South Korea and Their American Defenders Deserve Better

We should not shed any tears over the recent collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) trade negotiations referred to as the Doha Development Round.  The objective of the Doha Development Round is to lower tariffs and trade barriers around the world. Fat chance. It was folly and farce from the beginning. The WTO is a collection of 153 disparate countries each with veto power and an unambiguous anti-American bias. The WTO is the trade equivalent to the United Nations, only wackier.

With the Doha Development Round dead, we can now focus on deals that put the U.S. worker first. Bilateral trade agreements such as the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) are vastly more important than wasting time on the hullabaloo of the WTO whose members’ average tariff on American exports exceeds 30% (compared to just 2% levied on our imports).

KORUS-FTA would be our second largest deal after NAFTA and put thousands of our citizens to work. It would allow most American products to enter the $1.2 trillion South Korean economy duty-free. Today American products entering South Korea pay hefty duties and face innumerable barriers whereas South Korean products entering the United States essentially pay no tariffs. Besides eliminating tariffs, the pending agreement makes major progress in eliminating non-tariff barriers, protecting intellectual property, enforcing environmental safe guards and ensuring labor rights.

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed June 30, 2007. Its ratification is held hostage by Democrats in Congress including Senator Obama. Their stated reason for not supporting the agreement is that South Korea does not import enough U.S. cars (to placate the United Auto Workers) and restricts U.S. beef. Detroit should build cars that the Koreans want to buy. With gasoline over $10 a gallon there is not a big market for Hummers and Escalades. The Koreans have offered a compromise on beef that is acceptable to the U.S. beef industry which the Democrats are ostensibly defending.

However persuasive this agreement is for U.S workers and farmers in generating jobs, no matter how important this agreement is in advancing environmental protections, poverty alleviation and labor rights; there are 54,229 much more compelling reasons why this agreement must be ratified. This is the number of Americans that died defending South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War. As a result of their sacrifice there is no more stark contrast between good and evil in the world today than that of the hermit gulag of North Korea and the incredible success story of South Korea. A success story paid for in blood and treasure of the United States. If you believe in the sacrifice these brave Americans made so that 50 million South Koreans can live in freedom, if you respect the devotion to duty of our military that has guaranteed that freedom over the past sixty years, then it would be the worst kind of hypocrisy to play politics with their sacrifice and deny the freedom of trade.

During my numerous visits to the Land of Morning Calm, I have met many of our servicemen and women whose dedication has allowed South Korea to become the world’s 11th largest economy; an incredible accomplishment for a small country about the size of Minnesota with virtually no natural resources. During my first visit to Seoul in the late ‘70’s I was struck by how poor and under-developed it was. The winter was biting cold. Hillsides were bare as firewood was scavenged to provide fleeting moments of warmth. Sprawling villages with distinctive undulating ceramic roofs and wooden plank doors opening to small alleyways offered little comfort or relief from the elements.

Women, their glowing red faces always quick to offer a smile, bundled themselves up with everything they owned and shopped early each morning for their daily meals at outdoor markets. Butchers feverishly sawed freshly slaughtered carcasses that released condensation into the cold, brisk air from the animals’ body heat still trapped within the flesh. Fish vendors gutted out strange looking creatures from the surrounding seas. Large stock pots boiled entrails of cows, goats and dogs. The smell for a non-connoisseur was unbearable.

Military check points manned by heavily armed soldiers appeared randomly. The eerie wail of air-raid sirens during all hours would signal another drill bringing everything to a grinding halt. Tank traps meant to slow down the omnipresent risk of a North Korean blitzkrieg dotted the landscape. Just thirty miles from Seoul’s northern gate the brainwashed million-man army of North Korea was in a continuous state of high-alert.

At every turn there were always reminders that all-hell could break out at any moment.

It was fascinating to witness the transformation of South Korea leading up to the 1988 Olympics. Overnight Seoul shrugged off its backwater, under military siege mentality to morph itself into a glamorous city of glass towers, expansive parks and high fashion. The towering buildings of Yoido and Gangnam-ku, Olympic Village and the promenade and beautiful bridges along the Han River are truly remarkable.

Even the rowdy hot spots of Itaewon were reinvented into a respectable enclave of nightclubs, restaurants and shopping complexes. Itaewon is at the center of Seoul and about a mile outside the American military base, Yongsan, the headquarters of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. During the day international visitors to Seoul would wander the labyrinth of alleyways bargaining for high quality knock-offs of Louis Vuitton, Channel, Gucci and any other luxury brand you can think of. At night it was once was a soldier’s paradise of well deserved R&R. In keeping with South Korea’s ’88 Olympics induced respectable make-over, the knock-offs were banished underground. The girlie-bars with names like the Cadillac Bar, Love Cupid and The Texas Club all suddenly disappeared in a manner that only a domineering patriarchal government that too often defined Asia, can so effectively pull off.

Also gone is The Grand Ole Opry, a country music blaring bar where G.I.’s played pool and imbibed themselves with mass quantities of beer and Jack Daniels. One Friday night after a frustrating week dealing with South Korea’s insane restrictions to American exports I made my way to The Grand Ole Opry to let off some steam with my U.S. military friends.  “God Bless the U.S.A.” a heart pumping, goose bump popping song recorded by country musician Lee Greenwood seemed to play for hours as we stood next to tables completely covered with OB (Oriental Brewery) beer bottles. We passionately belted out the lyrics until our voices grew hoarse. We raised our mugs and slammed them together countless times causing beer to soak everything within several feet. These were the heroic, hardened men patrolling the DMZ. Witnessing their patriotism while remembering their voices and faces still sends chills down my spine.

Just outside was Hooker Hill. Korean mama-sans, caked thick with make-up and mascara worked the steep inclination propositioning young G.I.’s as they exited the watering holes with “want nice girl dat lov yu lon time” and other graphic broken English sexual phrases spoken with a comical accent. The stumbling teenaged G.I.’s could barely stutter “how much” and “how old”. After some bantering they would disappear together down an alley to one of the many brothels tucked away into the hillside. Often spectacular fights would breakout without warning.  Barroom brawls came crashing through the doors and onto the streets like some Hollywood movie set usually the result of inter-service rivalries. U.S. Military Police would instantly appear out of nowhere. Their efficient and if necessary brutal containment of the hostilities was artful. They whisked away the bloodied protagonists telling the crowd that gathered to let this be a lesson to any other hotheads with similar dispositions. After watching this unfold a few times I quickly realized the utter futility to mess with these guys.  South Korea has come so far. The check points and air raid drills are a distant memory. The high profile presence of the U.S. military in and around Seoul has vanished. It no longer feels like a city under siege as it did just a short time ago.

South Korea’s success is our success. The most reverent way to celebrate the sacrifice that so many Americans have made is by supporting the free movement of goods, services and ideas between our two great nations. This should be a crowning moment of an incredible achievement.

Over 60% of South Korean’s support free trade with the United States. Only 25% oppose the agreement, which are mostly rural farmers who rightfully fear the agricultural efficiencies of America. The overall support for closer ties with the United States is a ringing endorsement of our shared history and their gratitude for the 28,500 Americans still stationed in South Korea defending their freedom. It’s time for Congress to pay homage to those U.S. soldiers who fought and died on behalf of South Korea by fighting to pass the KORUS-FTA.  It’s a winning proposition for the U.S. labor force and for the people of South Korea. It’s time for Congress to pay homage to those U.S. soldiers who fought and died on behalf of South Korea by fighting to pass the KORUS-FTA.  It’s a winning proposition for the U.S. labor force and for the people of South Korea.

Leave A Comment