Korea — Land of Passion, Emotion
A noted American lawyer said Korea needs to create a country ruled by law and rationality, not by passion and emotionalism, if it wants to join the league of advanced countries.
In a recent interview with The Korea Times, Jeffrey Jones, a naturalized Korean who headed the American Chamber of Commerce Korea (AmCham), citied two cases ― American beef imports and the Lone Star case ― as examples that show passion, emotionalism and negative public opinion taking precedence over rationality, science, fact and law in Korea.
Surprisingly, Jones stood by the President Lee Myung-bak's decision on the beef issue, saying, ``President Lee absolutely made the right decision on the issue because American beef is not going to harm Korean consumers.''
``It's not an issue based on fact. Even beef over 30 months isn't harmful. The problem with the beef issue is there is no substance in the argument. It's an emotional issue. It's an emotional issue because people fear that they will be harmed,'' he said.
Of late, the President's Lee's popularity has hit the rock bottom due to the mishandling of two key issues ― beef imports and a grand canal project ― which many believe was caused by his administration's amateurism.
Jones, who is known as ``a Korean with blue eyes'' because of his special interest and affection toward Korea, stressed that in order to join the league of advanced economies, Korea must create a country ruled by law.
``It is getting better but very often the law is influenced by the public opinion, as shown in the Lone Star case,'' he said. ``In Korea, passion often leads before rationality.''
Jones, a senior lawyer at Kim & Chang, one of the largest law firms in Korea, cited the Lone Star case as an example of a lack of progress in Korea's deregulation or an intrinsic resistance to it.
``A lot of private equity funds and many foreign companies have been frightened by the Lone Star case, and that's had an impact on foreign investment coming into Korea,'' he said.
In particular, Lone Star, the largest shareholder of the KEB, was recently found guilty of stock price manipulation involving its acquisition of KEB's credit card unit.
However, Jones, who has lived in Korea since 1980, discounted concerns over the government's negative feelings toward foreign private funds.
``I don't think the government is so much against them but there is very negative public opinion toward Lone Star, and that strong negative public opinion makes it very difficult for the government to take positive action on the issue,'' he said.
On ways of stimulating the local mergers and acquisitions market, Jones advised the government to take three key actions, saying, ``The government should boost business activities to improve the M&A market.
``You always boost business activities by basically doing three things ― lower taxes, making it easier for companies to move through deregulation, and creating an environment where people feel confident,'' he said.
Asked about how to evaluate the performance of the Lee administration, Jones said that Lee is doing a great job.
``He has the correct mind-set to put in place policies to ensure that the economy grows and we create jobs for people,'' he said. ``Foreign investors are confident that Lee will do the right thing.''
Since its inauguration in late February, the Lee administration has pushed for a large-scale deregulation drive to create a more business-friendly environment for foreign investors.
However, many foreign businessmen and investors here are skeptical about the government's plans as most of them in the past have ended up making a few changes in micro sectors and leaving key rules uncertain and ambiguous.
He said that Seoul should put a top priority on speeding up deregulation by making rules more lucid in order to attract more inbound investment.
``Korea's regulation system is full of uncertainties and ambiguities. Interpretation has too much discretion, which leads to more and more government controls,'' he added, emphasizing that specificity will give greater predictability
``People often think that deregulation is getting rid of regulations but giving specificity is another kind of deregulation,'' he said.