A momentous accordWith the world closely watching, a free trade agreement between Korea and the United States was finally signed yesterday. The world’s largest economy and sole superpower joined hands with one of the world’s most dynamic economies to open their doors wider for trade. Given the relative size of the U.S. and Korean economies, the newly minted trade pact will be the third largest by volume, once it is ratified by the legislatures of the two countries. It is surpassed only by the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The two-way pact is very meaningful for both countries. By entering into a major cross-Pacific deal, its biggest since signing Nafta in 1993, the U.S. is paving the way for future deals with China and Japan. For Korea, this agreement can be seen as the third round of opening its doors to the outside world. The first came at the end of the Joseon dynasty; the second came as it exported huge amounts of goods and labor resources beginning in the 1960s. Now Korea has chosen to compete as a lion in the wild rather than remaining as a rabbit in a fenced yard.
When looking at the content of the agreement, it can be seen that it is not as comprehensive as expected. The service sector, including education and medical services, was not included and the period for abolishing tariffs was prolonged. Some argue that the pact is disadvantageous because Korea will open its doors wider than the United States does. But it is hard to tell who will be the eventual winner. It may be meaningless for now. Many experts note that we should pay attention to potential hidden gains, rather than the actual phrases written in the agreement. The final judgment will depend on how well we perform from now on.
For the free trade accord to be signed, President Roh Moo-hyun’s determination and leadership played an important role. He made up his mind to pursue a two-way trade pact with Washington in the autumn of 2005, and in his New Year’s speech in 2006, he shared his idea to the people. Workers, farmers and progressive movement activists who had backed him for president bitterly opposed it. Public buildings were set on fire as policemen battled protesters. However, the president remained determined with the simple logic that if we open our doors we may succeed or we may fail, but if we do not, we will fail for sure.
This president has misunderstood modernization, caused social conflict and implemented policies that work against the dynamics of the market in other sectors and many people mistrusted his commitment to a free trade agreement. But he has been unfaltering in his pursuit of this deal and the suspicions have finally been lifted.
The Korea-U.S. free trade agreement will be remembered as President Roh’s achievement, along with breaking corrupt bonds between politicians and entrepreneurs, making powerful government bodies independent and abandoning authoritarianism. In the speech delivered to the people after the negotiations were over, the president said that the trade agreement would provide a new growth engine for our economy. This is right in every sense.
However, the president still has many things to do. He should induce the government to assist sectors that will be damaged by the free trade pact with Washington, such as farming and livestock. He must take concrete measures to persuade protesters that the accord is good for the country. Most of all, the president must work hard to secure the National Assembly’s ratification of the trade pact. Because he bolted from the Uri Party, his influence on what should be the ruling party is weak. He must be all the more forceful in his approach to Parliament.
To get the National Assembly’s approval will not be easy. Some 50 lawmakers have already formed a group to oppose the deal. Both ruling and opposition lawmakers alike have raised their voices to object to the pact, and many legislators are determined to look closely at the content before passing judgment.
As there is a general election in April next year, lawmakers from agricultural districts will be careful not to displease farmers. However, they must look beyond their constituencies and bravely join this grand scheme to open the country up to the future.
If the bill to approve the agreement is put before the assembly in the regular autumn session, this year’s presidential election may be a negative factor in obtaining approval. Voters must closely watch the presidential candidates and senior members of each party to see if they care more about votes than the good of the nation as a whole. We remember that the memorial candlelight march for the death of the two junior high school girls, Hyo-sun and Mi-seon, severely damaged the Korea-U.S. alliance.
Morer recently, protesters against the free trade accord with Washington risked placing our society in chaos with insecure feelings and flimsy logic.
The presidential hopefuls who used to serve as leaders and ministers now stage hunger strikes. They must see the reality. The river of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement has started to flow. Nobody can stop it. They must give up hunger strikes and discard bamboo sticks, dive into the stream and try to find the best way to survive. A part of our society may need to go through some hardship but if the agreement is the right thing for the prosperity of all, the hardship will work as fertilizer for history.