Asleep at the wheel

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Asleep at the wheel

 Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


South Korea is impoverished in natural resources. It may be the world’s 10th largest economy, but would grind to a halt without raw materials. Its lifeline has come shaky due to volatility in the global supply chain. The external climate is unpredictable due to a power struggle between the United States and China, China-related risks and the pandemic. Over-reliance on suppliers is highly dangerous. South Korea relies on one country for more than 80 percent of its 3,941 main imports. Korea has disregarded the basic strategy of diversification in global supplies necessary for its survival.

The disaster with diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) underscores the danger of neglecting such a basic rule. Panic has spread in Korea after China banned exports of urea, the main component of DEF.

In Korea, 2 million cargo trucks running on diesel fuel cannot run without DEF, which reduces harmful emissions under strict international guidelines. As a result, truck drivers had to go around numerous gas stations and pay 10 times the normal price for the fluid. Construction and factory sites could grind to a halt and even fire trucks could be grounded. The prime minister and presidential chief of staff apologized for the crisis followed by the replacement of the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs.

However, no such problem occurred in Japan,which has a similar industrial structure to Korea, because it does not rely on China alone for DEF. In Japan, four companies account for 77 percent of the production of ammonia — a key material in urea production — as a result of Tokyo’s classification of urea as a strategic commodity. Last December, Japan designated ammonia a next-generation energy source along with hydrogen. In contrast, when local producers suspended urea manufacturing in 2011 due to a lack of competitiveness against cheap Chinese urea, Korea turned to China for the lion’s share of its needs. Today’s fiasco results from the government’s short-sightedness.

In the old days, Korea relied on the Chinese geopolitical order to survive after neglecting to protect its independent and respond to external changes. The current reality is that Korea depends on America for security and on China for its economy. Still, there is no sense of urgency or determination to prepare its own survival strategy.

Meanwhile, Japan was eager to seek practical ways to survive. It has strived not to slip out of the center of civilization. From the early 7th century, Japan sent envoys across the perilous seas to China. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan sent envoys to 12 countries, including the U.S. and the UK, to design a model of a modern society.

The delegation led by Meiji statesman Tomomi Iwakura included Ito Hirobumi, who later became the first prime minister of Japan, and other rising politicians and bureaucrats. They studied political systems, infrastructure, and industrial sites of Western societies and left their journey on record in 100 publications. The Times noted that a pivotal social revolution was in the making with Japan’s upper class surrendering their privileged titles.

After signing a trade treaty with the U.S. in 1882, Emperor Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty sent the first delegation to America. It included Min Yong-ik, a nephew of the Empress Myeongseong, and Hong Young-sik, the son of prime minister Hong Soon-mok, and statesmen like Yu Kil-jun, Soh Kwang-pom and Byun Soo. They met with American President Chester A. Arthur twice, bowing to him Korean style. In his report to the State Department, General Lucius Foote (1826-1913) — the first Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the U.S. to Joseon — cited Min’s confession that he had been born in darkness and traveled to the world of lightness only to return to darkness.

Upon their return, Hong and Soh envisioned sweeping reforms to create a western style country by surrendering their vested power. They staged a coup with reformists like Kim Ok-gyun, Park Yong-hyo and Seok Jae-pil, which ended in failure in three days. The aftermath of Joseon’s first U.S. mission ended in disaster, which is entirely different from Japan.

Fast identification of changes in the world and equally fast responses are essential for national survival today just as they were 1,000 years ago. The urea crisis was foreseeable after Australia stopped coal exports to China in October last year amid a conflict between the two countries. Since China extracts urea from coal, reduction of urea production and shipments was unavoidable.

Importers have been demanding government attention since October. But the foreign and industry ministries were asleep at the wheel. Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong had a 30-minute talk with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Rome on October 29 on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, but he did not raise the issue. The Blue House belatedly formed a task force on November 5.

When the British ship Lord Amherst arrived at an island off Hongju, Chungcheong Province in Korea in 1832 to ask for trade, the head of Hongju County, turned them away, saying, “We cannot engage in diplomacy as Joseon is subjugated to China. The legacy of soul-less bureaucracy may run too deeply.
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