WASHINGTON - The former Big 3 automakers have launched a new campaign against the South Korean government and Korean automakers, accusing them of aggressively boosting exports while discouraging imports.
'It is the most closed (automobile) market in the world,' said Charles Uthus, vice president of the Automotive Trade Policy Council. The council represents General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler on international trade issues.
The push to expand automotive import sales in South Korea coincides with likely bids by two and perhaps all three of the companies for the carmaking assets of Korea's debt-laden Daewoo Group.
Uthus said there is no connection between the Daewoo auction and the new effort to boost exports to Korea.
He said that even if one of the three companies becomes an owner of Daewoo, it and the others likely would still want to sell imported vehicles in Korea.
Only 2,400 imported vehicles were sold in South Korea in 1999, the council said. That's 0.2 percent of total sales there. Last year, Korean carmakers sold 329,571 vehicles in the United States.
The council's ally in the new jawboning campaign is the association of European carmakers, known as ACEA. The effort began in Brussels at the end of January and will continue with a joint council-ACEA event in Washington in March.
Companies that want to export more vehicles to Korea didn't press the issue while that nation struggled to overcome an economic crisis, Uthus said.
Even with a healthy recovery now in progress, import vehicle sales there are at their lowest level since 1990, he said. At the same time, Korean vehicle exports are at an all-time high, accounting for nearly 60 percent of production.
The council isn't calling for trade sanctions against Korea, but Uthus said nothing is being ruled out.
Such rumblings always concern American dealers who sell imported vehicles. Don Reilly, president of Fairfax Hyundai of Fairfax, Va., was at a trade policy briefing last week and asked U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky if she is concerned about rising Korean imports here. She said she does not see a problem at this time.
The United States and South Korea avoided a big automotive trade dispute with a 1998 agreement that Uthus said had some good provisions, but what really matters is 'how many cars you sell,' he added.
American and European carmakers contend that, despite Korean government and industry claims to the contrary, consumers there are intimidated into shunning imported products.