The decision by the Korean government this week to renege on its agreement to import American beef has deeply perplexed its negotiating partners in the United States.
``We are in close contact with the Korean government in an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation,'' said Sean Spicer, the spokesman at the U.S. Trade Representative Office in an interview with Yonhap News. That's Washington-speak for ``what the xxxx just happened?''
The U.S. ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, came out and said that the deal agreed in April addresses the science of the mad cow issue and provides effective measures to ensure the safety of beef exported to Korea and therefore doesn't need to be renegotiated.
That was a good point.
So why then would the opposition Democratic Labor Party say that we were back in the 1940s when an American military government ruled Korea? Why would the leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, say that the ambassador insulted the Korean people by saying they should learn science?
While we're asking, why would tens of thousands of people join protests about mad cow disease without asking the critical question, ``Why aren't Americans protesting against American beef?'' Why would the government choose to perplex its foreign partners rather than argue its case to its own people?
The answer to all of the above is that Americans are from Mars and Koreans are from Venus, meaning that Americans suppress emotion in public discourse because they believe that we can move forward if we engage rationally, whereas Koreans do the opposite.
Imagine for a moment that the two sides articulated their positions the other way round. Ambassador Vershbow could say, ``If Korea refuses our beef, I will be forced to make a grave decision.'' I know, it sounds flaky, and the DLP would still say it sounds like 1947 because that's the song that keeps playing in their heads. But the UDP's Sohn and President Lee would get it.
That alludes to what Sohn Hak-kyu said a week ago:
"We will be forced to make a critical decision if the government pushes through its plan to announce resumption of beef imports," said Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party, Yonhap reported.
"If the government and the ruling party ignore this warning, we will come up with every possible measure to stop them."
And is in line with his attitude of late, telling the US to check itself before it wreck itself, and mistranslating Ambassador Vershbow's comments in order to whip up some more hysteria. Sohn then came out and said "the ambassador has insulted all South Koreans with such a remark," the remark Sohn mistranslated in the first place, showing us that Koreans really need to work on definite articles. Sohn said the ambassador should officially apologize. As an aside, I'm curious if anyone has done any serious scholarship on the culture of apologies here. That is, what's expected, what constitutes proper atonement, and whether the apology bestowes forgiveness on the person or is merely a cease and desist. Of course Gusts of Popular Feeling did a comparison recently of an apology to comfort women and a non-apology to those offended by the Coreana "Hitler" ads, and I can't find the link now but I remember an article making a subtle distinction between "apology" and "regret" or something when it came to the Chinese hooligans at the torch relay in April. Guilt is certainly wielded as a powerful weapon, and I wonder if in extreme cases some Koreans would even trade that in for a proper apology.
Sohn is kickin it in Gimje back in April, less panicked around infected poultry in his hands than potentially diseased cattle in his imagination.
I was reminded of a couple of passages in Breen's 1998 book The Koreans. I read it several years ago and bought it last month for some light reading, and flipping through it just now to find the excerpts, it looks like there's some good anecdotes in there that still hold true a decade later. Here are a couple on corporate culture and negotiating tactics in line with what Breen wrote in today's KT. Here is James Harting, Coca-Cola Korea Company President, talking about his affiliation with a Korean chaebol, or conglomerate, on page 154:
. . . As a simple example of the problems associated with such partnerships [with chaebol], the bottling firms bought their bottles and cans from their own affiliates, and at high prices, a common technique for both reducing profit and helping out a sister company. In 1997, the American company restructured its business in Korea after several years of frustration with local bottling partners. It set up its own bottling company and bought the assets of its Korean bottlers. Haggling over the value of assets got acrimonious and saw some serious brinkmanship. Harting had death threats from labour unions during this time and hired bodyguards for his western directors.
'We took a western approach,' he says. 'We had meetings and then walked out of them if things didn't go well. This really shocked them. With one bottler, I had to go from a final meeting to the airport. We'd already agreed but when we finally came to sign, they wanted to re-debate the details. It was like an agreement was never a final agreement. I said, if you don't sign now, there's no offer. No deal. You keep your assets. I really had to go, so I got my coat and picked up my briefcase and still they said nothing. I walked to the door and put my hand on the doorknob, and the company president said, "OK, give me the paper." It was a $60 million gamble. They had a real emotional attaachment to their identity as the Coca-Cola bottler. There weas a major wringing of ahnds, sucking of teeth, and tears. "What's going to become of us now?" they said. What was so frustrating for me was that we had been telling them all along that we would really help them if they would just show willingness to improve the business. We really wanted to keep them as bottlers. But they didn't see it.'
And on pages 168-9, in the chapter on "Foreign Business" and immediately following the transcript of a mind-boggling cockpit conversation between a Canadian pilot and a Korean co-pilot right before their plane went down on Jeju:
For Koreans, decisions still seem to be negotiable long after agreement has been made. For westerners, this tendency can be infuriating. A foreign inveestment banker who had been involved in a complicated financing deal with a major conglomerate turned up at the final signing ceremony, with the heads of several affiliates in attendance, to find that the company's negotiator wanted to renegotiate a crucial term of the agreement. The banker refued to change his position and got aggressive, at some personal risk.
'Had they said the deal was off, it would have been very career-damaging for me,' he said. But I knew this was the only way to deal with the Koreans. The annoying thing was that this term had been in the deal from the beginning several weeks earlier.' He got his way after two hours and the ceremony went ahead.
And then of course there's this oft-quoted rant from an unidentified expat banker, with the money shot bolded by me:
'I make it a point never to buy any Korean products on principle. Why? I will not support such a rabidly nationalistic, xenophobic and mercantilist economy. Koreans are so predatory and nationalistic. They have a closed economy and a zero-sum attitude to trade. Protectionism in the early stages of an economy is not unreasonable. But in the case of Korea it is almost a religious doctrine to keep foreign things out. If you buy a foreign car, you're sseen as a traitor. They pick narrow industrial sectors and all jump in like copycats. If I see a Korean sports team, I root for the other side. Why? Because they're so full of themselves that they leave no room for other parties to participate and enjoy themselves. The 1988 Olympics was worse than the Hitler Games of 1936. Dealing with Koreans is like dealing with bright adolescents. They're full of energy and want to do everything yesterday. But they throw tantrums and are prone to dangerous and erratic behaviour if their whims are not indulged. In most countries, intellectuals become universal. You learn that great ideas and values have no national boundaries. What is profoundly disturbing is that Korean intellectuals become more xenophobic and nationalistic, and perpetrate the idea that all of Korea's problems are the result of wilfulness of foreigners. This is the mark of a scoundrel.'
Boooooooooy oh boy. That guy makes a lot of valid points, and there are plenty of days I agree with him more than I ought to admit. But something I'll mention here and explore a little more in a few days on an upcoming post on VANK (haha), when you're going up against stubbornness, ignorance, and perhaps flat-out idiocy, it's very easy to become just as passionate, ugly, and foolish in your rebuttals. I mean, try having a conversation with a Korean about the Liancourt Rocks that isn't totally ridiculous and that doesn't end in somebody cursing the other. But man, the "you must understand our culture" line kills me every time . . . dumb enough when people say it to me, but to the fucking Ambassador? Fu-hu-hu-huck you.