[OUTLOOK]Roh’s remarks worthy of supportA few days ago, President Roh Moo-hyun made comments worthy of attention when he went climbing with Blue House accredited reporters. He said Korea’s polarization problem and a free trade agreement with the United States were the key tasks he would focus on in the remaining two years of his term. On the polarization issue, he said, “The problem will only create a big noise without being resolved within the term of the participatory government.” In contrast, he said of a trade pact with the United States that Korea would have to develop an advanced service industry in the end and emphasized that the trade negotiations would be a big event for the participatory government during the remaining two years of his term. It might just be my guess, but his comments seem to have a very significant meaning. Mr. Roh pointed out that polarization is a long-term issue that cannot be resolved overnight, but he suggested that he was determined to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States in his term. He predicted that the negotiations would create “quite a stir,” which we can translate as meaning he will display his signature drive, even if it means risking considerable side effects.
Has Mr. Roh really made up his mind to push for a trade pact with the United States? A few days ago, he is said to have stressed the inevitability of opening up the service sector when he invited former aides to the Blue House. While I am still half in doubt, I hope he meant to express his will to promote a trade agreement with the United States through his comments. If he has really made up his mind, it means a great change in his economic policy direction. It is hardly a trivial matter, and I sincerely hope that he has changed. If Mr. Roh could pull off a conclusion of the negotiations with the United States within his term, the evaluation of the economic policy of his participatory government would be very different. The critics who have poured criticism on the Roh administration’s populist economic policy are bound to feel embarrassed. Mr. Roh could also be free from the criticism that he tends to be overly attached to his supporters. A successful conclusion of the trade negotiations would also smooth Mr. Roh’s rather awkward relationship with Washington.
I support and applaud Mr. Roh’s comments because we are not promoting the free trade agreement for the benefit of the United States alone. Trade agreements are an unavoidable international trend and Korea can only survive by aggressively pursuing them. It is fortunate for the nation that Mr. Roh seems to have finally made up his mind after long contemplation. Now he has to put that into action, which will not be easy due to political resistance. Moreover, we need to watch how Mr. Roh will overcome the strong opposition of the labor, civic and farmers’ organizations, which have supported Mr. Roh politically so far. Considering the circumstances, Mr. Roh must have made his recent series of comments after he had firmly made up his mind.
Furthermore, we also need to hurry to resume the halted free trade discussions with Japan, as well as pursuing an agreement with the United States. Korea can develop competitiveness in its advanced service industry through a pact with the United States, but an agreement with Japan is the only solution to revive our dwindling manufacturing industry. Most of our manufacturing has already relocated to China, and it is a given fact that the rest will leave the country in time.
At its current level of competitiveness, Korea is no match for China in the manufacturing sector. After all, Korean manufacturers have to join hands with Japanese technology to survive in competition with China. Japan also knows too well that it cannot beat China all by itself and it hopes to collaborate with Korea. Regardless of the international climate, even economic organizations are blinded by their immediate interests and against an agreement with Japan, saying it would bring down the manufacturing industry. By opposing an agreement with Japan, the companies are essentially courting catastrophe for themselves.
There is no possibility that a free trade agreement with the United States or Japan will disrupt the Korean economy but serious political turmoil is to be expected. The only vehicles that can get us through that turmoil are the economic philosophy of the president and his strong leadership ability to carry out what he believes in.
Citizens had almost given up on a free trade agreement with the United States because most of the influential figures of the participatory government opposed it. Can we have hope again? It must have not been easy for Mr. Roh to make up his mind, and I give full support and applause to him.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu
More in Columns
Room for alignment
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin