[View point]No more sleepless nightsSeoul was noisy with the last-ditch negotiations of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement last week. A tug-of-war between negotiators from South Korea and the United States went on day and night at the Grand Hyatt hotel at the foot of Mount Namsan.
Officials at the Blue House and related government ministries stayed up many nights deliberating negotiation strategies. Meanwhile, the lawmakers who oppose the free trade agreement have continued to stage hunger strikes at the National Assembly in Yeouido.
The rallies demanding the halt of the trade negotiations have continued at Seoul’s City Hall square day after day. These were literally sleepless nights in Seoul.
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia explained why the United States needs the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement at a recent hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives.
He explained it in two ways, the benefits of the agreement itself and the importance of the trade pact in terms of its effects on the position of the United States in Northeast Asia.
He pointed out that a free trade agreement with Korea, the 11th largest economy in the world, would upgrade the existing trade and investment relations with it, qualitatively as well as quantitatively, and contribute positively to the strategic alliance with Korea.
Furthermore, Bhatia said, by concluding a trade pact with South Korea, which has a much larger trade volume than American free-trade partners Singapore or Australia, the United States can consolidate its economic position in Northeast Asia, which makes up 37 percent of the gross domestic product of the world, and provide direction for other Asian countries.
While explaining the inevitability of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, President Roh Moo-hyun said that we have to, first of all, upgrade our knowledge-based services to the highest level in the world with the help of the free trade agreement with the United States.
Second, he said it is desirable for South Korea to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States ahead of Japan or China in Northeast Asia.
Finally, he especially stressed that the agricultural field, which could be the major victim of the free trade agreement, should strengthen its market competitiveness through restructuring.
The above statements made by both South Korea and the United States indicate that the two countries are already linked to each other in a complex way on domestic, Northeast Asian and international levels.
The domestic reason for sleepless nights in Seoul is not the reality we find ourselves in, but rather in the simple way we think about and understand that reality.
In order to overcome the confusing debate on the pros and cons of a free trade pact with the United States, it is vital that a government that understands the issue’s complexity play the leading role.
Instead of spending its energy on an unrealistic debate on a constitutional amendment, the government should put all its efforts into explaining the complexity of the free trade agreement, and look for a way to minimize the international reason for sleepless nights ― the effect the United States’ super economy will have on the Korean economy after the conclusion of the pact.
Instead of indulging in awkward domestic and North Korea-related politics for the remaining eight months before the presidential election in December, the best campaign strategy would be for presidential contenders to concentrate their efforts on settling the free trade agreement with the United States.
While Seoul spends sleepless nights struggling with trade agreement negotiations with the United States, Pyongyang has also been sitting up all night thinking over its nuclear problems.
According to the agreement reached at the six-party talks on Feb. 13, North Korea is to freeze and verify its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, prepare a list of all its nuclear programs and hold and follow through on five working group meetings.
The first emergency delivery of 50,000 tons of crude oil to the North should be completed by April 13, within 60 days after the signing of the agreement.
After that, North Korea has to report all its nuclear programs, disable all its nuclear facilities and participate in minister-level six-way talks. Then, in return for Pyongyang’s actions, 950,000 tons of crude oil will be delivered to the North.
In other words, there remain only nine days for the North to make in- depth reports on its nuclear programs and disable its facilities.
The leadership of North Korea is currently at a critical juncture.
The first choice is taking the road to dismantlement of all its nuclear programs by reporting them thoroughly. However, this is not a simple strategic choice, but means a change from nuclear and military-first policy to a reform and open-door policy. This will inevitably lead to the withdrawal of nuclear and military-first forces to the rear.
The second choice is safeguarding its nuclear weapons till the end, which are the last bastion of the nuclear and military-first chieftain leadership.
If North Korea chooses the latter, the United States will have no other alternative but to strengthen international sanctions against North Korea with the help of China.
These changes will deepen the instability of North Korea’s leadership domestically. After all, the North’s leadership will confront systemic instability no matter what road it chooses.
The only realistic choice is to buy time by dividing the reporting stages into many steps, as if peeling back the layers of an onion.
However, a temporary solution can’t be a fundamental cure for insomnia. If sleepless nights in Pyongyang are prolonged without reason, the North Korean leadership may end up sleeping forever.
The Korean Peninsula should get over its sleepless nights ― in Seoul over the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and in Pyongyang over its nuclear problem ― as soon as possible. It’s time for us to await the wonderful night when we will dream the dreams of the 21st century.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ha Young-sun