Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

SOUTH KOREA: ASIAN DYNAMO COMING ON STRONG Series: South Korea at the Crossroads

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

SOUTH KOREA: ASIAN DYNAMO COMING ON STRONG Series: South Korea at the Crossroads

Article excerpt


IF JAPAN IS the industrial superstar of Asia, South Korea is proof that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

With seven giant trading companies - including such familiar names as Samsung, Hyundai and Lucky Goldstar - South Korea is rapidly becoming Japan's head-to-head technological rival. By 2000, South Korea will have its own bullet train.

And though it may sound audacious for a country that was dirt poor and agriculture-based until the 1970s, South Korea intends to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by early 1997.

Only one Asian country has cracked this elite economic circle: Japan.

One American trade official, who asked not to be identified by name, said, "It's a wonderfully schizophrenic relationship where the Koreans detest the Japanese but have done an excellent job of copying the Japanese structure of the economy."

For South Korean resident Kim Young-sam, being admitted to the exclusive club of advanced countries would be more than an economic triumph. It would be a sign that this small country of 44 million has arrived as a free-market democracy.

For the United States, South Korea's entry into OECD would mark another kind of transition for South Korea - from dependent to competitor. Though South Korea still ranks far behind Japan as a U.S. trading partner, South Korea's rapid expansion and protectionist policies could eventually raise Japanese-style trading troubles with the United States.

Several major St. Louis companies have already set up operations in South Korea. Among them are Monsanto, with three companies and $80 million in annual sales. The St. Louis chemical manufacturer's stakes include a joint venture with a South Korean company, an industrial chemical company and a sales operation.

Ralston-Purina has four operations: a breakfast food factory, an animal feed plant, sales of Everready batteries and Protein Technologies International, which makes foods from soybean derivatives.

And now, says William Oberlin of the American Chamber of Commerce Koreas, "the beer wars are going on."

As part of its push to win buyers in the tough Asian market, Anheuser-Busch has a licensing agreement with Oriental Brewery Co. Ltd. to produce Budweiser for South Koreans. The St. Louis-based brewery claims to have more than 70 percent of the foreign beer market, which nonetheless remains a small part of overall beer consumption in South Korea.

While some critics question whether South Korea yet qualifies as an industrial power and a genuine democracy, foreign observers are generally amazed at its progress.

"This was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s and '60s," said one U.S. official who has lived in South Korea twice in 20 years. "Per capita income now is about $8,000. In the 1980s, they had double-digit growth here. They have world-class industries in shipbuilding, steel and autos, and they have a healthy export sector in consumer electronics."

Forty years ago, Seoul was in rubble, as U.S.-led U.N. forces battled North Korean communist troops.

Today, Taepyongo Street in central Seoul is 12 lanes wide and clogged with growling buses, trucks and sedans - most made in South Korea. Skyscrapers shoot up 40 and 50 stories.

Underground shopping centers, which double as pedestrian underpasses, are bursting with compact discs, video tapes, computers, sound equipment, leather goods, clothing and books. …

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