Invitation by Rich Nations 'Club' Puts S. Korea on Notice

In what is becoming a kind of a rite of passage for the world's new dynamic economies, South Korea has been offered membership in the "club" of rich nations.

A long-coveted prize, membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was something the nation couldn't have imagined 35 years ago. Then, South Korea was just beginning its recovery after the 1950-53 Korean War and had begun its blitzkrieg industrialization.

Membership will require Seoul to adhere to the OECD's philosophy of free trade and economic openness and also give it a platform to discuss issues like trade dispute resolution, development aid, and environmental degradation. For Koreans, acceptance has been a mark of prestige.

But has South Korea really arrived?

Advocates point to its unprecedented economic growth - in 35 years, per capita income has soared from under $100 to $10,000 today. And, South Korea boasts the world's 11th largest economy.

But critics say South Korea meets only 65 percent of the criteria for membership recommended by the OECD. The average for new members is 89 percent, they say.

Reforms recommended by the OECD, which economists here say will benefit South Korea in the long run, were often referred to here as "concessions." And some OECD member countries worry that South Korea will drag its feet on enacting the detailed liberalization timetables it agreed to.

George Williams, president of the American Chamber of Commerce here, notes that the OECD has no teeth to enforce the timetables. Other than peer pressure, "it is very difficult for the OECD to put pressure on a member," he says.

Meanwhile, opposition party politicians may be glad the obligations aren't binding. They say allowing capital to suddenly move freely in and out of South Korea could be disastrous for the economy.

But proponents say membership is a needed catalyst to accelerate economic reforms, which will be in South Korea's interest anyway, but are politically infeasible without a push. Entrenched players here, like the conglomerates nurtured on protected markets and the finance ministry's bureaucrats who micromanaged the economy for years, resist change.

AN "enlightened minority" of advisers in President Kim Young Sam's administration is using foreign forces as a way to make Koreans swallow an unpalatable pill, says Kim Jong-seok, an economics professor at Hongik University here. "There has been a historical struggle between those who want to open society to international influences and those who would like to keep it closed."

But reforms spurred by OECD membership could help solve many of South Korea's economic problems. Open markets will provide domestic competition for manufacturers and make them more competitive. Free capital flows will lower domestic interest rates and cheapen the cost of financing. And deregulation and transparency will attract companies which would bring with them cutting-edge technologies and management practices that South Korea lacks.

"Rationalization will speed the natural evolution of companies" from labor-intensive to technology-intensive industries, says Steve Marvin, an analyst at Ssangyong Securities in Seoul. Delaying OECD entry "would delay South Korea's move up the value-added food chain."

Some say that, by simply observing how the OECD works, Seoul will gain a better idea of how a market democracy with developed and transparent institutions is run.

Despite South Korea's low rate of compliance to OECD recommendations, foreign businesses want to encourage what reforms they can in order to increase openings and lower the cost of doing business here. After all, despite its anachronisms, South Korea is Asia's most developed market after Japan, and this year passed Germany as America's fifth-largest trading partner.

Once invited, actual membership in the OECD requires ratification in South Korea's National Assembly, a move opposition parties here promise to block. But observers say, if the heart-wrenching opening of South Korea's rice markets in 1994 could pass - over a petition with more than 13 million signatures - anything can.

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