2 All fired up over Korea-US free
trade By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - They no doubt would never
admit it, but conservative US business people
share common cause with radical Korean activists
in one of the most contentious debates ever to
break out between US and South Korean negotiators.
The debate has implications for the
US-Korean military alliance but revolves for now
around a historic US-Korean Free Trade Agreement
(FTA), reached at the eleventh hour on Monday just as
appeared the talks had failed.
South Korean officials confirmed the deal on
Sunday in Washington - Monday in Asia - after
marathon negotiations that went right up to the
final deadline decreed by the 90-day period under
which the US Congress must accept or reject it but
cannot amend it.
In the face of protests
on both sides of the Pacific, Korean and American
leaders are confident that the agreement will open
up each other's markets and wipe away tariffs on
all but a few products.
George W Bush and South Korean President Roh
Moo-hyun discussed the deal for 20 minutes on the
telephone last week, each of them sure that the
plusses of opening up trade outweighed the minuses
of vituperations in both countries.
FTA, however flawed, ranks as the biggest for the
United States since the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) was signed 15 years ago and
began opening up US-Mexican commerce two years
So intense is the opposition,
however, that debate before final legislative
approval of the agreement may compromise the
benefits of an anticipated increase of as much as
20% above last year's record US$75 billion in
two-way trade between the two countries.
South Korean man who tried to burn himself to
death on Monday might just as well have been
sacrificing his life on the altar of US
motor-vehicle manufacturers as on that of South
Korean farmers. They're both lined up as hostile
to a deal that they believe passionately can only
harm their best interests - though clearly they
differ in ways of expressing their opposition.
The Americans are counting on a
Democratic-controlled Congress either to stick up
for their interests in fine-tuning any FTA or else
somehow to derail it entirely. Similarly, South
Korean activists are certain their violent
protests will make it impossible for their country
to open up to competition that they believe will
destroy their livelihoods.
To head off
abject failure after 10 months of yakking at each
other, the US and South Korea came to final terms
by midday on Monday Korean time, one day after
what they said had been the "final deadline".
The significance of the 90-day time frame
is that the US Congress, well before the Democrats
gained control of both houses last November,
granted "fast-track" authority until July 1 for
Bush to sign the agreement with Korea subject only
to a yes-no vote by Congress.
immediately began the process by formally
notifying Congress of the agreement 90 days before
his authority expired. In his letter, released
around midnight Sunday in the eastern US, Monday
afternoon in Korea, Bush argued that the FTA would
not only "generate export opportunities" for
Americans but would also create "better-paying
jobs" in the US and "save money" for American
consumers by "offering them greater choices".
While firebrand demonstrators were
standing up against rows of police in Seoul,
Democratic leaders in Washington made it their
duty to stand up against the Republican
administration, demanding concessions to demands
on critical points in the agreement. Congress,
though, cannot actually try to water down