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June 30, 2010

A final bite of kimchi?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is poised to make a renewed push for completion of a free trade agreement with South Korea. If the agreement moves ahead it will help President Obama make good on his pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years, but will do so by undermining public health in what was once touted as a model of health and wealth in Asia.

Korea’s experience up to just a few years ago showed that a sovereign nation that values its health and its culture can become wealthy without growing obese. As recently as 2001, nutritionist Barry Popkin and his colleagues wrote:

“South Korea provides an example of the possible benefits of promotion of health through retention of the traditional diet. Despite the very rapid economic change and the very high per capita GNP, South Korea’s fat intake level and obesity level are approximately half of what would be expected for a country at its level of economic development. In addition, its vegetable intake is much higher.

One plausible explanation is that movements to retain the traditional diet have been strong in South Korea. These include mass media campaigns, such as television programs that promote local foods, emphasizing their higher quality and the need to support local farmers. For example, KBS first station’s daily program, Six O’clock My Village, introduces famous products of South Korean villages and promotes consumption of traditional dishes. South Korea also promotes the concept of Sin-To-Bul-Yi, translated directly as “A body and a land are not two different things,” which is interpreted to mean that a person should eat foods produced in the land where he was born and lives.

Part of this effort is reflected in a unique training program offered by the Rural Development Administration. Beginning in the 1980s, the Home Management Division of the Rural Living Science Institute trained thousands of extension workers to provide monthly training sessions in cooking methods for traditional Korean foods, such as rice, kimchi (pickled and fermented Chinese cabbage) and fermented soybean food. These sessions are open to the general public in most districts in the country and the program appears to reach a large audience.”

Traditional diets were also maintained through government trade policies that protected Korean producers and largely kept out the worst international purveyors of fast food and junk food. Just this January, the government banned junk food advertising on television during the evening hours when most schoolchildren watch.

But as Popkin wrote in his subsequent book, The World is Fat, South Korea’s accession to the WTO and other free trade agreements (FTAs) weakened the government’s ability to discourage unhealthy imports. European food and beverage industry pundits drooled when the EU signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea in 2009 that “will bring the end of almost all tariffs between the two economies” by the middle of 2010.

These agreements, signed with almost no debate and in the face of widespread public opposition, have been devastating to the country’s farmers. But although protecting rural livelihoods and food security should be reason enough to reject trade deregulation, the mass movement in Korea against the FTA with the U.S. has also been rooted in deep concerns for national culture and public health. They know that along with Happy Meals and Chicken Nuggets, they will be importing Genuine American Style chronic disease and lower life expectancies.

Jim Harkness

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