[VIEWPOINT]The monk and the propagandaOn Oct. 15, Venerable Beopjeong of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order presided over a regularly scheduled Buddhist lecture meeting for the autumn season at Geungrak Pavilion on the grounds of Gilsang Temple in Seoul’s Seongbuk district.
Venerable Beopjeong preaches the virtue of “non-possession” in his religious philosophy, and over 1,000 Buddhists reportedly gathered to hear his sermon.
In his lecture, the monk said, “We must stop the signing of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement no matter what.” According to the press report, Venerable Beopjeong spoke as follows:
“The South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is not a simple trade negotiation, but a social transformation program. They talk about free trade in words, but it is nothing but protectionism for a powerful state in practice.
“If the free trade agreement is concluded, a small number of people might benefit from it, but the majority of the grassroots people and farmers will face enormous difficulties.”
He also said that he opposed the trade agreement because our agricultural industry and ecology would be ruined as a result of the agreement.
“As some 64 percent of our national territory is mountainous and about 20 percent is farmland, a total of 84 percent of land is managed by farmers,” he said. “If our agriculture is ruined, people who manage the ecology of our land will disappear.”
He also said, “Some time ago, the president said that the problem can be sorted out by providing farmers with government subsidies if they are damaged by the free trade agreement. I think it is a misfortune for the country that we have such a person at the helm of power.”
Such words from an influential Buddhist leader may be a big blessing, almost equal to getting the support of thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses, to those who oppose Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States.
The Buddhist monk also recommended that his audience read “Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement: Stop Reckless Driving!” written by Wu Seok-hun.
I felt dizzy upon hearing this. In mid-August, I once dropped by a large bookstore and looked for books on the proposed Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.
At that time, I found three volumes on the subject, including the one written by Mr. Wu and two others: “Strange Colony: Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement,” written by Lee Hae-young, and “A Report on a Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement,” published by the Korean Alliance against the Korea-U.S. FTA.
Even the titles of the books gave me cold shivers. I was also surprised by the fact that the books were published only a few months after the government announcement on Feb. 3 that it would open free trade agreement negotiations with the United States.
I could not find books that supported the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement except a few stereotypical theses published by research institutes affiliated with the government.
Unlike the other two books, the one written by Mr. Wu introduces the alleged grim after-effects of the trade agreement in a familiar way.
Mr. Wu, who studied economics and has participated in international negotiations on environmental matters when he worked for the government, recommends that those South Koreans with a household income of below 60 million won ($63,000) per year for four family members would do better by emigrating to other countries.
He claims that for such middle- and lower-income Koreans, hellish living conditions will unfold in front of them when the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is concluded.
It was a book that could make not only the Venerable Beopjeong but almost all ordinary readers erupt in anger, saying, “For God’s sake, for what reason does President Roh Moo-hyun promote the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement?”
For those people who watched anti-FTA television programs produced and broadcast by KBS and MBC in June and July, in addition to reading Mr. Wu’s book, it occurred to me that it might be difficult to say yes to the free trade agreement.
The two television programs claimed that all the current problems in Mexico, including the gap between the rich and the poor, were due to the free trade agreement with the United States.
Now, we cannot help putting the blame on the inability and irresponsibility of the administration for allowing the anti-trade propaganda to go unchallenged for all this time and reach this extent.
From the early stages of the discussion of the free trade agreement, many experts emphasized that for the conclusion of the free trade agreement with the United States, it was more important to reach a domestic consensus than to negotiate the details of an agreement with the United States.
Instead, what the government did for its public relations efforts on behalf of the agreement was only to hold some public debates and run advertisements about the rosy illusions of a trade agreement.
Although the logic the antagonists would use to make their case was anticipated from the early stages, the government failed to give proper explanations and ended up being dragged around by the anti-trade forces.
The materials produced by the government were only booklets that portrayed one-sided blue-sky rhetoric about the trade talks or were bookish theses that only an academic would love.
Nevertheless, government officials generally say, “I feel anxious that there are still many people who do not understand the essence of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.”
Those were the words of Han Duck-soo, the head of a committee that promotes Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, speaking on Oct. 26.
A couple of days ago, I dropped by a bookstore again. This time, I found three titles that supported Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States.
One title, “Controversy over the Korea-U.S. FTA: The Truth Behind It,” edited by Chung In-gyo, was published last month.
The other two were “Korea-U.S. FTA - A Choice for the Future” edited by the Civil Committee for Korea-U.S. FTA and “Korea-U.S. FTA Reversal Scenario” written by Ewha Women’s University professor Choi Byong-il.
The first two books are compilations of academic theses that repeat the government logic, but the one written by Mr. Choi explains the trade agreement in an easy and objective manner.
Mr. Choi explains the essence of Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States in simple language, as Mr. Wu does, and conveys the logic for its necessity as well.
He also criticizes the mistakes of the government bitterly. Mr. Choi is doing what the government should have done already.
For those who are interested in Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States, I strongly recommend reading the books written both by Mr. Wu and Mr. Choi.
Especially, I recommend that the Venerable Beopjeong read not only Mr. Wu’s book but also Mr. Choi’s, if time allows him to do so.
* The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Se-jung