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[Lee Jae-min] The perfect not the enemy of the good

Ironically, it was Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, who made a case for the importance of prompt ratification and implementation of Korea’s free trade agreements with the European Union and the United States. At the Trade Negotiation Committee meeting last Friday, the WTO chief officially acknowledged that the Doha negotiation is now “on the brink of failure” unless a big breakthrough is found to bridge the wide gaps among the countries. He warned that the failure of the round would risk a “slow, silent weakening of the multilateral trading system in the longer term.” 

The gloomy confession of the WTO chief will further stoke the skepticism for the multilateralism enshrined in the WTO and force the countries to find an alternative in a bilateral setting: i.e., free trade agreements. In fact, FTAs have already become the focal point of the trade policy of many trading powers as a Plan B to safeguard their respective trade interests by ensuring access to the markets of major trading partners regardless of the unpredictable outcome of the Doha Round. China and Japan have recently made significant strides by concluding FTAs with Taiwan and India, respectively. The United States seems ever more enthusiastic about the idea of a trans-Pacific FTA, called TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership). The EU, on its part, signed a trilateral FTA with Peru and Colombia just two weeks ago. In all likelihood, Lamy’s statement last Friday signals that the global FTA drive will further intensify. In that regard, the recent development in Geneva is tantamount to blaring alarms and flashing lights for Korea as well, a country 44 percent of whose gross domestic product depends upon the export. Securing stable access to major markets through bilateral agreements is way more critical to Korea than to any other country.

Coincidentally, last Friday was also the day when the Korean National Assembly was supposed to table the much-debated Korea-EU FTA at the plenary session for the deliberation and voting for the agreement’s ratification, following the agreement’s passage of the Foreign Relations Committee the previous day. The plenary session deliberation and voting were postponed until May due to the difference of views between the ruling and opposition camps.

Korea and the EU have set the date of the (provisional) entry into force of the bilateral FTA as July 1, 2011. The 27-member EU moved quickly and completed its internal procedure back in February, and is now waiting for Korea to do its part. As is well known, the translation issue has turned out to be an embarrassing stumbling block for Korea. Since the issue was raised in early March, corrections have been made and multiple reviews conducted. Obviously, there is no reason to spend another couple of months to go through the agreement article by article and word by word to exhaust all theoretical possibilities. Treaty conclusion is an important national business. That is more so when it comes to treaties like the FTAs now at hand. However, at the same time, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

There are many things to be done to bring a treaty into effect. The Korea-EU FTA is no different. It is not simply as if the president appears on national TV and announces that the FTA is now in effect. To meet the July 1 as the effective date, multiple implementing legislations should be adopted and various logistical issues should be arranged beforehand. Put differently, ratification is not the end but actually the start of the complex preparation. The longer Korea delays this post-ratification domestic process, the more likely it is for clerical mistakes to pry themselves in at the last minute. As an old proverb goes, the devil lies in the details. Then, an assertion that ratification in June (i.e., after spending one more month) is still sufficient to meet the July 1 deadline is so out of touch with reality. July 1 is just 60 days away.

Partly due to the lame development in Doha Round and partly due to the concern over the EU’s early securing of a beachhead in the Korean market, Washington is also moving quickly now to bring the 47 months-old Korea-U.S. FTA to fruition. In his speech in Seoul last week, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke even mentioned that the United States is ready to complete the ratification earlier than Korea does.

The recent development in Geneva and the global FTA-frenzy atmosphere further underscore the lucky position that Korea is in at the moment by having signed FTAs with the two major export markets in the world, the EU and the U.S. The problem is that still one final step is left for Korea to materialize the strategic benefit.

There are many lessons elicited from the recent experiences regarding the Korea-EU FTA and the Korea-U.S. FTA. However, these lessons, as they have been identified so far, are mainly for guidance for future negotiations. These lessons are far from being able to justify further delays of the domestic procedure. Letting this opportunity drift away would be a serious mistake. A mistake Korea’s competitors will probably love to capitalize on. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.
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