[OUTLOOK]Ready or not, markets to openMedical, legal and education services have until now been classified as public goods in this country. These services had been considered an exception to the strict implementation of market principles because of their vast social and cultural repercussions. However, the inevitable global trend is that we must open the gates of these industries to competition.
The Uruguay Round was the first time when the liberalization of the service market, along with the agricultural products market, was first discussed. Liberalizing the service market means that countries can “trade” services and foreigners can earn money by providing services to domestic consumers. Such services, of course, include the medical, legal and educational sectors.
Today, the very concept of public goods has been challenged by the changing times. An advantage of the economic principles is that they are more universal and thus have a bigger effect on people than any other principles. Government regulations and control mechanisms cannot win support, even if they are on public goods, if the government overseeing the public sector is inefficient.
Moreover, if the burden and sacrifices demanded of people grow too big only because the services are public goods, it is more than enough reason to open the service market to the rest of the world according to market principles.
The scope of liberalization in this sector is expected to expand further through future negotiations according to the Doha Development Agenda. Until now, medical, legal and education services, in particular, have been excluded from the negotiations, but now they are being identified as major negotiation issues in the Doha talks. According to the “July package” of negotiation accorded last year, Korea must turn in a concession proposal by May.
It is worrisome, however, to see the meager preparations the government has made for the negotiations. The behavior of the government officials in charge of the negotiations only amplifies doubts in our minds, instead of inspiring confidence.
Even now, when negotiations have begun in earnest, our Ministry of Education and Human Resources, which is the main government body in charge of overseeing the opening of the education service market, is unable to find its balance.
And the Ministry of Health and Public Welfare, which lacks expert knowledge or experience of World Trade Organization regulations, refuses assistance from outside experts, insisting that it is capable of handling the issue by itself. How can government agencies that lack international experience and expertise stand a chance in negotiations with foreign governments when they don’t even know how to conduct productive discussions among themselves?
An exemplary model among the government agencies is the Ministry of Justice. The ministry has been long preparing for the Doha talks, accumulating foreign precedents. It has been cooperating with the Korean Bar Association to prepare for the liberalization of the legal services market, reaching a considerable level of coordination of efforts to gear the industry for the change.
However, it still remains to be seen whether the ministry has been trying for the sake of the general public, rather than the related interest groups, and whether their proposed measures could win a popular consensus.
The government needs to disabuse itself from certain notions when preparing for the Doha negotiations. What’s paramount is that it must abandon the misconception that concluding an agreement with foreign countries comes before winning a public consensus.
Officials should not fool themselves into thinking that they are experts just because they’ve had a year or so of experience. They should deliver faithfully what was said over the negotiating tables to the public and work to gain its approval.
If the government tries to conduct the negotiations in secret by using the pretext that they are “intra-government” talks, then it will face opposition from related interest groups in unexpected ways. We have witnessed too many times how the government took a wrong first step and rushed to correct things after it was too late.
Nobody knows how the Doha Development Agenda negotiations will turn out. One thing for sure is that the opening of the market itself cannot be its final goal. The ultimate goal of the negotiations should be focused on promoting the interests of the entire country and its people.
The interest groups in the services market should sweep away outdated regulations so that they can acquire international competitiveness and help improve the quality of our lives. We should remember that our economy grew strongly and achieved fast growth over the last 20 years through the opening of our goods market.
* The writer is a professor of trade law at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Wang Sang-han