Mistranslation Shows Korea’s Poor Negotiating Power
The government is said to have been unable to understand Washington’s cattle feed rules during beef talks with U.S. officials and mistranslated certain parts of the cattle feed rules while officials were writing up question-and-answer material for the Korean public. The U.S. government had stated in the federal gazette that cattle less than 30 months old can be used for animal feed even if its fitness for human consumption has not been inspected and regardless whether their brains and spinal cords (the so-called specified risk materials) have been effectively removed. But our government explained that the U.S. government had done just the opposite, strengthening rules so that even cattle under 30 months old must pass for human consumption if it is to be used as feed.
The government said it seems someone at the “working level” failed to properly review the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s press release and probably mixed up the latest document with a preliminary legislation notice issued by the U.S. government in October 2005. It remains unclear whether the U.S. failed to explain its animal feed rules properly, or our negotiators failed to understand this during negotiations even though they did.
This mistranslation just about sums up the negotiating skills of our government. For some time now Korean government workers have been noted for their poor English and for limited knowledge of legal and negotiating skills in the language. In 2006, the government received an embarrassing e-mail from the OECD complaining that Korean officials who have been sent to work at the organization were not adapting to the English-speaking environment there.
Studies have shown that the directors at the government’s trade and international cooperation divisions spend less than a year in their posts, due to a policy of rotating government workers. This virtually guarantees defeat in international negotiations, since the system makes it impossible for officials to develop a professional knowledge of their fields, let alone sharpen their English language skills. The government should use this opportunity to review the negotiating skills of its workers and look for ways to train them or, failing that, hire people from outside the government for these crucial jobs.