Thursday, June 12, 2008

Korea protests

We’ve seen news reports lately that Koreans are turning their noses up at American beef. Officially, the Korean Government has allowed the importation of United States beef after the mad cow disease scare.

The ban had been on-again, off-again since 2003 with the latest ban in April of 2006.

The new Korean president Lee Myung Bak decided to make nice with Bush and lift the ban. But Koreans have taken to the streets to protest. The beef battle is really a lightning rod for general disapproval of the Korean economy and Lee Myung Bak’s leadership.

Koreans are quick studies. It only took them four months to figure out that they don’t like their new president. Here it takes us over four years despite the warning signs. Then we’re stuck with him for a second term. That’s happened twice since 1992. Why DO we bring them back?

But I digress. This president has a lower approval rating than Bush. Actually, it’s about the same as our Congress, about 20%.

Beef imports are the issue of the day but they are symbolic of other Korean issues such as a pending free trade agreement, inflation, and the falling Won.

Like Bush, Lee insists that free trade is a good thing for Korea. They talk about free trade as a $20 billion boost, though they aren’t saying who will benefit the most from it. Like most politicians, they avoid the details.

We’ve learned that we gain cheaper goods but lose jobs. I’m guessing that Korea loses natural resources and gains pollution. But they keep the factories open. Even that benefit erodes when they subcontract the work to China or other Pacific rim nations. Korea becomes the middle-man, which never lasts for long as people figure out how to “buy direct.”

No one really knows at this point how strong the North Korean pull really is. We worked hard to keep Seoul happy and successful to avoid a rematch of the Korean War. But there are some new factors involved.

1) Korea has advanced in electronics, cars, and heavy equipment. The US is not their only customer.
2) The fall of the US Dollar has made us less of a player internationally.
3) Commerce is more important than ideology. We buy from China, our arch-enemy just a few years ago. There is no loyalty to allies anymore.
4) The US is now known for our ability to consume goods and borrow money; not exactly a position of strength.

From the US perspective more Americans all the time are wondering what life would be like without Kias and Hyundais and LG televisions. More of us wonder if we haven’t sold our birthright to Japan, Korea, China, Mexico…

And more of us wonder if the expedient political answers of the past did more harm than good.

By the way, Homeland Security estimates that Korea ranks #7 as supplier of illegal aliens. They account for 250,000 of the total 12 million. I say we keep our beef at home and send back the trespassers. If they’re gonna complain, we might as well give them a reason.

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