity to raise the nation’s eyes to see that great wealth comes from grand ambition.
And an Asian free trade movement, with Korea in the van, would fit the bill.
*The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Daniel Jeffreys