The gloves are off in Korea's FTA debate
By Steven Borowiec
SEOUL - While the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) has been
passed in the US Congress, a feat celebrated by President Barack Obama and
President Lee Myung-bak during Lee's state visit in October, the bill is
garnering spirited opposition in South Korea.
Debate over the bill in South Korea has been put on simmer but could still boil
over. The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) is pushing for ratification while
the opposition parties have come together to vigorously oppose the bill. Amid
rumors of physical obstruction of the bill by opposition parties and a likely
scuffle, the November 3 session in the National Assembly was canceled 10
minutes before its scheduled start time.
The main question at the National Assembly was whether or not the ruling GNP
would use its majority in the house to unilaterally push for a vote on the
KORUS FTA. In the face of spirited opposition, National Assembly Speaker Park
Tae-hee decided not to force a vote this time around. The next parliamentary
session is scheduled for November 10.
This wrangle comes as South Korean politics are apparently moving to the left.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has banded together with four
smaller, liberal parties to form a unified opposition to the bill. DP chairman
Sohn Hak-kyu has pledged to do everything possible to fight the bill, according
to Joongang Daily newspaper.
The GNP, still licking its wounds from recent by-election losses and devising
ways to stay relevant, is pushing hard to get the KORUS FTA passed.
The passage of the bill was delayed for four years in the US. "We've all waited
enough. I hope it will take into effect as soon as practicable," Representative
David Camp (Republican of Michigan) told Yonhap News Agency.
The main sticking point in the FTA's passage in South Korea is the investor
dispute settlement (ISD) clause. The GNP is insisting on the ISD's inclusion,
while the DP is pledging not to ratify the treaty as long as it contains the
The clause is similar to the controversial Chapter 11 in the North American
Free Trade Agreement. It would allow companies making foreign investments that
have lost money in a domestic court to sue that country's government through an
The DP argues that this would give large American firms undue room to bully
small and medium-sized Korean enterprises.
Choi Seok-young, Deputy Minister for FTA negotiations, told Arirang News that
the ISD clause was useful to protect South Korean companies, which generally
invest more overseas compared to what foreign companies invest in South Korea.
Choi also rejected the idea of a special law to protect small and medium-sized
firms, saying it would violate World Trade Organization principles.
The debate over the FTA shows the cracks that lurk beneath healthy US-South
Korea relations. Every once in a while an ugly event pops up that serves as a
reminder of the historic mistrust of the US in South Korea.
In 2002, two South Korean girls were accidentally killed by a US military
vehicle in one of Seoul's northern suburbs, which sparked large anti-American
protests in Seoul. The situation was made worse when the accused soldiers were
acquitted and returned to the US.
In 2008, there was furor over the resumption of American beef imports to South
Korea, which some feared could have been tainted with mad cow disease.
There have been more recent examples. On November 1, an American soldier was
sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the rape of a South Korean girl. Another
American solider was accused of sexual assault one week earlier.
With the political parties at loggerheads, the opposition party could resort to
physically preventing the FTA from being signed. In the past, South Korean
lawmakers have come to blows over an array of issues, including the country's
annual budget, a controversial media reform law in 2009, and the same free
trade agreement with the US in December 2008.
While in the past fighting by lawmakers has been dismissed as a show for the
media, National Assembly members may have canceled the session to avoid the
embarrassment of having people in other countries see the nation's leaders
resorting to physical force to make decisions about the direction of the
South Koreans tend to be sensitive to how their country is viewed abroad.
Regular South Koreans sting with shame as scenes of their nation's leaders
scrapping it out in business suits are played all over the world. South Korea's
familial culture makes many South Koreans feel implicated by the actions of one
of their countrymen, be it pride in the tireless play of Manchester United
midfielder Park Ji-sung or shame at brawling lawmakers.
Mention fistfights in the halls of power and South Koreans typically sigh and
mutter "chengpi hada", a term that communicates shame or embarrassment.
The US and South Korean governments plan to have the FTA ratified by January 1.
Amid speculation of roughhousing, a serious discussion on the tenets of the
deal needs to talk place. National Assembly members will have to play nice for
that to happen.
Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.
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