Free trade: More SpongeBob for Korea

A new trade agreement could mean higher prices for drugs and a proliferation of American TV shows.

Published April 2, 2007 5:43PM (EDT)

Despite blanket media coverage Monday morning of the "successful" conclusion of a "free trade agreement" between the United States and South Korea, details of exactly what concessions the two sides made on some of the knottiest issues are hard to come by, so far.

We do know that the gnarliest roadblock of them all, Korea's well-protected rice farmers, was left out of the final agreement entirely. Another contentious issue, whether to treat products manufactured by South Korean companies in the North Korean industrial enclave of Kaesong, has apparently been tabled for further negotiation.

Most news reports indicate that the two sides came to agreement on pharmaceuticals, without providing much in the way of additional clarity. During the 10-month negotiations, treatment of pharmaceuticals was a highly contentious topic -- Koreans were especially annoyed that the U.S. demanded the right to prevent the Korean government from being able to choose, in advance, what drugs its public health insurance plans would pay for. But the most information I've found so far was this summary in a Korean newspaper.

Following the deal, Korean consumers will enjoy cheap American oranges and vehicles, but will have to pay more to buy American pharmaceuticals.

The deal will strengthen intellectual property rights, thus criminalizing acts of copyright infringement of online content. Television stations will also be obliged to show more American movies and programs.

Do cheaper oranges make up for more expensive cancer drugs? I don't think so, but I also have to admit to being distracted from all things Big Pharma by the last sentence in that passage: Television stations will also be obliged to show more American movies and programs. Say what? Free trade means required viewing of "The Sopranos" and "American Idol"? Cultural imperialism rears its SpongeBob-shaped head, again!

What's going on? Apparently, the dispute isn't so much about programming as it is about how much foreigners are allowed to invest in Korean media companies.

The Korea Times, reporting on March 28:

Cable TV firms joined the row of anti-free trade protestors along with rice farmers and Uri Party leaders, asking the government not to open the broadcasting industry to foreigners in their ongoing free trading agreement (FTA) talks with the United States.

A group of cable TV broadcasters and content providers held a street rally Wednesday in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul saying they will make all-out efforts to maintain barriers on foreign shareholders in Korean media firms. Under South Korean law, foreigners cannot hold more than 49 percent of shares in a broadcasting firm or more than 30 percent in a newspaper company.

The association disparaged the U.S. demand to open the market as "cultural imperialism," insisting that its ratification would allow massive U.S. capital to swallow the fledgling Korean cable TV industry, and would thus damage the public interest.

How's that for a definition of "free trade": opening up your media industry so that foreign capital can control what gets broadcast to your citizens?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works