[Viewpoint]The slogan swindleIn an entrance examination for a newspaper job in the 1990s, there was a question that asked the meaning of a Korean phrase written in Chinese characters, “sin to bul i.” A new expression at the time, one applicant puzzled through the phrase and wrote down: “Even if the body turns into soil after death, a loyal subject does not serve two kings.”
He must have thought that his answer was right, but he failed the exam. He can be forgiven because at that time the phrase sin to bul i was not yet found in a Korean dictionary.
By now, the phrase is part of our language, even if linguists might disagree about its literal meaning. The phrase actually means, “The body and the soil are one,” but it was introduced here in the mid-1990s to mean something much different. Some Koreans at the time interpreted it to mean, “Food from the soil where one is born is good for one’s health.” That went one step further to simply become, “Let’s use home-grown products.”
Frankly speaking, the phrase sin to bul i was coined as a slogan for the protection of local agricultural goods at the time when Korea was bracing itself for the launch of the World Trade Organization in 1995.
With that magic phrase, some Koreans intended to defend agriculture from the feared wave of foreign products that would sweep the domestic market and doom farmers to extinction.
And it turned out to be very effective advertising copy. Riding the wave of patriotism and the popularity of the movement for a healthy life-style, the sin to bul i slogan became familiar to people’s ears, coming to mean, in essence, “Whatever is produced in Korea is good!”
Korean farm products have become a synonym for “health food,” while American food is “junk food” and Chinese food “pesticide food. ”
The application of sin to bul i has also expanded to other fields, including industrial products that have nothing to do with the soil. People started to use the phrase as if it is a synonym for “Made in Korea.” One example is the automobile industry.
The successful logic -- that if Korea, which has a large population but no natural resources, is to survive fierce international competition, there is no other way but for Koreans to buy Korean cars -- has worked in Korea. Heavy customs duties helped keep the prices of imported cars absurdly high, and driving an imported car was regarded as unpatriotic and became an object of finger-pointing.
Thus, sin to bul i helped the growth of the Korean economy to a certain degree. However, the arrival of the era of free trade agreements has ended the sin to bul i mythology. Koreans have come to realize that Chilean wine and Australian beef are also good for them. They are coming to understand that “food from the soil where one is born is good for one’s health” is nothing but an illusion.
Of course, it never did make sense. For example, hot pepper is an essential ingredient of Korean food, but it came from the American continent only 300 years ago. Likewise, staples like the potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and tomatoes are not native to the Korean Peninsula.
If Korean agricultural products are the only healthy ones, then Koreans living in the United States or Japan should be in very poor health. In the case of pesticide, Korean bracken, which is used in bibimbap, is more infected with pesticides than the Chinese variety because Chinese farmers cannot afford expensive pesticides.
There is also a problem with Korean cattle. Although they are born in Korea, they are fed imported feed mixed with antibiotics and chemicals.
As Koreans start to wake up from the sin to bul i illusion, it is the Korean automobile industry that will be hit hard. Consumers, who have been dismayed by unjustified labor strikes are ready to boycott Hyundai. Nowadays, consumers do not hesitate to buy imported cars. Whether one buys an imported car is a matter of choice, taste and price.
Those protesters who threw cattle dung inside the store selling American beef last week should have thought twice.
Like growers of world-famous Japanese wagyu beef, farmers here should create a good brand image for Korean beef through quality control. Turn hanwoo beef into a sought-after product worldwide, and we will have accomplished something. But artificially high prices sustained by a slogan do not help Korea.
The industry should not expect consumers to sacrifice their money for sin to bul i any longer.
To do so is a swindle.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom