TOKYO - It was a most frustrating trip, according to Andrew Card.
During a three-day visit to South Korea, Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, and Camille Blum, chairman of the association of European carmakers, or ACEA, presented a historic unified voice in meetings with Korean government officials.
Their message: The world's automakers are upset by a lack of access to the Korean market and by the excess capacity that Korean carmakers are adding at home and abroad.
In 1996, Koreans bought 1.6 million vehicles, but only 10,315 were imports. Meanwhile, Korea in about five years will have the capacity to build 6 million cars and trucks in a market only half that. The inevitable result will be rising Korean exports.
But the Koreans also presented a united front, Card said in an interview here. In meeting after meeting, they stonewalled the Westerners.
'We were very frustrated with the situation, and the responses,' Card said. 'We got no indication that the government is going to do anything.'
Card said he and Blum, along with representatives from their respective embassies, walked out of one meeting at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
'They weren't there to listen to us and had no intention of hearing us,' said Card. 'It was a remarkable demonstration of arrogance.'
One point of dispute was a so-called 'standstill' agreement in a U.S.-Korean accord signed in 1995, under which Korea promised to add no more barriers to imports.
Instead, Korea has imposed new taxes targeting segments such as sport-utilities and minivans where foreign carmakers are strong, Card said. Korea also has implemented new rules that essentially act as tariffs, he said.
For example, Korea recently set regulations on noise levels. But it failed to establish testing procedures by which foreign carmakers can determine if their models meet the rules.
As another example of what he termed backsliding, Card pointed to a 'subway bond' tax on vehicles in Seoul and Pusan, Korea's two largest car markets. The tax is 2.99 million won, or about $3,350 at current exchange rates, for an imported minivan, but only about $437 for a domestic minivan.
The different taxes for import and domestic models violate World Trade Organization rules, Card said.
But Korean analysts point out that domestic-brand vans are almost universally powered by diesels - which are heavily favored by Korean tax law. In contrast, imported minivans and sport-utilities typically are equipped with 3.0-liter or larger gasoline engines, which pay a gas-guzzler penalty whether installed in cars or trucks.