Chun's visit to US signaled new stability
President Chun Doo Hwan's highly successful visit to Washington brought smiles of relief to people throughout South Korea. First, there was the boost to national morale in seeing their new leader publicly feted at the White House, establishing once and for all his political legitimacy.
That and the earlier commutation of the capital-punishment sentence imposed on opposition politician Kim Dae Jung removed the dark clouds that hung over US-Korea relations last year.
Business was back to normal, and Korean newspapers each day during the Chun visit and for at least a week afterward were filled with optimistic stories of a new era of cooperation and mutual benefits. Everyone agreed that the final seal had been put on the return to national economic stability.
With Japan also in a forgiving mood once the troublesome Kim case was settled , Korea had thus reestablished good relations with the two countries dominating half its external trade.
Korea's emergence as a trading nation was undoubtedly one of the major economic success stories of the 1970s.
Commodity exports increased 17 times in current prices during the decade from 38 percent on average, raising Korea to the world's 17th largest exporter.
In 1980 the growth was less spectacular due to recession, although an all-out drive in the final quarter enabled the country to just top its export target of "because we had deliberately set our sights low."
Import growth has been equally rapid at an annual rate of 30 percent during the past decade, reaching $20.3 billion in 1979 and topping $22 billion in 1980.
In both sectors the United States has been and will remain a vital partner.
In 1970 almost half of Korea's exports went to the US and 28 percent to Japan. In 1979 the figures were 29 and 22 percent respectively.
In that same period, Korean imports from the US have shrunk from 29.5 to 22.7 percent, while Japan has gone from 40.7 to 32.8 percent.
Understandably, the Koreans want to diversify, especially away from the Japanese with whom there has always been a chronic trade imbalance that defies solution.
But Chang Sun Whan, president of the Korea Trade Promotion Corporation (KOTRA), certainly believes the improved US-Korea political climate will lead to expanded two-way trade, especially as the Economic Cooperation Council the two countries established some years ago will meet again this year after a gap in 1980.
Of course, there are problems including American import restrictions on products where Korean industry is now particularly competitive, like textiles, shoes, television, sets, etc.
But Mr. Chang says: "We have to understand the political and economic pressures that have led to these restraints being imposed. It's meaningless to push harder. Instead we have to switch to other products and look for new markets where there is no import quota problem."
This sentiment is echoed by a number of top Korean businessmen.
As far as American exporters are concerned, the Korean market offers considerable growth potential as demand grows for capital and technology to achieve the big breaththrough to heavy industry.
For example, there is an ambitious government program to invest some $350 million in energy efficient equipment for industry this year.
Korean officials were expecting several American business missions to descend on Seoul this spring to seize the opportunity to sell equipment and conclude licensing agreements with local companies.
Overall, Koreans want to talk to Americans about joint production ventures for exports to third markets and cooperation in natural-resources development.
There is also some hope the Reagan administration will soften import regulations on Korean goods from the point of view that an industrially and economically strong South Korea will be much more able to stand on its own feet (with less US military support) against any threat from the communist North.
Quota increases on textiles and color television sets, for example, would be most welcome.
Korean officials point out that last year this country exported commodities worth $4.6 billion to the US while importing some $5 billion worth.
With this imbalance in mind, they feel there is room for some American generosity this year.