Growing Ties: S. Korea’s Top Envoy in SF Talks Free Trade

Growing Ties: S. Korea’s Top Envoy in SF Talks Free Trade

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The United States and South Korea are nearing a deal on a free trade agreement that could be signed as early as March. NAM’s Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee speak with Jeong Gwan Lee, Korea’s Consul General in San Francisco, about the growing economic and political ties between the two countries.

NAM: How would you describe the current state of the Korean-American community in the United States?

Lee: Since the history of Korean immigration [to the U.S.] is still relatively short, the relationship between the Korean-American community and mainstream American society is continuously evolving. During the past several decades, while the Korean-American community made an impressive showing through its economic vitality, most in the community basically remained Korean, sticking to a Korean way of life and speaking the Korean language.

In recent years, however, Korean Americans have increasingly focused their attention on becoming responsible stakeholders in mainstream society, making strenuous efforts to actively participate in every aspect of life in the U.S. I am fairly confident that the contributions made by the Korean-American community to the development of the larger society will only increase with time.

NAM: The Korea-U.S. alliance goes back some 60 years. In a time of economic disarray here, what benefits can the United States, and California in particular, expect from closer ties to Seoul?


Lee: In view of the deep interest in all things American found among Korean people, closer ties with Korea promise a substantial increase in trade and other economic transactions for the U.S., as well as increased investments from Korea that could help revitalize the sluggish economy in this country. As has been widely reported, Korea was the fastest among nations to recover from the recent global financial crisis, demonstrating its remarkable economic capability. Such dynamism lies at the heart of the Korean economy and society, and could be yet one more benefit exported to the U.S.

NAM: What are your thoughts on the long-pending free trade agreement between Seoul and Washington, and on the opposition from small businesses here fearful that the agreement will lead to greater job loss as businesses send jobs overseas?


Lee: We have waited too long for the ratification of the Korea-U.S. FTA. Since both governments successfully completed additional negotiations last December, it is likely that within the first half of this year we will see the agreement come into effect. The FTA will bring a substantial increase in trade and investment between the two countries, which is also expected to expand job opportunities as well. The fear expressed by some small businesses regarding job losses seems to be largely driven by uncertainty over the future rather than on grounded facts.

NAM: Talk briefly about the ongoing high-speed rail project in California. What role are Korean companies playing in California’s efforts to build a system connecting Los Angeles and the Bay Area?

Lee: Korea possesses a unique capability for the construction of a high-speed railway, given that it was just several years ago when the country built its own high-speed network with the help of a French company. In the years since, Korea has successfully acquired and mastered all the related technologies and is now expanding its high-speed rail network throughout the country.

Korean companies have already established a consortium and are closely monitoring efforts to secure the project. Although capable of conducting the entire project on their own, participating in specific areas of the project where they can demonstrate their own particular strength would also be a considerable step.

NAM: Turning to international affairs, are you concerned about a possible future conflict involving North Korea? What do you think Americans most need to understand about North Korean society and the regime that governs it?


Lee: It is true that uncertainty in North Korean affairs generates considerable concern. But, as we have been able to manage the situation so far, I am confident that we can handle the matter successfully as long as the U.S. continues to stand with [Southh Korea]. Americans need to understand that North Korean matters are not just an international security issue but also a sensitive domestic issue for people in South Korea. Americans may at times find it difficult to understand what [South] Korean people think about North Korean issues.

NAM: Finally, what aspects of Korea—traditional or modern—would you most like to see Americans develop a greater awareness of?

Lee: I believe that the country and people of Korea are really unique and special, which I hope American people will grasp. Apart from the differences between our two countries, Americans might also be interested to discover what cultural differences separate Korea from China and Japan. If I were asked to describe Korean people in a single word, I would choose the word “dynamic,” a word that applies to any number of aspects in Korean life. Lastly, it is important to understand that such dynamism is in many ways the product of a long history of hardship that Korea has endured.