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Korean U.S. Lobbying Effort Underway

Posted December. 09, 2006 07:57,   


Mr. L, who is engaged in lobbying to Washington, sent a message early this year to a senior official of U.S. Congress, the key figure in deciding whether to include South Korea in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). He said in the message, “I would like to meet you in person and I would really appreciate it if you could take time out for me.” However, the only answer he got was “ I am too busy these days.” Mr. L finally managed to get the permission to visit the senior official’s office, but when he did visit the official, the first thing he heard was, “Don’t ever think about lobbying to me.”

Mr. L had to return with frustration, but he never forgot to send a very polite letter to the official and say, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule, and I really appreciate it.” Then unexpected favorable responses started coming from the official and the relationship between Mr. L and the official has deepened enough to frequently have meal together and talk over the phone. It is needless to say that the official is now taking Korea’s side in the issue.

Still in its infant stage-

The Korean government started to pay attention to lobbying last spring. The government officials working in the Korean embassy in the U.S. were amazed to watch major bills being passed in the Congress by a narrow margin, which was the work of the lobbyists mobilized by the Republican leadership.

The Korean government started to search for the best lobbyists from the summer of 2005. After much consideration, the highest scores went to Scribe Strategies & Advisors, a lobby firm where Korean-American Tomas Kim works as a partner. Mr. Kim is an online consultant who worked with the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) after graduating from Georgetown University and School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. The Korean government signed a contract with Mr. Kim for lobbying on a trial basis, providing 10,000 dollars per month in a lobbying fund. Early this year, the government signed a formal contract with Mr. Kim to provide 30,000 dollars per month in lobbying fund for the enhancement of Korea-U.S. relations and the inclusion of Korea in the U.S. VWP. Aside from this, various lobbying activities have also begun in the economic sector as negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Korea and the U.S. are in full swing. Under the contract done by the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) and Korea International Trade Association (KITA), the Korean embassy in the U.S. is utilizing the power of lobbyists.

The most tangible product of Korean government lobbying activities for the past year is the enhanced support among lawmakers for a Korean visa waiver. In the House of Representatives, as many as 35 congressmen have sent letters to the Administration in support of Korea’s inclusion. One source from the U.S. administration said on December 7, “Last week, President Bush said the waiver program should be managed with more flexibility. It can be attributed to the stronger support of the revision of the program in Congress.”

Politeness counts-

Lobbyists and diplomats engaged in lobbying have made various and persistent efforts to meet with major lawmakers, advisors and journalists for the past year. After meeting with those figures once, the next thing to do is wine and dine them. Responses were different.

One senior official of the U.S. Congress was very strict and cold in the office but he became a different person in a restaurant.

Sometimes those major figures are invited to golf courses. Usually public courses that are middle-or high-class with 50 to 100 dollars per person in green fees are used, according to a lobbyist. Under the current regulation, the price limit on presents is 50 dollars, but it is not easy to find golf course that can be used with less than 50 dollars on a weekend near Washington.

However, one of the most powerful ways to influence politicians is, of course, to fund and vote. To lawmakers from districts with a large number of Korean voters, emphasizing the sentiment of Korean voters often leads to the response, “What can I do for you?” Then those lobbyists ask them, “ It would be a great help if you could write a letter to the Secretary of State in support of Korea’s visa waiver inclusion.” One lawmaker even sent a letter a week after receiving such request.

It is rare for lawmakers to ask for political funding blatantly, but if lobbyists completely ignore giving, some lawmakers express their disappointment.

One U.S. lawmaker from a southern state privately complained once, “ When I met Korean businessmen who have asked me to take time out for important talks, they tend to end up talking about themselves while asking me for favors.”

One lobbyist said, “At the end of meeting, many lawmakers or advisors carefully say, “We are expected to have somewhat busy time ahead next month because of our fund-raising campaign. Then in most cases, we attend the campaign and make some donation.”

Still, there is a long way to go-

When the resolution of the issue of Korean comfort women, who were conscripted as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, was discussed in the U.S. House of Representative, the Japanese government asked Bob Michel, the former House Republican leader of 1994, who came from Illinois, the same state as the current chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Henry Hide, to lobby on its behalf. Mr. Bob Michel is such a prominent figure so the condition of the contract was reportedly as much as 60,000 dollars a month for resolving the issue alone. It is incomparable to 30,000 dollars, the amount of money that the Korean government is spending per month in lobbying fund for all the current issues. According to data, together with corporate lobbying, Japan spent 13.41 million dollars and Taiwan spent 6.25 million dollars as of 2004.

It is also pointed out that “the problematic remarks” that frequently come from the ruling party and the presidential office hurt lobbying. Favorable sentiment toward Korea, which has built up after painstaking efforts, can be crumbled at once by such remarks.

sechepa@donga.com srkim@donga.com