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Take Five with Korean envoy: Trades, not raids will shape future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2012 - Last year, Choi Young-jin found himself under siege as he tried to convince the leadership of Cote d’Ivoire that it had lost the election he was monitoring and it was time for a peaceful transition.

This week, he found himself in decidedly more pleasant, more hospitable surroundings, explaining how the newly adopted free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States will benefit both countries and help usher in an era of prosperity.

Choi was in St. Louis to speak at Saint Louis University, the World Trade Center and other venues to let business executives and others know about the trade pact, which he said would make his country an even more important trading partner with the United States.

Under terms of the treaty, 95 percent of the tariffs on each nation’s goods would be eliminated within five years. Negotiators initially reached agreement in 2007, but it took until last year for extended talks to conclude, then for lawmakers in the United States and South Korea to ratify its provisions; the pact took effect on March 15 of this year.

Citing the presence of firms like Hyundai, Kia and Samsung in the United States, Choi said the treaty will help American businesses enter the Korean market. Currently, he said, trade between the two nations is $100 billion a year, with South Korea having a slight edge in exports.

Choi said that with 50 million people and $1 trillion in gross domestic product and trade volume, South Korea has become a key economic partner of the United States, and the free trade agreement is at the highest level of all such agreements worldwide. He noted that neither Japan nor China has negotiated a similar treaty with the United States.

Besides phasing out the tariffs, the agreement formed a series of working groups that will allow senior officials to fine-tune trade between the two nations in such areas as automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

In the first quarter of this year, Missouri's exports to South Korea increased by nearly 150 percent.

All of this, he told the Beacon in an interview at the Chase Park Plaza hotel, shows how much more important trade has become in world affairs rather than armed conflict.

“There is a paradigm shift from raid to trade,” he said. “Throughout history, nations have competed as raiders and conquerors and victors in wars. That is all over now. We are competing in trade and jobs. The future of the TransPacific region will be based on a trade program, not a raid program or warfare. We have to have that vision in our mind to have a brighter future.”

Choi became the Korean ambassador to the United States in March of this year.

St. Louis is one of the first places you have visited to discuss the trade agreement. What brings you here?

Choi: Since the free trade agreement took effect, we have decided to use a grassroots approach, and we found St. Louis to be very important. It is situated in the center of the United States geographically, it has a good technology base and it has companies like Boeing and Monsanto. It also has an excellent work ethic.

You have virtually all the amenities that we are trying to use to build business in the United States. You are at the center.

How will the change of leadership in North Korea affect South Korea’s progress in international trade and other areas?

Choi: That is a very intriguing question. Nobody has the answer. There is a potential for change, but it is up to North Korea to prove itself by acts, not by words. We are waiting for them to show us their cards, so it is difficult to predict. There are too many unknown elements. It is like trying to predict the weather for more than two weeks in the future.

There appears to be a very strong consensus both in Washington and in Seoul that they will not continue to negotiate with Pyongyang. For the last 20 years, we have had enough experience with that. North Korea must show with its deeds, not its words, that it has a new proposal.

How do you expect the relationship between South Korea and the United States to develop over the next five years, or the next 25 years?

Choi: The relationship between our countries will have continued relevance in the 21st century. Korea has come of age, both in terms of democracy and in terms of the free market, politically and economically. With the free trade agreement, Korea has become an increasing global partner for the United States. We have moved from peninsular to regional to even global in many areas.

While in St. Louis, you laid a wreath at the Korean War memorial in Forest Park. What was that experience like? Did you encounter any animosity?

Choi: It was very moving. I met with about 30 Korean War veterans, including some who survived the Chosin engagement with the Chinese. Overall Missouri had 900 servicemen who did not return from Korea. I talked to every one of the veterans at the memorial, and I thanked them. We owe what Korea is today to them.

The only difference today between North Korea and South Korea is that we had the good fortune to have America as a friend and North Korea had the misfortune to have Russia as a friend. We owe it to the sacrifice of your servicemen in the Korean War.

There was no animosity there, but after my speech at Saint Louis University someone came up to me to complain how some members of the young generation in Korea in the past have taken an anti-American attitude. I told him that was very uncomfortable. He said that is not the way to express your gratitude to people who come to help you. I told him I knew what he meant. They were wrong. They were misguided. They had misplaced youthful energy. It was a sign of immaturity pure and simple.

Now they have come of age, they have matured. And the newer generation has become more practical. More appreciative of the history between the United States and Korea.

Talk about your experience as the U.N. envoy to Cote d’Ivoire, trying to smooth the transition after the elections of 2010, when losing candidate incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down. Sounds like you had a rough time, not exactly like sitting here in the Chase talking about international trade.

Choi: The outgoing party lost the election, and we were there to certify the results. I had the ultimate authority to tell them the truth, and I told them the truth: You have lost the election. You must go. They didn’t like it. They said to us, you must go. You should leave the country. I said you invited me to certify the election.

We had 12,000 staff people in the country, including 10,000 troops. We were under siege for a month. We slept in our office for a month. Toward the end of the siege, they cut off our water supply because they were desperate, so we ended up having to use purified water from a well. They brought in a helicopter to fly us out, but there were sandstorms so we couldn’t fly. We had to eat military MREs for a week. In the end, they went to more extreme measures and even used heavy weapons against their own people.

That is part of the reason that we decided to mount a military operation, to neutralize their heavy weapons. And it was successful.

Compared to that, here there is no comparison, and I have no complaints.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.