[Viewpoint] It’s in our genes to come out ahead

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[Viewpoint] It’s in our genes to come out ahead

According to opposition party leaders, you are either a patriot or a traitor depending on which side you are on over the free trade agreement with the United States. If you agree with the deal, you are willing to become colonized by America.

One student at a candlelight vigil protest cried out that we could die because we would no longer get health insurance, based on the rumor that the contentious investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) clause would wipe out the national health insurance program. I have been covering the country’s liberalization for the last 24 years, and I can tell you that the stories out there are beyond fiction. It is a contest between implanted self-consciousness from our colonial days and our innately strong Korean genes.

When I was a cub reporter on the economics desk, the government in 1994 liberalized the electronics market. Sony and Matsushita had been household brands. Against them, our companies were mom-and-pop businesses. Media and politicians raised hoopla that we would become a colony of Japan Inc. Today, electronics made by Samsung and LG dominate the shelves of home appliance stores around the globe. The combined profits of all Japanese electronics companies cannot match that of Samsung Electronics.

While I was a correspondent in Tokyo in 1998, President Kim Dae-jung announced market opening to Japanese pop culture. The world then was infatuated with Japanese pop culture. Japanese animation tapes and comic books swarmed into the black market. Broadcasters sat with satellite dishes in Busan’s coastal areas to study and bluntly mimic Japanese TV programs. We unashamedly worshipped and copied Japanese pop culture.

President Kim Dae-jung, despite popularity with the average citizens and respect from politicians, was criticized for selling out to Japan. But what has happened today? Korean TV dramas, programs and entertainers dominate primetime slots on Japanese TV. Korean singers and pop groups enjoy bigger stardom in Japan than their Japanese counterparts. Fringe rightist groups protest in front of Japanese broadcasters that Japan has become a slave to Korean pop culture.

When I was a city reporter covering the Gangnam Police in 1989, there was a fiasco over a snake appearing in a theater in southern Seoul. It turned out to be a stunt to protest the government’s plan to scale down the policy to protect the local film industry against foreign inroads. Filmmakers and stars went on a clamorous strike with head-shaving ceremonies, exacting tear gas firings in cinemas.

President Roh Moo-hyun in 2006 settled the matter. He confronted actor Lee Jun-ki, who was protesting on the street, and asked him if he had so little confidence in himself and Korean films. Five years later, Korea is among few nations in the world where local films draw bigger audiences than Hollywood movies. As of October this year, Korean films were responsible for 53.4 percent of moviegoers. Hollywood filmmakers are now turning to Korean motion pictures to buy licenses to turn them into English-language remakes.

Politicians may feel as if they have become some kind of patriots in the eyes of young students if they shout anti-American slogans. But let’s look at the facts. Have we lost anything or “become colonized” as a result of any market openings? In fact, the government’s protection of small businesses only ended up handing over the light bulb market to Philips and Osram.

Many other countries have lost their industries due to inroads by Japanese and American products. But Korea has been a different case. Korean producers have proven that they cannot be defeated and often turned the headwind in their favor. Politicians are discounting their abilities and accomplishments as well as the Korean people’s uniquely resilient genes that are best activated when they’re up against challenges.

The more conservative you are, the more hostile you are to market opening and foreign inroads. Liberal governments under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun had been bolder in opening. They broke down the financial market barriers and initiated talks for free trade pacts.

The contentious investor-state dispute settlement provision is also unchanged from the original deal negotiated under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. It is ridiculously unreasonable to ask the hand of marriage without offering any guarantees for investments. The politicians who had been statesmen under the Roh government now say they were unaware of the ISD clause. They refuse to acknowledge the common trade practice and history.

There is an old Chinese saying: Ask the old mare if you lose your way in a battlefield. Veteran trade experts would advise the ratification of the agreement, leaving the ISD clause to be renegotiated later. Renegotiations on a ratified agreement are rare. I found this quote scribbled in my old press pad. “Market opening should be incremental, but proceeded with full speed. Do not dilly-dally. Push on fearlessly.”

The quote was from former President Kim Dae-jung during a cabinet meeting in April 1998. Politicians who are blocking the FTA are the ones who like to boast that they are pupils of Kim. But they are walking in the opposite direction of their political teacher. So much for legacy.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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