[OUTLOOK]Start debating agreement, now!

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[OUTLOOK]Start debating agreement, now!

The whole nation is about to fall into turmoil over the issue of a free trade agreement with the United States. The situation is becoming increasingly ugly. Although I am a supporter of an agreement, I feel uneasy talking openly about my stance because of this social atmosphere.
Even the prime minister and ministers have started to step backwards on the issue. Government officials are not representing the administration’s stance and are not saying they will do their best to make a pact happen. Instead, they seem to try to avoid responsibility by saying that they will not push unreasonably for the agreement. If things keep up this way, national chaos will be inevitable.
It was a mistake for the government to give the impression that it had rushed to have negotiations for the trade agreement. If there were reasons to hurry, the government should have given sufficient explanation. If that was just people’s misunderstanding, the government should have tried to remedy it.
President Roh Moo-hyun recently formed a special task force to gather people’s opinions and to look into problems. This is a good thing to do, although it seems a bit late. This kind of move should have been made much earlier. The government made too little preparation before having negotiations with Washington. No matter how little the government might have prepared for the trade agreement, however, the social atmosphere these days is not desirable. It is hard to believe that this is a democratic country. People are sharply divided over their self-interests, as if they will end up as enemies.
People should start to have debates from now on. If time is running out, we can have debates more often, and for a longer period each time. There can even be overnight debates, if needed, to reach a consensus or come to a solution. If opposition to the agreement is the majority view, the agreement should not be signed.
But what is going on now is far from a debate. Hearings could not take place because protestors used force to stop them from happening. It is not that a debate becomes so animated that people end up fighting. People do not even try to have a meeting but just pour into the streets, holding up placards.
In addition, some people even make a jump of logic and make the free trade agreement, which is an economic issue, into an ethical matter. Without examining possible economic gains and losses, some people simply judge supporters of the agreement to be bad people. Labor and civic groups protest against the agreement in unison. When people oppose an idea, there is a procedure they should take to present their opposition.
Sometimes people’s debates can turn into physical clashes. But this time, people started with protests and physical clashes before having any debates. It is shameful to think how the outside world sees us.
What is worse is the legislators’ reactions. If politicians worried about the future of Korea’s economy, they would have started to think seriously about a free trade agreement much earlier. It is a duty of the National Assembly to make sure that the administration makes sufficient preparation for such a matter.
However, I wonder if the National Assemblymen, regardless of their parties, have enough understanding and knowledge about a free trade agreement to think seriously about the issue.
Politicians seem to worry mostly about how their stance on the issue will affect their chances in the next elections. That is why they demand that the government should reveal contents of negotiations, in the middle of negotiations with a partner country. This is against common sense.
A free trade agreement with Washington is not an ultimatum that decides the success or failure of Korea’s economy. Signing the agreement does not mean Korea will be virtually colonized by the United States. Not signing the agreement also does not mean that Korea will be isolated in international society. This is a matter of choice.
Even when the administration pursues the agreement, it is the National Assembly that makes the final decision. If the National Assembly vetoes the agreement, that is it. So, let’s start to have debates. Let’s forget about prejudices and accept different opinions. I have an idea about this.
President Roh Moo-hyun is good at debates. It will be effective if he attends such debates, instead of leaving the work to ministers. He swore he would resolve the issue of the trade agreement before his term ended. If Mr. Roh presides over a national debate in the media, that will make a mature culture of debates in Korea, regardless of the result.
This is a good chance to realize the principles of dialogue and negotiation ― the slogan that the participatory administration has long cried out in favor of.

* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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