[OUTLOOK]Trade talks are domestic also

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[OUTLOOK]Trade talks are domestic also

Seoul and Washington made a good start in 2006 by agreeing to commence negotiations for a free trade agreement between the two countries. But no matter how good a start it might be, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good result. The free-trade negotiations with Japan had a good beginning and seemed to progress smoothly: The initial goal was to conclude the agreement by the end of 2005. Yet, since the sixth meeting was held in October, 2004, no progress has been made. With no plan on when to resume the meetings, the negotiations have been laid aside as if they never happened. On the surface, agricultural products seem to be an obstacle, but in fact, the deadlock is due to political factors. The dispute over Dokdo islet and the controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine have ruined the negotiating mood.
Since we are beginning negotiations with Washington while letting the partially completed negotiations with Tokyo stand, the nation can end up looking half-hearted unless we successfully seal the deal this time. Many obstacles await us in the course of negotiations with Washington. Many troubles are expected in economic negotiations, but the recent anti-American sentiment that has grown among some parts of society could be a big threat. Under these circumstances, what do we need to do to successfully conclude the trade pact with the United States?
First, a successful free trade agreement has to be a priority of state policy. Of course, the talks are beginning because the agreement is a part of the national policy. But that is not enough. A consensus has to be reached within the government. We should agree and be determined to make certain sacrifices in order to conclude the agreement with the United States because it is essential to our national strategy. Several political and economic problems are already expected to be an impediment to the talks. The bigger interests that the unidentified majority will enjoy from the agreement might be overshadowed by small disadvantages to an unidentified minority. Their voices and claims are heard aloud, and already the atmosphere has worsened, resulting in the cancellation of a public hearing on the negotiations. With the local elections approaching, I expect that many politicians will try to exploit differences over national policies to please voters. The government has to have firm determination and courage to overcome these obstacles, and we are not confident that the government has the drive.
Second, a very powerful man has to take the helm and lead Seoul’s side of the negotiation. While the Office of the Minister of Trade will be in charge of the negotiations, it needs a powerful patron. The domestic bargaining will be as difficult as those with Washington. So many government agencies and interest groups will be involved, and the negotiating team will have to work against the resistance of bureaucrats trying to protect their existing interests. Sometimes our negotiators will have to fight against them and sometimes compromise with them. In order to use strategies freely, the commander has to have power. In the past, the leader lacked drive and would just order his subordinates to settle troubles smoothly. This time, an influential figure has to take charge and keep things moving.
Because each ministry will hold on to its partisan interests, the negotiating team should oversee them from the perspective of the nation and make appropriate decisions on whether to give up or adopt suggestions from ministries. The job is very important but might make enemies, so not just anyone can play the role. Of course, the president has to make final decisions, but the prime minister, who has a lot of influence these days, seems to be a suitable candidate for the commander of the team. He is especially appropriate considering the significance and toughness of the negotiations with Washington. The deputy prime minister for economy might have been a natural choice in the past, but his power has been reduced too much now for this job.
Third, the government has to plan the negotiating schedule carefully and tackle it strategically. Seoul is aiming to conclude the negotiations by the spring of 2007, so the agenda has to be planned in reverse order to meet the deadline. A comprehensive conclusion, both with Washington and domestically, has to be reached. The government needs to provide financial and administrative support, making concesssions and seeking ways to persuade people. Unreasonable complaints should be prevented. What’s most important is prompt decisions. If we are still reluctant after hours of meetings, we can never make the deadline.
Once we complete the negotiations with Washington according to schedule, Seoul will earn international trust as a faithful negotiator. But if domestic troubles impede the negotiation, we had better be ready to see considerable losses.

* The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ibo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Woo-suk
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