[OUTLOOK]Is Roh sacrificing his base?

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[OUTLOOK]Is Roh sacrificing his base?

The negotiations to sign a free trade agreement with the United States are not attracting enough attention from Koreans, even though the talks are to start early next month. Politicians seemingly do not want to bring up such a difficult and tricky issue with elections drawing near, while average citizens are more interested in the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Germany.
But there are some people taking a great deal of interest in this issue. They are the members of Korean Alliance Against KOR-U.S. FTA, which plans to stage demonstrations in Washington, D.C., this weekend.
These people appear determined to hold rallies in front of the White House, despite the Korean government’s calls for calm and a stern warning from the Washington, D.C. police department. They have even checked out the planned sites for the protests in advance.
In the Gwanghwamun area, downtown Seoul, some other people have been holding lonely demonstrations, begging for the free trade agreement to take national interests into consideration.
Top Korean movie stars, who belong to a committee of actors dedicated to protecting the screen quota system, have been holding one-man demonstrations for the past four months.
On May 26, the head of the Korea Teachers Union joined this movement, saying she denounced the U.S. government, which she said intends to use American culture to “pillage” other countries.
As these people plan to stage candlelight vigils, perhaps they might succeed in drawing people’s attention.
Farmers’ groups have been quiet on this matter ever since they held violent demonstrations last year, but they are not expected to hold a low profile once the negotiations start.
It’s natural that ordinary citizens are uninterested in the free trade agreement, while a certain number of interest groups are taking an extreme stance on it.
Although signing the agreement will certainly benefit the entire country, the benefits will be hard to notice because they will be distributed among all the citizens. The agreement will help exporters, but the interests will not be focused on certain companies or groups.
Thus, nobody feels that they must urgently promote the benefits of the agreement.
Meanwhile, it is a different story for those who will have to give up their privileges if the agreement is signed. They are desperate to fight it, because their interests or incomes will surely be hurt.
This is why the Korean government needs to work hard to mediate domestic conflicts and persuade those who are concerned over this agreement, while negotiating with external partners.
The government needs to be more involved in solving this problem, as ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from this agreement do not pay attention to the matter, while interest groups voice their disapproval.
However, the government seemingly does not have any intention to work hard on this, even though a public hearing designed to induce a social consensus failed to take place as planned because protesters physically blocked the meeting.
People are starting to wonder whether or not this administration has enough willpower to pursue a free trade agreement with the United States.
As seen in Pyeongtaek, will the government step aside when civic groups or interest groups protest the issue, even though it has announced the matter as a national task?
Things would have been different had the government put even half the energy it used for real estate policy into pursuing a free trade agreement.
But the government has never shown such enthusiasm and commitment.
A conspiracy theory abounds that President Roh Moo-hyun decided to aim for a free trade agreement with the United States out of a political calculation that it would help him overcome his lame-duck status. After all, if the agreement is signed during his tenure, it will be his achievement.
If it fails, Mr. Roh’s would-be successor could consolidate those who opposed the agreement into a strong support base to regain political power, even the next presidency.
Therefore, whether it succeeds or fails, Mr. Roh has nothing to lose.
If this rumor is true, we can understand why the government has shown a lukewarm attitude toward the agreement.
But we wish to believe that Mr. Roh has genuine interest in making the free trade agreement a success. He was brave enough to decide to aim for the agreement despite strong protests from his old political base.
Mr. Roh is the only one who is equipped with such bravery and leadership.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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