Living in Society

Retro Post: When I Met Colin Powell

Colin Powell and Jin Roy Ryu at dedication of Korean War Memorial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 1, 2010. Photo Credit: Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This post first ran on June 4, 2010. It was a relatively small gathering and I had a chance to shake Powell’s hand. Powell’s view of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement was illustrative of his mainstream political and economic values. Powell died yesterday of complications from COVID-19 at age 84.

Colin Powell and Free Trade in Iowa

This week former Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to dedicate a memorial to 507 Iowans who died during the Korean War. It is past time for such a memorial, and the event brought out Korean War Veterans, legionnaires, politicians and citizens of every stripe. While I was walking from the parking lot at Veteran’s Memorial Park to the seating area, an old van pulled up, windows open and Aaron Tippin’s song about eagles, the flag and “if that bothers you, well that’s too bad” booming into the air, shaking the pavement. A parking lot attendant in a military uniform told the driver, “Don’t turn that off.” It typified the gathering as predominantly working class, veteran and plain folks like us.

PMX Industries, Inc. was the host and funding source for the memorial. PMX is headquartered in Cedar Rapids and is an affiliate of the South Korea based Poongsan Corporation, whose tagline is, “Poongsan Corporation can, and will, contribute to human progress through our superior products.” PMX makes the copper and brass alloys that go into things we use every day, such as coinage, ammunition casings, electrical connectors and lock sets. Poongsan’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Jin Roy Ryu, was present for the dedication, posing for photos with dignitaries and assisting with the unveiling of the memorial. Chairman Ryu is politically well connected in the United States. He translated and published a Korean edition of Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. The author believes most in the audience had not heard of him. It also seems likely Ryu’s long standing relationship with Colin Powell brought him to Cedar Rapids for the ceremony.

Sid Morris, President of the Korean War Association Iowa Chapter, spoke and PMX President, S. G. Kim, gave a well written speech to mark the occasion. Many of us had come to hear Colin Powell speak.

In a world where cynicism is commonplace, when Powell advocated for ratification of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), it was unsettling. It was unsettling partly because of the potential for additional off-shoring of jobs a free trade agreement with South Korea would represent. According to the Office of the U. S. Trade representative, the treaty is signed but not ratified, with the status, “the Obama Administration will seek to promptly and effectively address the issues surrounding the KORUS FTA, including concerns that have been expressed regarding automotive trade.” The author is not the first to be concerned about the treaty’s encouragement of off shoring jobs to South Korea.

More than this reaction, what was bothersome was the way this advocacy was raised in the context of recognition of our Korean War Veterans. Why does there have to be a political agenda behind everything? When I look at the people sitting next to the podium, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, S.G. Kim, Colin Powell and Chairman Ryu, I believe all of them to be decent people. At the same time, in an economy where increasing the number of jobs has proven to be difficult at best, why politicize this dedication to fallen soldiers?

Powell’s assertion was that Korean investments in the United States have created jobs, like the ones at PMX Industries. His reasoning is that presumably there would be more investment by Korean companies in the US with a Free Trade Agreement. No guarantees of that. There would also be a trickle down of jobs related to new access to South Korean markets by U.S. companies. With U.S. productivity on the skids, some of these sales could be serviced through increases in productivity more than through expansion. In any case, the benefits of a Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement cannot be easily reduced to something that would fit in an Aaron Tippin song.

I am thankful that PMX Industries donated the funds for the Korean War memorial. At the same time, the interconnectedness of local politics, jobs and foreign affairs, as represented by the relationship between Jin Roy Ryu, Colin Powell and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, indicate again that the powerful influences at work in our lives have their own agenda. That agenda does not always fit the needs of working people.

Long after the applause at their private luncheon at the country club is forgotten, we’ll continue to be here, living our middle class lives in the post-Reagan era.