[OUTLOOK]Some advice for the new chairmanThe government plans to form a committee under the president’s supervision that would help it through the process of making a free trade agreement with the United States. Its mission is to forge a social consensus by gathering opinions from regular people and helping resolve disputes.
The very idea of forming such a committee reflects Koreans’ deep interest ― particularly hostile interest ― in the free trade accord with Washington. Some people might say the committee is unnecessary because other bodies or government officials have been trying to mould public opinion in favor of the deal, but since the decision has already been made, the committee should carry out its duties faithfully. In particular, there are some things that need to be done by Han Duck-soo, the former deputy minister and minister of finance and economy, and the incoming head of the committee.
First, Mr. Han should not require Kim Jong-hoon, Korea’s chief negotiator, to attend every meeting or public hearing. Mr. Han should also not ask Mr. Kim to prepare data or to attend a meeting. In short, Mr. Han should not act like a boss.
Mr. Kim also is in charge of negotiations within the country. While he is already very busy preparing strategies for the negotiations with his U.S. counterparts, he needs to attend a variety of events, sometimes as often as three in one day. If one event takes about two hours and travel time between locations is included, it’s easy to see how attending functions could occupy his entire day.
Let’s look at Wendy Cutler, the head of the U.S. delegation. Apart from the free trade negotiations, she does not appear at any other events. She rarely shows up in press briefings. During the first round of negotiations, she had only one interview, and that was over the telephone. When she was in Seoul, she had only two interviews, both requested by Koreans ― that was it.
Of course, it’s not easy to compare these two people with a number of events they attend, because the Americans are not as interested in the agreement as the Koreans are. However, it is unfair to make the chief negotiator responsible for persuading the public, as well. He might even be accused of manipulating public opinion. The new committee should take this job from now on.
Second, Mr. Han should make sure that ministers are careful about what they say. The prime minister and some other ministers have already said that they could end the negotiations at any moment. If these people had always been negative about the agreement, this would have been understandable. But they said these discouraging remarks after having been supportive of the accord. To top it off, they immediately switched positions and went back to supporting the free trade pact, as if they had never said anything against it. If they had made those remark in order to help them duck their responsibilities in case the negotiations fell apart, it would have been truly cowardly.
This attitude has a huge influence on working-level staff members. Civil servants at many ministries participate in the negotiations. They are sensitive to the words and acts of their supervisors. If a minister takes an ambiguous attitude, staff members try to not work on matters that they will later have to take responsibility for.
A civil servant at the Economy Ministry said that negotiators sometimes respond in an overly sensitive manner to the demands of opening a small market. Yet the ministers’ vague attitude has already had a noticeable influence. The negotiations are likely to become warlike, in which one side has to fight in order not to lose what it has earned. But the goal of a free trade agreement should be to gain something, not to fight hard to defend what we already have.
The committee should issue an immediate warning to ministers who hamper the progress of the agreement. A yellow card should be given without hesitation to any minister who makes unhelpful remarks. These records can be reflected in assessments for their promotions. I do not mean that their words should be controlled or censored ― this suggestion is aimed at preventing discord within the administration. This would be a lot more helpful for the negotiations than having 100 debates. The administration should win accords from its members before trying to persuade the people.
Third, the head of the committee should prepare himself as if he were the commander of a suicide squad. The reason for this is simple: If the negotiations fail, the committee becomes meaningless. The worst-case scenario is that the negotiations succeed, but fail to win the approval from the National Assembly. The committee will be blamed for having failed to persuade the people and will have to take responsibility. This will also look bad on the resumes of the civil servants on the committee.
Thus, the head of the committee should work hard, as if his life depended on it. He sometimes will need to be harsh to ministers who try to avoid their responsibilities. If he wants to act like a graceful advisor, he will become more of a burden than a bonus. In this regard, he needs to be a stronger leader than he was when he was the deputy prime minister.
The question is whether the head of the committee will be given such authority and power. If the government is determined to sign the agreement, it will give that power to Mr. Han.
We will see how that goes.
* The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nahm Yoon-ho
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