[SERI REPORT]An escape hatch for trade talks

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[SERI REPORT]An escape hatch for trade talks

A group of foreign language high school students toured the JoongAng Daily recently, and I talked with them about English as a global language and how to use an English newspaper as a learning aid. When I opened up the floor for questions, one student asked what I thought about Korea’s free trade negotiations with the United States.
I got a mixture of laughter and open mouths when I said I didn’t really care very much whether an agreement was concluded.
Perhaps a psychologist would call that a “passive-aggressive” response and prescribe counseling. But I find myself reacting to the political twists and turns of the Korean debate on the free trade issue with some exasperation.
I was a minor player in the Uruguay Round trade negotiations, and can attest to the fact that in trade negotiations, the horse-trading that you have to do with your domestic constituencies is more difficult than the negotiations with the fellows across the table.
This to-ing and fro-ing in Korea is, I fear, a prelude to one of the mass shifts in Korean public opinion that we so often see; soon, every media outlet and blogger may be saying that the United States “forced” Korea into the negotiations and is therefore responsible for any problems that ensue.
I explained to the visiting students that because of the difference in size of the two economies, a free trade pact with the United States would have much more of an effect on Korea’s economy than on America’s. As an unapologetic free trader, I am certainly in favor of concluding an agreement. But if the price is another upsurge in anti-American sentiment here, I’m much more inclined to say, “You guys work it out and then tell Washington what you want to do.”
That, indeed, has been the U.S. approach to these negotiations and to an earlier attempt to negotiate a bilateral investment treaty. Washington had its own reasons, mainly political and involving the political clout of Jack Valenti, the former head of the Motion Picture Association of America, to break off those investment negotiations. The problem was Korea’s screen quota, which Mr. Valenti loathed. The Americans said, in effect, “We can’t do it now because of your screen quota. Here’s our phone number; call us when you’ve sorted things out.”
Well, things had been sorted out here ― or so the Roh administration said. The noisy protests from Korean filmmakers and actors, when they weren’t busy accepting international awards and watching hordes of Koreans flock to see domestic films after the industry began to learn how to do things right, were generally ignored by the administration.
Then the negotiations actually started. From a technician’s point of view, the first round was a resounding success. The two delegations cleared out the underbrush, quickly agreed on a large number of relatively uncontroversial issues and identified the big ones that would require hard bargaining. Everything looked rosy. U.S. special interests were muttering, and so were Korean ones. All was normal.
But somehow, anti-globalization forces here began to get the upper hand, or so it seems.
Kang Ki-gab, the flamboyant Democratic Labor Party representative, seemed somewhat disappointed after returning from a round of demonstrations in Washington to oppose the opening of the talks. He was disappointed not because the Korean demonstrators broke with tradition and kept things peaceful, but because he had trouble finding many Americans who cared one way or another about the talks.
What a contrast with the way things are done here.
Koreans love to demonstrate. It’s democracy ― adolescent but vibrant democracy ― at work, and every day there is a sea of red headbands and clenched fists punching the air opposing something or other. If there’s anything to demonstrate about, Koreans will do so.
Two other elements are proving bothersome. First, even when Roh Moo-hyun does something right these days, he’s hammered for it. Perhaps his promotion of a U.S. free trade agreement is the biggest handicap to getting one. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be much of a social consensus here in favor of the talks.
Now many of the columnists and editorial writers in this newspaper seem to believe that an overwhelming consensus is natural and necessary on most issues. I disagree, but in this case, the support for an agreement does seem to be shallower than it should be for such an important undertaking. Many Koreans may be wondering now if the case for FTA negotiations was rammed down their throats, and are developing a suspicion that it was all a plot by a) the Americans, b) the jaebeol, c) all the above. A backlash is setting in, and administration people are backpedaling. No, the agreement won’t be a panacea. Yes, there will be problems ― but trust us: We’re from the government.
The next step may well be loud charges (they already are out there, but only sotto voce so far) that the negotiations were started only because of “intolerable American pressure.”
Finally, I’m worried about the additional peril to the talks if the Roh administration believes its own propaganda about how critical it is to get the U.S. to treat Kaesong-made goods South Korean. Seoul’s negotiators have to make a gesture to getting those North Korean goods into the agreement, just as the United States has to make a gesture of demanding the full, unconditional and immediate opening of the rice market. Then they can grumble at each other about intransigence and get to work to cut a realistic deal.
If Seoul intends to hang tough on including Kaesong goods, I’d suggest as an alternative that it demand that George Bush send Kim Jong-il a birthday card every year. Its chances of getting its way would be better.
If anti-FTA concerns get too strong, Kaesong and the “blood-brother” image it plays to could give Mr. Roh a graceful way to back out of the talks. That would be a pity.

* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by John Hoog
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