Forward motion on the FTA

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Forward motion on the FTA

The National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee passed a bill to ratify South Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States. Fortunately, the shoving match instigated by opposition lawmakers this time around has paled in comparison to the sledgehammer and electric saw antics from last year.

The Korea-U.S. FTA was signed in June 2007, and it has taken 22 months for the deal to clear the first hurdle at the National Assembly. Now it has to pass the final vote in the plenary session here and also must be ratified by the U.S. Congress. Given the difficult path the FTA has followed so far, there’s no guarantee the rest of the way will be any easier. At least we’ve taken a step toward ratification on our end, and we can draw upon the knowledge that some progress has been made despite the ups and downs.

We’ve consistently urged both countries to complete the ratification process. We do acknowledge, however, that we need to take a step back and be more deliberate because the introduction of the new U.S. administration and changes to the political landscape have raised the possibility of renegotiation of the deal.

But now that the National Assembly is moving toward ratifying the agreement, we need to show more willingness to push forward, rather than taking a cautious approach with lingering thoughts of renegotiation. The National Assembly must handle the ratification bill quickly and we must demand that the United States go ahead and ratify the FTA.

But the signs coming from the U.S. are looking good. At the G-20 summit earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed a strong desire to move the FTA forward, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative said it was hoping for ratification without renegotiation. In a letter to Obama, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Republican Senator Charles Grassley called for swift approval of the FTA to help strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance. That’s a big difference.

The U.S. Congress is still arguing for changes on issues related to beef and automobiles, but these are items that can be discussed without having to return to the negotiating table.

More than anything, it’s important to set the political arguments and time-consuming conflicts aside and ask the United States to move forward on the ratification process.

Fortunately, Korea’s Democratic Party, which had strongly opposed the agreement’s ratification, has become supportive, if only just a little.

Should the National Assembly ratify the deal before the Korea-U.S. summit in June, it could further solidify President Lee Myung-bak’s standing in future negotiations.
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