In an interview with CUF, Ambassador Lee Gun-tae discussed what is needed for CUK students who hope to work as a diplomat or in the field of Korean trade, as well as its problems and plans for improvement.
“Living as a diplomat and negotiator is quite tough. Though I already had known that, I chose this job because it is worthwhile to do,” said ambassador Lee Gun-tae in an interview with CUF. He came to the Catholic University of Korea to give a special lecture on “Korean trade negotiations and its characteristics.”
Go Bo-min, CUK professor in International Studies, introduced him as “a living history” of Korea trade and diplomacy. He was present at critical moments in Korea’s trade history and based on his experience he talked about the national interest and Korea trade’s problems and improvement plans, paying special attention to the recent trade dispute with Japan.
He entered diplomatic service in 1980 after graduating from Seoul National University and worked in Gabon, Switzerland (Geneva), Canada, U.S. (Houston), Laos, and Israel. In the course of his long career, he took up various trade portfolios including D.G. of Bilateral Trade at the Ministry and deputy Ambassador to the WTO.
Who defines and determines the national interest?
He said that it was not easy as a diplomat negotiating with other countries in the pursuit of the national interest. Diplomacy means all the activities of maintaining and developing relationships with other countries for the national interest. In the way that it promotes the national interest through dialog and negotiations, not by force, it is often likened to a soundless war.
After explaining the work of diplomat, he suddenly asked a question: “What do you think the national interest is?” with a slight smile. “No one will say that a diplomat should not negotiate for the national interest but no one knows what is the national interest is,” he said.
He insisted that people should think about who defines and determines “the national interest” because he often observed that in the domestic process of political dynamics, “national interests” were actually determined by interests of producers at the expense of consumers and politicians tend to go along with them for their own political and electoral reasons. Once defined and determined, negotiators are judged by the people and government for the outcome of their achievements of those objectives.
People should think about who defines and determines “the national interest” because he often observed that in the domestic process of political dynamics, “national interests” were actually determined by interests of producers at the expense of consumers.
As an example in point, he recalled the screen quota negotiations he was deeply involved in as a precursor of Korea-US FTA negotiations. The system was originally introduced in England and the E.U., especially France, is still strongly advocate it. The system certainly has its own merits and rationale, but as always with the infant industry theory, the problem is that nobody knows when would be the optimal timing for abandoning it.
Despite many experts’ opposite views, the domestic film industry along with many movie stars were quite adamant in opposing even a single day reduction in their mandatory projection requirement. Out of his professional conviction that the industry was mature enough, he played a significant role in the government decision to curtail the mandatory projection days by half. At the time, the measure was vehemently criticized by the industry as well as many ordinary people, but the subsequent history shows that the Korean film industry goes on thriving without the protection of screen quota. Now people know that the option of keeping the existing system was not in our national interests. “As this case shows, we should contemplate what is the national interest and who defines it,” he said.
“I know that there are many CUK students who hope to work as a national public official or work in the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think the question about the national interest I asked is quite worthwhile for them and also for the other students who may judge many issues everyday,” he said.
He also cautioned those who work in this field that diplomats getting the negotiation results are often criticized by some interest group because of domestic political interests and because there are diverse opinions on what is the national interest. About the question how he withstood the stress and pressure, he paused, struggling for words. By his wrinkled brow, it was clear he was thinking deeply. “I think it’s just fate. There’s nothing else to do but just endure it. I had already known this kind of difficulties before I chose this job.”
Problems of Korea’s trade and improvement plans
After talking about the national interest, he discussed the future of Korean trade. He pointed out Korea’s economic dependence on trade has remained at a high level compared with other advanced nations, creating concerns about its vulnerability to external shocks such as trade disputes with Japan as well as the trade war between the U.S and China. According to the Korea International Trade Association (KOSPI), Korea’s dependence on exports is the third highest number and dependence on imports is the fourth highest number among the Group of 20 countries. This high trade dependence has recently been attributed to KOSPI’s poor performance and worsening corporate earnings, according to the data compiled by the Korea Exchange.
Regarding this situation, he stressed that Korea should strengthen core component industry and high-tech industry from now on. It is obvious that importing components makes economic sense if they are more inexpensive than domestic components. However, in such circumstance, if Korea had the source technology to produce core components and domestically produced them at five percent, it could have prevented the difficulties that Korean corporations went through recently. In July, Japan slapped tougher restrictions on South Korea-bound shipments of three key materials for chip and display panel production.
Korea has imported core components, materials, equipments from technologically advanced nations such as Germany and Japan, and processed and exported them. As it is vulnerable to external factors, there has been promises to become competitive in the core component industry since 2003, but nothing changed until Japan imposed export restriction on core components. “I hope the recent incident could be another incentive to improve industrial competitiveness,” he said.
Kim Ki-chan, CUK professor of the business management, agreed with him, insisting that Korea should foster its core component industry. He said that Korea can produce almost components and materials on its own through importing them except for “core” components and material. Thus, he emphasized long-term Research and Development (R&D) and innovative ideas for core component production.
Besides this, he insisted that the interaction between the government and corporations need to be active, indicating a lack of it. He thinks Korean corporations are good at working separately without the help or involvement of the government but they tend to think the government should know their needs and work for them even though they don't tell the government what their needs are. However, if they don’t request what they need from the government specifically, it can’t know it accurately and can’t be reflected in trade policy or negotiation with other countries. So, he hoped that the private sectors would tell the government what their requirements are specifically and actively.
After the talk about improvement measures, he took a sip water. Then he said that he hopes his talks from his experience would be helpful to CUK students and they can achieve their dream in the future. He lastly said to CUK students who want to work in areas of commerce or diplomacy that it is quite clear that living as a diplomat and negotiator is quite tough, so they must expect a little trouble and be prepared for a certain difficulty, if they want to make it. “But it is also definite that your heart would be filled with pride, doing this job,” he added with a small smile on his face. Even though he is retired from his work, he is still striving to foster the younger generation in his field. His fervor for the nation and the public would last for a lifetime.