[OUTLOOK]Support for convictionsNegotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States are in a difficult situation. Although the third round of negotiation will begin soon, time is being wasted in a basic debate between supporters and opponents.
Some experts say if the negotiations fall apart, the administration will collapse ― and if the accord is signed, the country will collapse. If this is true, it is obvious that we need to choose the country over the administration.
But the issue is not as simple as that. Our choice cannot be a simple act of picking one option over the other.
The free trade pact is certainly a huge challenge to Koreans. A simple theory that a small country will benefit more than a big country from a free trade accord does not make sense in this case. Calculating economic gains and losses is not easy.
Applying an abstract political theory like a dependency theory does not work in the much more complicated real world.
People who want an agreement see the possibility that domestic markets can be stimulated and competitiveness can be enhanced, but they are trying not to focus on the immediate gains and losses.
But because there is no guarantee that the agreement will stimulate a big leap forward, the fears that there could be a huge crisis are not groundless either. Staying stuck on the fence is not possible, so we inevitably face a challenge in the future ― there will be changes, possibilities and opportunities.
The government chose this challenge. Which one of the two countries took the initiative to start the negotiations is not important.
Like any other choice, this choice to start the negotiations was made with some limitations and pre-existing factors, both political and economic. It was a consideration of a variety of factors and not just a calculation of economic gain and loss. The president emphasized that this choice was made because of his conscience and convictions.
Opinions can vary on the order in which our country should pursue free trade negotiations and whether the deadline for negotiation of the accord with Washington is realistic. But it seems to be best to stop talking about whether the choice itself was right or wrong.
It does seem strange, however, that public opinion, which generally supported a free trade accord with Washington, has changed, moving in the opposite direction.
In particular, people who used to be or are close aides of the president are igniting public opinion against the agreement. Incidents like these have never taken place in the past.
Some of the government officials in charge of managing the negotiations and the presentation of the accord to the public say things like, “We can drop the negotiations if they go wrong.” This makes people somewhat suspicious about the government’s determination to follow through on its choice.
When negotiations ― which require precision ― are underway, brutal words and acts should be restrained. But this public reaction seems to have resulted from problems in communications among the officials involved.
The abrupt change of public opinion has also been a result from problems in communications between the government and the people. The people still accept the agreement with Washington as a mainstream opinion, but seem to oppose the steps that have been taken so far.
The government has clung to its policy to keep the negotiations secret. It also did not let its preparations for the accord become known to the public, although it claimed that it had made sufficient preparations in advance.
While opponents gather support, it would be much more effective to broaden the communication channels and add more detail instead of attacking opponents face-to-face.
It is fortunate, although belated, that the government has realized the problems it faces and formed a task force for more dialogue with the people. When negotiating with a foreign nation, public understanding is the biggest source of support.
Emphasizing one’s conscience and conviction when accepting a challenge is important, but it should be followed by sincere efforts to explain and persuade the people.
The government should improve the people’s understanding and support by making such efforts while it pursues its goals.
There is no need to become despondent because of predictions that the negotiations will fall apart no matter how hard we try. There is no need to prepare a hidden plan to suspend negotiations either.
* The writer is a professor of economics at Inha University and a former labor minister. Translated by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Dae-hwan