In the 1960s and 70s, when Korea was under a military dictatorship, then-President Park Jeong-hee paid keen attention to exports. At a monthly conference for expanding and promoting exports, some 100 people, including ministers, business leaders, presidents of banks, and other leaders of export-related organizations, gathered, and the president himself checked export results by items and provinces and asked questions. Business leaders would complain of government policies and other difficulties, and other participants took notes. Next month, authorities concerned reported follow-up measures to the president. At this time of each year, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry would be in a rush in order to accomplish the export target of the year. Officials encouraged shipping, urged industries to exceed the target, and even forced below-cost exports. It seemed that Korea was conducting war of exports with the president as the commander in chief.
In the early 60s, when the amount of annual export was $50 million to $80 million, Koreas major export industries were mining, farming, and fishing. At that time, the recruitment exam of the Bank of Korea required applicants to name the five main export items of the country. The correct answer was rice, tungsten, iron ore, raw silk, and agar. In the 1970s, other items such as wigs, shoes, and textiles replaced them.
Ocean fishing has also played a major role in exports. Korean fishery companies rented worn-out boats from Japan because the Japanese government allowed only five-year-or-older ships to be hired. The Japanese ship owners even interfered with the sales of fish catches. As the average height of Japanese was short at that time, beds on ships were no longer than 160cm (five feet and four inches.) For this reason, only short Koreans were employed as fishermen, and they had to endure long, dirty, and toilsome lives on board. Some of them unfortunately lost their lives in storms. On the west coast of Africa, there was a pelagic fishery base of Korea whose director was a smart and healthy Korean. He was under the superintendence of a weak-sighted Japanese worker dispatched by a declining Japanese fishing company. He had to prepare meals, do laundry and other sorts of duties for the Japanese worker.
The amount of exports this year is expected to surpass $250 billion. Past export industry frontiers are gone or not in service anymore, and future exports are in the hands of state-of-the-art facilities and the social elite. People are smarter, but their leadership, unity, and self-denying spirits are lost. Now Koreans are taking more interest in farmers protesting against market openings and people in the movie industry sticking to the screen quota system than FTA negotiations that will win Korea wider export markets.
Kim Young-bong, Guest editorial writer, Professor of economics at Jung-ang University, firstname.lastname@example.org