[Outlook]Last chance to be firstA special session of the National Assembly is being held from Jan. 29 until Feb. 26. It is likely to be the last time the 17th National Assembly will meet, and offers us a chance to see Korean lawmakers’ vision for the future and their insights into the world. This is because during the session the assembly members will handle the approval of a free trade agreement between Korea and the United States.
Negotiations for a free trade accord with Washington were completed in early April last year, and in late June the governments of the two countries signed the trade deal. However, the FTA has yet to receive legistrative approval in either nation.
The many benefits of lowering tariffs and eliminating other obstacles to free trade are so far only appearing on paper. On Sept. 7 last year, a bill to approve the Korea-U.S. free trade accord was submitted to the National Assembly but it was neglected in the midst of debates over the qualifications of the presidential candidates. It has not even passed the threshold toward ratification: the committee for reunification, diplomacy and trade.
Except for a few lawmakers who espouse ideologies different to a capitalist market economy, not many members of the National Assembly disapprove of the FTA with the United States. Even so, the bill hasn’t yet passed the standing committee.
The National Assembly is delaying approval of the accord and refusing to handle the matter for three reasons.
First, lawmakers maintain that the assembly must investigate suspicions about the negotiation process.
On Sept. 7 last year, when the government handed the National Assembly a bill for parliamentary approval of the FTA, some 70 lawmakers swiftly asked for a legislative inspection into the negotiation process.
But it is contradictory if lawmakers inspect the process again. They already launched a special committee to monitor the talks. That team was briefed about the negotiations during each step of the process and had the right to ask for any materials related to the deal. An aide to a lawmaker belonging to the special committee was even prosecuted on charges of releasing negotiation documents.
Voters are well aware that the lawmakers’ demands for a legislative inspection are just a way of delaying the process and drawing attention to the matter.
Second, National Assembly members claim that government compensation measures regarding damage that may be incurred from the deal are insufficient.
This complaint is just the same old song. In 2003 when a free trade agreement between Korea and Chile was heading for legislative approval, lawmakers who might as well be called members of the “farming party” violently occupied the conference hall of the National Assembly. They maintained that agricultural products from Chile would pour into our market and Korea’s farming industry would die.
During the U.S. FTA negotiations, opponents shouted that the deal would bring a disaster 100 times more serious than the financial crisis of the late 1990s. But their complaints have disappeared now that the negotiations are over and the contents of the talks have been publicized. This is because experts concluded that the contents of the deal are balanced for both countries, and the general public agreed.
The old custom of complaining about anticipated damage without a reasonable analysis must be put to an end. Taxpayers are angry to see their precious tax money being used to compensate for the inefficiency of producers in their districts.
Third, lawmakers maintain that the United States must be first to approve the deal.
For the FTA to take effect, both Korea and the United States must give legislative approval. The U.S. administration has not yet submitted a bill to its Congress seeking approval for the FTA with Korea. As protection-minded Democrats now control the U.S. Congress, claims are being made that the FTA with Korea will damage the American automotive industry.
Korea is also keeping its door shut to U.S. beef. So even if a bill for approval of the trade agreement is submitted, it is highly likely that it will not be passed.
The presidential election campaign is heating up in the United States and if a bill regarding a trade deal is not approved in Congress until this summer, the FTA will not be approved by the Bush administration while it is still in office. Approval of the deal will then be postponed until next year.
Some seem to think that if Korea gives legislative approval to the deal before the United States does, it shows that Korea is a subordinate nation. But this idea is mistaken.
Korea’s National Assembly must approve the FTA first and then press U.S. Congress to follow suit. That is the independent and strategic diplomacy. If Korea’s legislature approves the FTA first, the United States will be pressured to do the same, as it wants to maintain firm and stable relations with Korea.
If the bill for approval of the FTA is not passed during this special session, it will continue to drift. Legislative elections will be held in April. The 18th National Assembly will then open after the elections, as late as June.
To repeat the process for approval of the FTA then is a waste of national energy. The 17th National Assembly must not be remembered in history as the one that missed a chance to take the upper hand in diplomacy by approving the FTA ahead of the United States.
*The writer is the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Byung-il