One World, Two Visions, Two Partners

21 Jun

My most recurring gripe with American conservative expats and service members is, that “…he fact that the Korean public could actually believe that the US government is out to poison and kill them with imported beef is a perfect example of how bad the underlying anti-Americanism is.” It’s a very myopic, and ultimately dangerously convenient delusion, that South Koreans are just anti-American, that does more to divide conservatives from other citizens and reality in general.

Actually, GI Korea in this post and others, has one point.

Compare this to China which is actually shipping in tainted food and how the Koreans back off from a trade war with them after both the Garlic War of 2000 and the Kimchi Crisis of 2005. There was no mass protests out on the streets then complaining about food safety or students holding signs saying they want to live. Better yet is the recent violence committed by Chinese embassy backed students that attacked and beat Koreans on the streets of their own capitol city and got away with it. Where were the protests after that? Imagine what the response would be if the US embassy backed every American student in Korea to walk through the streets of Seoul to assault and beat Koreans, what do people think the response to that would be?

The Brookings Institution‘s Martinez-Diaz explains the Chinese exception.

The second driver behind the protests will remain long after President Lee has left office—this is a clash of different visions over Korea’s place in a changing world economy. Korea is above all a trading nation. Foreign trade represents a remarkable 70 percent of its GDP. Since the 1960s, the country has been singularly adept at taking advantage of economic openness, and it has grown rich by moving up the value chain and exporting increasingly higher value-added goods. But today, those favoring opening the Korean economy further are encountering growing public opposition. The discussion is no longer about how but whether Korea should open its economy further.

Skepticism is growing for several reasons. The two bilateral trade agreements currently on the table—one with the United States and one with China—are big undertakings, and they are both likely to have major economic consequences. The Korea-U.S. trade agreement, inked and dried last year but not yet ratified by either country’s legislature, would be the biggest bilateral trade deal ever for both Korea and the United States. The China-Korea FTA is only a proposal at this stage, but one the current government seems determined to pursue. (In 2003, China surpassed the United States as Korea’s biggest trading partner.)

Both of these agreements are riddled with difficult trade-offs for Korean agriculture and industry. Korea’s giant conglomerates, the chaebols, will be big winners, particularly if they can gain access to China’s booming market for consumer durables and make further inroads into the U.S. market. However, the agreements will likely deal a blow to thousands of small- and medium-sized enterprises that produce low-tech manufactures for the domestic market, and which the government has nurtured for years through preferential credit arrangements and trade protection. Given the large work force employed by the SMEs, building a free-trade coalition will be a major political challenge.

In another unresentful backgrounder, CFR‘s Jayshree Bajoria (with another good primer) explains the South Korean reaction in American electoral terms.

Lee’s decision to open up South Korea to beef imports from the United States right before his visit to Washington in April was seen as an effort to win points from the U.S. Congress, which is holding up the free trade accord the two countries signed last year. But congressional concerns on trade are not Korea-specific. Congress has also dragged its feet in addressing free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama has criticized the South Korea deal, calling it “bad for American workers.” Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, on the other hand, supports the South Korea deal, which he says will help maintain strategic partnership between the two countries. The debate in South Korea is not much different.

Just because the South Koreans have decided to embrace PRC doesn’t mean progressives are necessarily anti-American. Seoul has made a different decision based on the same diplomatic and economic situation Americans face in a globalized, multi-polar world.

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