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Korea-U.S. FTA re-emerges as political issue

Experts say demand to scrap FTA pact would seriously damage Korea’s credibility

The Korea-U.S. free trade pact has resurfaced as a hot-button issue ahead of the April 11 general elections as the liberal opposition parties vow to scrap it should disputed clauses not be renegotiated.

Experts expressed concern that such a move to reverse it could undermine Korea’s international credibility and hurt the long-standing ties with Washington. The pact is expected to take effect later this month or early next month.

The liberal forces, led by the main opposition Democratic United Party, argue that without revisions, the pact could encroach upon Korea’s economic sovereignty, while stressing that the ruling bloc railroaded its ratification through parliament last November.
(Yonhap News)
(Yonhap News)

The opposition parties on Wednesday sent a letter to the U.S. government in Seoul, in which they threatened to repeal the pact should the U.S. reject their demand for renegotiations.

“We regard the pact ― rammed through parliament ― as null and void, and call on (the government) to suspend its effectuation,” DUP chairwoman Han Myeong-sook said during a press conference.

Downplaying it as election-year rhetoric, some experts pointed out that the opposition seems to be striving to appeal to their hard-core supporters through the anti-FTA move ahead of the major elections this year.

“They appear to think that (their opposition to the Korea-U.S. FTA) could help turn the political pendulum in their favor. But I am doubtful about whether it would serve their interests,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University.

“Even if they take power in the next administration, I assume the possibility of their scrapping it is not high as the situation would completely change before and after they take power.”

Yoon also raised the possibility that the opposition’s move could be its strategy to pressure Washington and get the upper hand in possible renegotiations over disputed clauses.

Kim Tae-hyun, professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University, said scrapping the pact unilaterally could seriously damage Seoul’s credibility.

“If a country scraps a pact negotiated with another country for any domestic, political reason, it would hurt its credibility. Who will be willing to sign any deal with the country that nullifies a bilateral deal with the change of the government?” he said.

“The adverse impact on the country’s credibility would be larger than the impact that comes from the pact, in which critics argue the balance of interests has swung in favor of the U.S.”

The DUP now demands that 10 clauses be renegotiated.

The major bone of contention is the Investor-State Disputes settlement mechanism. The ISD system allows U.S. investors to seek settlements on disputes with Korea in the courts of a third country. The opposition argues this would work mostly in favor of the U.S. with its influence over the international judicial system.

Some observers noted that the opposition appears to be using the Korea-U.S. FTA as a tool to judge their members’ political orientation and regard it as an ideological symbol to rally their traditional supporters.

“When the Bush administration took office after eight years of liberal rule by Clinton, the missile defense program emerged as some sort of a barometer to judge who is a real Republican or not. To be included in the ‘Republican checklist,’ politicians espoused the MD program despite its downsides such as prompting an arms race and raising military tensions,” a political observer said, declining to be identified.

“Now, it appears that the Korea-U.S. FTA is being used as a tool to judge where you stand on the ideological spectrum. Those against it are put on the ‘liberal checklist’ while those in favor are sidelined or left out in the cold.”

Yoon of Hanshin University also cautioned against “politics of fury and revenge” that South Korea has repeatedly seen during times of leadership transition.

“If anyone manages state affairs based on politics of fury and anger, he or she would be very dangerous. The leader of a state should remain cool-headed and objective as he or she is charge of ensuring the well-being of the political community,” he said. “There is little they can reap in the end should they carry out their politics based on fury.”

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry stressed that South Korea in its history has never unilaterally scrapped an international pact that was signed through legitimate procedures.

The Korea-U.S. FTA was signed in 2007 under the previous liberal rule of President Roh Moo-hyun and his Uri Party, the DUP’s precursor. The incumbent conservative Lee Myung-bak administration led a renegotiation of the deal in 2010 at the request of the U.S.

By Song Sang-ho (
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