On Cultural Encounters and Tangents

Agriculture Import tariffs – Korea imposes high tariffs on most imported products from automobiles to furniture to agricultural products while enjoying exporting cars, computer chips, electronics and ships. This method has helped it to have a trade surplus instead of a deficit but has angered trading partners.

The first time I tried to make beef and veggie curry a year and a half ago I went across the street to my local butcher shop and got half a kilo (1.1lb) of cubed chuck. It came to ten dollars. I thought I was being ripped off so I called my husband, who asked his friend, who called his wife, who verified that it was the right price. South Korea used to be America 's third biggest importer of beef, but stopped importing altogether (following Japan 's lead) in December 2003 because of the discovery of mad cow disease in an American cow. At its peak in 2003, the U.S. shipped about 300,000 tons of beef to South Korea . Now Australia is the biggest importer. Last year they shipped 100,000 tons (even McDonald's burgers contain Australian beef). This past December, after much political talk, South Korea (and Japan ) agreed to accept shipments again but specified that only boneless meat from cattle less than 30 months old (20 months for Japan ) would be permitted. Three shipments of nine tons were rejected and sent back by Korea because miniscule bone fragments were found ( Japan continues to accept theirs). That month eleven U.S. senators expressed their disagreement in Washington , saying they would not support the KOR-U.S. Free Trade Agreement if the beef trade is not normalized. They said it's next to impossible to cut up a cow and not have shreds of bone fragments in the meat. They asked that any Hyundai car, Samsung computer chip or cell phone that breaks down be shipped back. So far no new shipments have been made.

When I started writing this article I was of the opinion that S. Korea was just stalling to protect their own farmers, but during the research I found many American websites that decry a mad-cow cover-up by the U.S. government which is trying to protect its own beef industry: www.organicconsumers.org/madcow.cfm

History repeats itself. Many countries have practiced imposing high tariffs or banning imports in order to protect their own economy. Usually it backfires. In the eighties the three big U.S. automakers asked the federal government to impose limits on foreign imports (Japanese cars) to protect American jobs. This forced Japanese automakers to send top-of-the-line cars and to improve their performance. Thus they could make more profit per car instead of sending the smaller cheaper cars. Later they just started building the factories in the U.S. to bypass the quota restrictions.

In 1928 Herbert Hoover's election campaign was to raise tariffs on foreign agricultural imports in order to help the American farmers. When he became president and was fulfilling his promise other industrial-sector special-interest groups lobbied (and won) to add many other tariff protections. Afterwards, many foreign trading partners retaliated by raising tariffs on American products. In 1934 (Great Depression years), world trade had gone down by two-thirds from what it had been in 1929.

It's natural that parents will try to protect the family budget and likewise that a government will try to protect its people's livelihood. The whole Korean peninsula is about the size of Oklahoma but it is 70% mountainous. Add to that, it's split into North and South. The southern part is smaller than the northern side but has more people. The north has about 24 million people and the south has 48 million people ( Oklahoma has about 3.5 million). An average farmer's land plot is about 3.5 acres (compared to Oklahoma 's average 136-acre farm) Overall, Korea is an exemplary country in it's achievement of quickly developing into a major world economic hub after being leveled by the Korean War (1950-1953) and Japanese-occupation. The per-capita-income is about U.S $30,000. In order to keep the gap from widening between the farmers and the technical or industrial workers the government tries to protect the farmers' livelihood. The farmers are subsidized and the consumers pay taxes through the nose in order to offset the subsidies. But most city dwellers say they don't mind, it's the right thing to do. The people that complain the most are the foreign import nations because of the high tariffs that make it difficult to compete. I have yet to see long grain rice on the shelves. There are a variety of rice brands on the shelves but they're all the sticky-rice variety. It doesn't taste the same. A ten kilo (22lbs) bag of rice is about $35.00. Korea and Japan both agreed to open up the rice market to the U.S. despite the farmers' complaints. As expected, the countries' farmers couldn't compete with the cheaper foreign rice. Japan encouraged its farmers to give up farming and educated them for something else and supplemented their income and the price of rice in Japan is now low and stable. Korea encouraged its farmers to continue farming while subsidizing them and taxing the consumers. The price of rice keeps getting higher.

One last thing, I didn't finish my investigation about this next issue, maybe somebody else can take the baton. Last week I went to Costco (American store, competitor of Sam's) with 2 female Koreans. The bakery smelled good so I stopped by to get some bread. I asked them if they planned to buy any since it's relatively cheap They said, “No, the label says that the wheat is from America .”

“So?” I asked.

One said, “Don't you know? America puts tons of preservatives in their grain or milled flour before they ship it so it can be “fresh” when it arrives a month later to Korea . We shouldn't eat it. I know that Korean wheat flour and bread is twice as expensive but I buy it for my family's safety.”

I asked a variety of other people over the weekend. They all said the same thing. They said they hear it on the news all the time and in health magazines. So, If it's in your (the reader's) best interest to look into this, let us know by a letter to the editor if America does add preservatives to export grains and milled flour or are Koreans being lied to by the government to protect their farmers further.