[OUTLOOK]Consider Korea before self-interestSix months have already passed since the government announced the start of negotiations for a free trade agreement with Washington. Public opinion on an important government policy like a free trade pact usually tends to sor itself out and converges as time goes by. But people’s opinions on this agreement are getting divided more sharply as time passes. Probably because of this, the Korean government last week launched a special commission whose role is to support the process for signing a free trade accord with Washington. The question is how to lead public opinion in the desirable direction within a short period of time.
There are three major reasons why public opinion on a bilateral pact has not settled down yet. First, people think that the benefits from a pact and the costs for it do not balance out. Major benefits from the two-side agreement can be listed: export markets will broaden, our economy will become more effective and grow steadily, domestic consumption will increase, Korea will gain an advantageous position when negotiating for bilateral pacts with other countries and cooperation on national security between Seoul and Washington will be enhanced.
These benefits are very important for the country, but individual citizens cannot feel their importance. However, individual businesses or workers can keenly feel the costs that they will pay once a free trade agreement is signed.
If a free trade pact between Seoul and Washington is signed, some industries, including farming, will lose competitiveness and thus the number of jobs in those fields will decrease and people’s incomes will also drop. While proponents of the trade pact remain quiet on this issue, its opponents raise their voices and organize vigorous protests.
Secondly, some Koreans do not view a free trade accord with Washington as an economic issue. These people vehemently oppose the agreement, believing that it will bring about negative results in politics. Mostly, these people are anti-American and do not want Korea-U.S. relations to develop in any area. Unfortunately, more of these people reportedly belong to the ruling party than to opposition parties. Some are even said to be in the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
Thirdly, the major opposition party is partly responsible for this situation. The number of proponents of a trade agreement is larger in the opposition party than in the ruling party. This is because in the opposition party, there are more people who understand the importance of the alliance between Seoul and Washington. But the opposition party has not shown an active attitude for signing a free trade pact with Washington. This is due to their political calculations.
For a free trade pact to be signed, cooperation from Korea’s farmers is needed. The opposition party, conscious of farmers’ votes in elections, worries that the party could lose the next presidential election if it pursues an agreement aggressively.
The opposition party also reasons that if a free trade accord is signed, positive evaluations will be made of the government and the ruling party. Thus, the party sees few benefits to them even if a free trade pact is signed, as regards the next presidential election.
It then becomes clear what should be done in order to pursue a free trade accord with Washington. First, benefits from an agreement that have not been obvious to people until now should be explained and understood in a more concrete way so that more support can be obtained. Businesses, industries and some social classes that will have to pay the costs of an agreement should be provided with assistance to find new businesses or new jobs. A restructuring measure to enhance competitiveness is also much needed.
Second, in regard to different opinions within the ruling party and the administration, the president should try harder to explain and persuade his people why a free trade pact with Washington should be signed. But trying to persuade people who oppose the agreement for ideological reasons is unproductive in the short run.
Third, as the opposition party has taken a meek stance on a free trade pact, the president and leading members of the ruling party should deliver their intention to the opposition party that they pursue the agreement not for political reasons, but for the country’s long-term development. The ruling party should remember that if it does not participate actively in an important matter like this, it will be sternly judged by following generations.
When considering benefits for the future of the country, there can be no differences of opinion on a free trade pact with Washington, no matter which party you belong to.
I hope that all parties will work together in order to achieve a free trade pact with Washington.
* The writer is the chairman of the Seoul Financial Forum.
by Kim Ki-hwan