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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Times on June 11)

All News 09:09 June 11, 2016

Protectionist minister
Yoon's remarks to trigger imported car dealers' protest

The Ministry of Environment is now trying to discipline Volkswagen for its cheating on emissions levels, while leading the fight to reduce fine dust, looming as a key health hazard.

Minister Yoon Seong-kyu has tied the two ― revealing that the latest measures against fine dust may target Volkswagen and by extension foreign carmakers.

In a meeting with editorial writers Thursday, Yoon said, "The fine dust measures will help dampen the rise of imported car sales."

One attendee warned the minister that he should be more careful in his choice of words. Only then did he say that, "They would have such an effect," although he didn't mean the main purpose of the measures was to reduce the growth of imported car sales. The impression was that he wouldn't be unhappy to see their sales go down.

Yoon's remarks are not suitable for a top bureaucrat of the nation, with an economy that relies heavily on trade. Particularly so for a minister who is leading a tough international fight to force Volkswagen to admit cheating and clean up the mess it created. Volkswagen currently has resisted the ministry's demands for a detailed, good-faith plan to deal with over 120,000 diesel-powered cars it has sold here. These cars passed muster by employing a defeat device that was aimed at fooling indoor tests.

Already some imported dealers suspect that the anti-diesel measures target imported cars. The measures included the revocation of environment improvement charges, a 50 percent discount in traffic congestion fees and in public parking lot fees, among others. Once implemented, it would significantly reduce the attractions of buying diesel cars, hitting imported carmakers.

Imported cars account for 15.5 percent of total car sales in Korea and their share is expected to increase to 20 percent, with diesel having occupied over 60 percent of their sales. Only one in 10 of the top selling cars is gasoline-powered. Europe is the powerhouse for clean diesel, the myth of which is being shattered by the Volkswagen scandal. If European carmakers are disaffected, the domestic carmakers would enjoy some benefits.

Yoon's protectionist remarks could give these European carmakers an excuse to join hands in raising suspicions that the Korean government uses these measures to protect its car industry, in turn causing their countries to take retaliatory measures against Korean cars being sold in their markets.

It is possible that Volkswagen or Nissan, the Japanese carmaker that also faces allegations that their cars generate too much pollution, would use Yoon's remarks to challenge the ministry's punitive actions. The ministry is now legally entangled in lawsuits under way against Volkswagen, while Nissan is threatening to sue the ministry.

The ministry appears to be applying domestic approaches to this affair, perhaps out of its lack of global experience. But it shouldn't, and the top priority for such a change is to give a sense of fairness to the parties it has disputes with. By these standards, Yoon's remarks leave a lot to be desired.

colin@yna.co.kr
(END)

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