During a trip to South Korea this past autumn I had the opportunity to meet Choi Chan-Sick, a 66-year-old peasant farmer. I found him and his wife one day fastidiously raking a six-foot-wide swath of rice that lay drying along the road’s breakdown lane. His face was deeply wrinkled and back permanently stooped from a lifetime bent in service to his two-hectare rice paddy. To start what I hoped would be a pleasant conversation, I asked him through my translator how the fall harvest was going. Figuring me correctly for an American, he hurled a volley of invective at me, the only words of which I could make out were “United States” and “FTA.” My wincing translator later told me that he had deleted the expletives.
By nature Koreans treat strangers, even Americans, more kindly than Choi Chan-Sick treated me. But his reaction to the free-trade agreement (FTA) negotiations now under way between the United States and South Korea may signal the limits of yet another nation’s tolerance for our assertive, some would say arrogant, use of power.
The Kor-US FTA brings together the world’s largest and tenth-largest economies, whose current annual exchange of goods and services is valued at $72 billion. Not since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has so much been at stake, with such items as pharmaceuticals, electronics, automobiles, textiles, meat and rice, and even movies cluttering the negotiators’ table. And not only are the stakes high, the negotiation’s clock is ticking since President Bush’s “fast-track” authority is scheduled to expire on June 30. Congress must receive the proposal by the end of March to allow it a ninety-day review period.
Should both countries’ import tariffs fall, the big winners will be major US auto and pharmaceutical corporations, Hollywood, America’s industrial agricultural interests, particularly beef and rice, and Korea’s automotive and electronic cartels like Hyundai and Samsung. No surprise about the losers: US and Korean workers, Korean farmers, the environment and the health and cultural integrity of the Korean people.
The more you examine the values of US corporations with respect to their export practices, the more they mirror the behavior of the tobacco industry: “Let’s see what we can sell overseas that we can no longer sell here.” Big auto wants to sell Korea big cars, but in order to do that, Korea must relax its auto emission standards–hence more pollution. Big Pharma wants to sell Korea its high-priced drugs, but to do that Korea would have to amend its national health insurance system, which favors cost controls on prescription drugs. Big Agriculture wants to sell Korea beef and rice, but to do that Korea would have to lower its sanitary inspection standards for cattle that are designed to reduce the risk of mad cow disease, and it would have to sacrifice up to 140,000 peasant rice farmers (rice and peasant farming have nearly sacred status in Korea). Hollywood wants to show more US films to Korean viewers, but to do that Korea would have reduce its requirement that 50 percent of all movies shown in its theaters be of Korean vintage, a rule that has created one of the more robust film industries in Asia. And in a bizarre twist on nimble-footed American marketing know-how, the SAT industry wants to get Korean universities hooked on a student testing system that is quickly losing favor among US colleges and universities.
But the biggest loser of all may be Korea’s fragile democracy. With only three free presidential elections under its belt, South Korea is still a neophyte when it comes to citizen participation and free speech. And with respect to the way the government has managed the FTA process, it’s evident that the nation’s transition from dictatorship to democracy is still a work in progress.