[Viewpoint]Act now on the FTAThe regular session of the 17th National Assembly closes today. Due to the upcoming presidential elections, the session is ending earlier than usual, when it stays in session until mid-December.
The 17th National Assembly has systematically reviewed the free trade agreement through a special committee. Although there have been some extreme arguments, in general the legislators have done what they have been mandated to do ― maximize the nation’s interests while putting a check on the whole trade negotiation process by the administration.
The negotiations for the free trade agreement between Korea and the United States were one of the most important the country has ever engaged in, getting participation from more experts and concerned parties than any other. It was also the first negotiation in which a special National Assembly committee was able to convey its position on the major issues to the administration.
However, the anticipated economic windfall from the bilateral free trade agreement will not occur unless the agreement is ratified by the National Assembly. But since the second half of this year, the assembly has been preoccupied with the presidential election, showing insufficient interest in the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that will play a critical role in our economy.
There seems to be more interest abroad in the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement than at home. Overseas trade experts see the agreement as a way for the Korean economy to take a few more steps toward development. In addition, based on its negotiating ability and strong position in East Asia, Korea is expected to take the lead in the ongoing discussions about economic integration of East Asia. Also, the European Union, China and Japan have come to see the pursuit of a free trade agreement with Korea as a priority trade issue.
It is well known that negotiations currently underway on a free trade agreement with the European Union were also triggered by the Korea-United States FTA. Not so long ago, the EU ignored our trade officials when they raised the possibility of a Korea-EU free trade agreement, saying East Asia was not a region of interest for an FTA.
But since the Korea-U.S. FTA agreement, the EU has focused on negotiating a bilateral agreement with Korea. China and Japan also have officially asked the Korean government to pursue a free trade agreement as quickly as possible.
The fifth round of negotiations on the Korea-EU FTA are in progress in Brussels this week. Because Korea has already signed a free trade agreement with the United States, we seem to be taking a relaxed attitude in pursuing a Korea-EU FTA; the country will not hurry even if its negotiations with the EU do not turn out well. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say Korea has taken the initiative in the negotiations, having the upper hand over the gigantic European Union. But if the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in the National Assembly is delayed, our negotiating power will be weakened substantially.
If the ratification of the Korea-U.S. FTA is not taken up in the 17th National Assembly, it is likely to be discussed next year in the 18th National Assembly. In that case, a delay in the implementation of the agreement would not only cause economic losses; it would also mean the work done by the National Assembly special committee on free trade agreements and related standing committees will be ignored. It will take considerable time for a newly constituted standing committee to understand the bilateral agreement and discuss appropriate measures. Depending on the situation, it would be difficult to see the deliberations about the agreement proceeding in earnest, even in the second half of next year.
The general public regards the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement as the greatest achievement of the “participatory” government. Even the opposition Grand National Party thinks highly of the present administration’s pursuit of the agreement. Also, the government has already established measures on a considerable scale to support the farmers who would be hurt. The government decided in a cabinet meeting on Nov. 6 to provide a total of 24.3 trillion won ($26 billion) over 10 years from now as a support measure to cushion the sectors which will be affected by the free trade agreement, in addition to the existing 119 trillion won in agricultural support. Given the fact that Korea’s agricultural production in 2006 was 26 trillion won and the damage from the Korea-U.S. FTA will be a total of 1 trillion won, a delay in ratification would also mean, unavoidably, a resumption of the controversy over accusations that Korea has yielded too much to the United States in the agreement.
Now is the time for the National Assembly to make a decision in the nation’s interest and stop arguing for measures ahead of ratifying the agreement. I hope that even tomorrow when the regular session ends, the standing committee on free trade agreements (and the committees on unification, diplomacy and trade) of the National Assembly will put the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement on its agenda and call a special session to take it up right after the presidential election.
*The writer is a professor of economics at Inha University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jung In-kyo